Confident, Courageous, Competitive

Confident, Courageous, Competitive

Group of Fairfield University Women's basketball team on the court at the start of a past game.

Fairfield University celebrates 50 years of women’s athletics this year, which began with basketball and tennis programs during the 1973-74 academic year.

Celebrating a Half-Century of Women's Athletics at Fairfield.

When we started to review the population of women coming on campus as students, we discovered that a number had a history of being athletes in high school. Women wanted to continue playing their preferred sport on the college level.

— Don Cook, Fairfield University Director of Athletics, 1971-86

It was a decade of change. It was a decade of opportunity. And, it was a decade of renewal. The 1970s was a decade that brought about transformation across the country, which in turn seeped onto college campuses. That change found its way onto the Fairfield University campus right from the start when the school admitted its first class of female undergraduate students in 1970. With the arrival of women came the need to provide an experience that extended beyond the classroom.

“When we started to review the population of women coming on campus as students, we discovered that a number had a history of being athletes in high school,” said Don Cook, who served as director of athletics from 1971 to 1986. “Women wanted to continue playing their preferred sport on the college level.”

The establishment of sports for women at Fairfield started with tennis and basketball during the 1973-74 academic year. This year marks the 50th anniversary of women’s athletics at Fairfield University - a program that has seen great success over the past five decades.

50 Years of Women | Fairfield University

For 50 years, confident female student-athletes have endeavored and they have succeeded. Courageous women have created and cultivated opportunity not only for themselves but for those who follow.

Since their start, female student-athletes have earned their share of regional and national recognition. With more than 40 NCAA Tournament appearances, over 60 conference regular-season titles, and 50-plus tournament titles to their credit, Fairfield women’s teams have set standards that make many programs envious.

Perhaps the most telling of the program’s accomplishments comes in the form of 11 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) Women’s Commissioner’s Cups, an accolade presented annually to a MAAC institution for overall excellence in athletic competition within the conference.

But as one would expect, recent successes come from a foundation laid by a group of young women who wanted to compete and represent their school.

“I started playing basketball in high school and wanted to continue to have some athletic activity,” Diane Oakley ’75 said. “Playing intramurals was fun, but the ability to play on a team that represents your university was something that made you proud and that is still the case today.”

Oakley spearheaded the effort to bring about more opportunity, meeting with athletics administrators and serving as one of the voices for female athletes on campus. Together, student and administrative voices provided the impetus for women’s athletics at Fairfield University.

As one would expect, the beginnings were humble, starting from scratch, especially in the club years.

“That first year, we played basketball in t-shirts with taped numbers,” Oakley remembered. “When we made our jerseys, we realized that certain numbers were good - like 4, 14, 41, 7 - or any other number that was a block number. It was harder to make twos and sixes.”

Oakley and her teammates were eventually able to secure money to purchase uniforms with Fairfield emblazoned prominently on the front, making their t-shirts with masking tape no longer relevant.

“I remember we played Holy Cross after we received our uniforms,” Oakley said. “When we took the court, we looked across and saw the Holy Cross players in blue jean shorts and t-shirts. That’s something that I will always remember.”

After one year as a club team, the Women’s Basketball program was elevated to varsity status. In its first season as a varsity sport, the squad posted a perfect 16-0 record under the guidance of Head Coach Gary Dittrich ’74.

Coach Dittrich led the Stags for four seasons, ending his tenure with a 41-17 record and a .707 winning percentage that still stands as the best winning percentage for a women’s basketball coach in Fairfield history. Two years after his departure, Dianne Nolan MA’89 took over as women’s basketball head coach and led the Stags to their first 20-win season in 1983-84, and their first NCAA tournament appearance in 1987-88. Coach Nolan led the Fairfield women’s team for 28 years and earned more than 450 wins.

“Gary was a very good basketball coach and he proved that with the team’s success on the court,” Cook said. “After that, I hired Dianne as the first full-time women’s basketball coach and she brought the program to the next level.”

The same year women’s basketball gained varsity status, the tennis program also joined varsity ranks under Head Coach Tamma O’Mara. O’Mara coached the tennis team for 13 seasons while also championing other women’s sports at Fairfield.

Janelle Brown ’24, a spark plug guard for the Stags, celebrates with fellow teammates at a winning game against Stonehill.

“Tamma did a great job putting the tennis program together and then helped me develop the women’s basketball program,” Cook said. “I give her a lot of credit for the early development of women’s athletics at Fairfield.”

Following women’s basketball and tennis in the ‘70s, subsequent decades spurred women’s cross country, field hockey, golf, lacrosse, rowing, soccer, softball, swimming and diving, and volleyball, bringing the current roster of women’s programs to 11.

Each of these programs boasts exceptional athletes who have gone on to achieve greatness as Hall of Famers, All-Americans, and Players of the Year. More than 50 female student-athletes have earned induction into the Fairfield University Athletics Hall of Fame so far, including the 2021 class, which was notable for being comprised completely of female student-athlete inductees: Kristen Coleman ’11 (lacrosse), Ahna Johnson ’09 (soccer), Rachel Romansky ’14 (volleyball), and Michelle Yoshida ’12 (swimming).

From modest beginnings, the women’s athletics program at Fairfield University continues to evolve with modern-day enhancements that were not as prevalent through the first few decades. Catherine Bassi-Desmarais ‘93, a Hall of Fame diver, was MAAC Diver of the Year during her senior year and set University diving records during her tenure as a Stag. She has seen first-hand how the sport has developed, and the different challenges that current student athletes face today.

“I took training very seriously when I was a student-athlete but I think today’s athletes have to do so much more,” Desmarais said. “They have lifting in the morning and have multiple practices, which were not part of our routine. I do think things are different today in regard to commitment and expectations in collegiate athletics.”

Cat Clough ’19 smiles while rowing a coxed four on the Norwalk River in Norwalk, Conn.

For Desmarais and so many male and female student-athletes, Fairfield University has provided — and continues to provide — a culture imbued with sportsmanship, scholarship, and Jesuit values that cultivate graduates who achieve success and commit to service within the community after graduation.

“I had a storybook college experience at Fairfield,” Desmarais said. “I competed in a sport that I loved, made great friends, had fun, received an education, and I met my husband. For me, it was more than just being a diver. I love everything that the Jesuit philosophy stands for; Fairfield prepares you to go out and serve.”

For women’s basketball pioneer Oakley, that service philosophy extends to supporting women’s athletics programs so that Fairfield not only sustains its current level of achievement but goes beyond all expectations.

“It’s wonderful to see so many women engaged in sports on this campus,” Oakley said. “However, we need to work together and continue the advancement of women’s athletics so it can continue to grow and help women going forward.”

For 50 years, confident female student athletes have endeavored and they have succeeded. Courageous women have created and cultivated opportunity not only for themselves but for those who follow. Even today, young girls attend campus events such as camps, clinics, and contests with the hope that they may one day don a Fairfield uniform. These young athletes are the future and will push the boundaries like so many before them. And if that is the case, the next 50 years will be full of opportunity for the next generation of competitive female student-athletes.

Other Articles in the Spring 2024 Issue

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The Storm on the Horizon

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Taking Care

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Indie Press Success

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To Elevate the Discourse

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Women of the 50th Reunion Committee

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