Big things were happening in the world of sports in 1971.
The Baltimore Colts were the Super Bowl champs, the Pittsburgh Pirates won the World Series, and the Montreal Canadiens clinched the Stanley Cup.
But while pro athletes across the country were tasked with winning their prospective championship games, Sheryl Solberg was one of those fighting to win perhaps a bigger battle.
“When I was going to Minot State, we went and asked if we could have a basketball team,” Solberg, a former assistant director at the North Dakota High School Activities Association (NDHSAA), said. “We really liked the idea of having a team — we watched the men play — (but) they decided that we could just put together a little club and have kids come and play within our student body.
“Unbeknownst to the administration we went ahead and scheduled a basketball game against Bismarck State College. We went to the bookstore and all got the same color, physical education-type shirts and we went wrote our own numbers on the back and went down and played.”
What happened next landed Solberg and her friends in a bit of trouble at the time, but it accomplished exactly what Title IX has been seeking to do for the past 50 years — provide representation to all.
“I don’t remember if we won or lost but we drove away really satisfied that we had put a team together and that we got to play another school,” Solberg said. “Bismarck State happen to call the score in to the AP and then administration at Minot State just happened to see it in the paper. We were kind of in a bit of trouble, but I think that really drove home the message that we should have a team.”
“Title IX was kind of bubbling to the surface and what we were doing was kind of similar to action in other parts of the country, trying to get action — not just for athletics — but recognizing the potential and opportunity for giving women opportunities in business and sports or other areas.”
June 23, 2022, will mark the 50th Anniversary of Title IX being passed through Congress and coming into law.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Congress enacted Title IX with two principal objectives in mind. The first is, to avoid the use of federal resources to support discriminatory practices in education programs, and secondly, to provide individual citizens effective protection against those practices.
“You have seen so much growth in girls’ sports,” longtime Jamestown High School swimming and diving coach Marney Shirley said. “When I was in school, we didn’t have anything for girls except for gymnastics and that was all club stuff.
“When I started coaching we had swimming, basketball, gymnastics, track and golf. You saw growth in the opportunities offered and the balancing out between genders. You couldn’t add any more boys programs without adding a girls program to balance it out and vice versa — if you wanted to add something for the girls, it had to be for the boys too.”
In North Dakota, there have been many equalizing moments in the athletics world throughout the last five decades.
In November 1974, the first NDHSAA-sponsored girls basketball state tournaments were played. Hankinson defeated McHenry 51-43 in the Class B state championship game. Jamestown defeated Williston 34-30 in the Class A state championship.
Solberg was oh so close to getting Mayville-Portland’s first-ever girls basketball team to the inaugural state tourney.
Starting out as a physical education teacher at Mayville-Portland High School in 1973, Solberg coached track and field and gymnastics. She was also tasked with not only coaching the program’s first-ever girls basketball team, but also starting the program from scratch.
“When I first started at Mayville-Portland — we didn’t have basketball but we had a lot of students who were wanting to have a basketball team,” Solberg said. “We went to the administration and they said if we could show support for the sport, we’ll consider it.”
Solberg said all students who wanted to participate in basketball were told to come to the gym at a specific time to show their support for beginning a program.
“(There was) an overwhelming number of kids,” Solberg said in recollection. “I kind of suspect some of the kids that showed up didn’t really want to be basketball players but they all showed up to support the kids who wanted to be and so the next year we had a team.
“The team was basically a lot of the girls who had stuck together and were shooting baskets out on the sidewalk and all of that. They just loved the sport and it was gratifying to see that there were some athletic girls who really just wanted to have the sport. They played pick-up ball up until they got the opportunity to have a team.”
The 1973-74 squad entered the postseason with just one loss. The Patriots got as far as the regional championship, but couldn’t manage a trip to the state tourney. The next season, with a good portion of her original roster intact, Solberg guided the Patriots to its first-ever state appearance. May-Port defeated Granville 52-41 in the finals, to claim the state’s second-ever Class B state championship title.
“That was really a good kick-start for the basketball program at May-Port and a good kick-start for girls athletics,” Solberg said.
In 1978, Solberg began a 34-year career as an athletic administrator serving as an assistant director at the NDHSAA overseeing rules and regulations in the sports of girls basketball, cross country, track and field, swimming and diving, volleyball, girls golf and gymnastics.
“My parents raised me to know what is right — what is fair,” Solberg said. “I think fairness has been taught to me, and hard work has been taught to me and teamwork has been taught to me ever since I was little.”
As the years progressed, things have gotten more and more equal and ”fair” in the world of athletics.
In February 1984, the first NDHSAA-sponsored volleyball state tournament was held at Fargo North High School. Bismarck Century defeated Fargo Shanley 2-0 (15-10, 15-10) in the championship match. Century holds the most Class A State volleyball titles with nine, while Langdon Area/Edmore-Munich is leading the Class B scene with eight titles to its name.
Just last spring, the NDHSAA Board of Directors officially approved the sponsorship of girls wrestling starting in the 2021-22 school year. Jamestown High School was one of 42 Class A and Class B schools that have listed girls wrestling as an official sport. North Dakota is the 30th state high school association to sanction girls wrestling.
Twenty-four states have sanctioned the sport since 2018.
Prior to this year, North Dakota held a non-sanctioned girls high school state wrestling championship. The state of North Dakota has held these championships for the past five years. Over 50 female wrestlers competed in the 2021 girls’ high school state wrestling championships. Girls wrestling is currently the fastest-growing high school sport in America.
The first-ever NDHSAA Girls Wrestling State Tournament was held at the Fargodome on February 17-18.
Central Cass won the team individual state title and 14 individual girls wrestlers won state titles led by West Fargo High senior Alana Schafer, who earned the distinction as being the first individual girls wrestling state title winner. As a team, Jamestown placed 10th out of 33 competing teams, racking up 61 team points. The Jays had four state placers on the team.
Before it was wrestling, it was fastpitch softball.
During Solberg’s tenure, softball became a sponsored female sport by the NDHSAA starting in the 2009 season. Solberg helped fastpitch expand leadership to include two divisions of competition before her retirement following the 2011-12 school year.
The first sanctioned softball season at the Class B level was in 2012. Central Cass has continued to be the powerhouse for Class B fastpitch. Under the direction of head coach Scott Kost, the Squirrels have collected state titles in 2013, 2015, 2018, 2019 and 2021. The crew also appeared in state championship games in 2012, 2014 and 2017. No games were played in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
West Fargo has been the dominating team on the Class A side, notching 10 of the last 12 state championships played.
It’s not just the prep athletes who are getting better by the year.
Solberg said just a couple of weeks ago, she and some of her friends were in Topeka, Kansas, and it just so happened that the No. 1 college fastpitch softball team, Oklahoma, were in town playing the Jayhawks. Solberg said the crew wanted to go down to the game, but after calling, they were informed the game was sold out.
Perhaps disappointing in the moment, but being turned away from a sold-out game still points to progress.
“If you ever go on any of the sports channels, you are going to find that they are broadcasting softball games — there is just a huge following,” Solberg said. “These are things that are going on now that help us see that things are just getting better and better.
“The intent of Title IX was never to take away from the boys’ sports (but) I think there’s always going to be progress as far as opportunities for equality in athletics.”
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