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Editor’s note: This is the first part in a series counting down the top 10 moments in Iowa State Cyclones women’s athletics history in the days leading up to the 50th anniversary of Title IX on June 23.
It’s one of Bill Fennelly’s most time-worn tales and it hinges on a relatively small number printed on a single sheet of paper. That number, 310, denotes the total attendance for his first game as Iowa State’s women’s basketball coach in 1995. He framed that box score — and now his program consistently ranks among the top 11 nationally in terms of fan support.
“So far, so good,” Fennelly said about last season, during which he guided the Cyclones to a program-record 28 wins and their first Sweet 16 appearance in 12 years.
Those simple words aptly describe Fennelly’s 27 seasons in Ames — and are the main reason his hiring to lead the program kicks off this Title IX-framed countdown of noteworthy moments in Iowa State women’s sports history
The Cyclones attracted an average of 9,567 fans to Hilton Coliseum for home games last season, which ranked second nationally.
But on to No. 9 — and another monumental hiring at ISU. The date: Dec. 17, 2005. The decision: Tabbing Christy Johnson-Lynch to lead the Cyclones’ women’s volleyball program.
ISU has won 330 matches since she became head coach and has reached the NCAA regional finals twice in her tenure.
“I think we’ve shown on our good nights, when we’ve really played well, I think we can hang with anybody,” Johnson-Lynch said last season, in which ISU reached the NCAA Tournament for the 14th time in 17 seasons.
Basketball and volleyball aren’t the only sports ISU women’s athletes have excelled in over the 50 years since Title IX passed.
And to be clear: None of the moments featured in this story or subsequent offerings in the coming days are ranked in order of magnitude.
So on to No. 8: Nawal El Moutawakel’s groundbreaking Gold medal win in the 1984 Olympics. The former Cyclone standout won the first women’s 400-meter hurdles crown in Los Angeles, becoming the first Muslim woman to do so.
But landmark triumphs also share space with heart-wrenching tragedies in ISU women’s athletics — as the two entries that follow attest:
On Sept. 17, 2018, standout golfer Celia Barquin Arozamena was murdered on an Ames golf course. The Big 12 champion from Spain had already been honored as the Cyclones’ female athlete of the year — and her senseless death led to devastating grief in the ISU community and beyond.
“(She) probably embraced being a Cyclone more than just about anybody we’ve ever had,” a tearful ISU director of athletics Jamie Pollard said. “How we respond as a community to what has transpired will probably dictate how we remember her legacy.”
ISU had to endure a different kind of tragedy 33 years earlier, when a plane carrying members of the women’s cross-country team crashed in 1985. The Cyclones had just finished second in the NCAA championships. Head coach Ron Renko, assistant coach Pat Moynihan, team members Sue Baxter, Sheryl Maahs, and Julie Rose, as well as student trainer Stephanie Streit and pilot Burton Watkins all died in the crash — and a memorial in their honor has been erected in Des Moines.
“It’s a terrible loss for our university and the families,” former assistant men’s track coach Ron McEachran told the Associated Press at the time.
But the community came together as it mourned. ISU women’s cross country and track continued to excel, and in 2012-13 one of several standouts in recent years raced to the top of the podium.
So here’s No. 5: Betsy Saina and her three national championships. The former Cyclone won an NCAA cross-country title and track championships in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters during a stellar finishing run at ISU that sparked a professional career. Saina was an 11-time All-American.
“It’s been a great four years at Iowa State together,” Saina told The Gazette as her college career was winding down.
And it’s been a memorable 50 years since Title IX came into existence. Triumphs, as noted, coincide with tragedies, but all are worthy of remembrance and reflection as an historic milestone in women’s athletics swings into full view.