FORGOTTEN CENTAUR(ette)S: That they won no games doesn’t matter; that no one is aware they played them does

Posted on Apr 09, 2013

A recurring theme at CENTAUR SEASONS has been the idea that Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales in Center Valley, Pennsylvania — the school brand-new, we 400 students its only viable resource – offered a uniquely interesting education to those lucky enough to have been there in the late ’60s, early ’70s.

If something needed to get done, we had to do it. Anything, it seemed, was possible.

The story of the Centaurettes first-ever women’s basketball team – the college’s first-ever women’s team of any kind — is a perfect example. With tonight’s NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship as backdrop, this seems a perfect time to tell it.

[All links refer to previous CENTAUR SEASON posts that address similar ideas (often as they relate to the men’s team).]

Sue McCandless Pfeil says she realizes now that what she did during the 1971-1972 basketball season was certainly a step forward for women at Allentown College.

But back then? She had NO idea.

“As far as all that went, that was the furthest thing from my mind,” Sue says. “There was nothing about feeling that I was ‘entitled’ to do this. I just wanted to play basketball, you know? I wanted to have a team. And if we wanted to have a team, I knew we were going to have to do it ourselves.”

Sue enlisted a friend, Gail “Clyde” Roney. Together they went to see Coach John Compardo, the Athletic Director and one-man-band of an athletic department.

Coach, we’d like to start a women’s basketball team.

By rights, Coach should have turned them down, in that gravelly gruff voice of his:

Eh, girls, now’s not the time, got no money, better wait.

“Coach,” says Walt Pfeil, who would soon be drafted to head the nascent team, “had the good sense not to say no.”

Eh, sure. I’ll see what I can do. Why not? Got no money, though.

Sue and Clyde beat the drum for players, going room to room in the dorms, talking up the team to the college’s 70 or so co-eds.

“I spent more time getting the basketball thing going than I did on any school assignment,” Sue says.

Sue and Walt, now onboard as coach, attended a meeting of the Lehigh Valley Colleges Women’s Athletic Association to gin up some games.

Walt shanghaied his roommate, Wayne Rizzo, into being co-coach.

With an eight or nine game schedule in place, preseason practice commenced. All they had to do now was, well, everything

“What limited us gave us opportunity,” Sue says of her original basketball efforts, but she could be talking of any number of projects back then that seemed to spring up whole cloth at this tiny school in Center Valley.

‘OK,” Sue says: “There was no women’s basketball team established, but then we get to have the experience of getting it started and keeping it going so that it worked for us.  We made it. We designed it. We created it. As opposed to it all just sort of being there for us.”

One more thing: “I wanted to have enough to have a real team,” Sue says.

Of the core group of eight women who signed on with the team (numbers vary), maybe half had never touched a basketball. “The player who could dribble the ball three times without it going off her foot became our point guard,” Wayne says.

A few women had played only during the six-on-six era, with three guards and three forwards relegated to one half of the court.

With no more court time to be squeezed from Billera Hall, the college’s overworked gym, Coach Compardo suggested the team practice up the hill, at Brisson Seminary.

“Yeah, they’ll let a bunch of girls run around up there in their shorts, sure they will. Nothing will happen” Wayne says. (In fact, they did let them. And nothing happened.)

One woman had no sneakers; Coach Compardo scrounged some money (likely from his own pocket) to buy some Chucks. “I remember being very jealous,” Sue says, laughing at herself. “They were very cool sneakers!”

During games there would be shots made in the opponent’s basket. One Centaurette would make “a great layup, utilizing all the technique taught to her in practice,” according to written notes Walt put together for me. “The only issue was that the game was being played on the main court and the shot was taken and made on one of the side baskets.”

It is easy here to have fun. But I won’t make fun.

If I have tried to do nothing else with this CENTAUR SEASONS, it has been to declare that the effort we guys put into our game be given proper due – even while acknowledge that we were just … the Centaurs, playing for some nowhere, no-name school in the middle of some cornfields.

These women, these Centaurettes (yes, that is what they called themselves) deserve no less the same.

“We took it seriously,” Wayne says. “Walt took it very seriously. We practiced two, three times a week, a couple of hours a night, and then we had the games and stuff, all on the road. We all devoted a lot of time to it. We got into it. We wanted to make a good showing.”

Deborah Bubba Dolan came to the team with high school experience, “recruited,” kind-a-sort-a, the way some us were, by an Oblate priest who had played major college ball.

Forty years later, Deb says, she still appreciates how diligently Walt and Wayne approached their charge.

Sue gets all the credit for stepping up and getting the team going, Deb says. “But had it not been for Walt and Wayne coming forward, we probably wouldn’t have played.”  And Deb, a freshman that year, really wanted to keep playing basketball.

“These guys were just fellow students willing to take time out of their schedules to coach us, so we could have a team,” she says.  “I think that shows what the college was about when we were there. How we were willing to help each other out. Here were these 20-, 21-year-old guys saying, ‘You don’t have a coach? We’ll coach you.’ They didn’t get paid, and they had to teach most of us how to play the game before they could take us on the road to play a game.”

I can hear the appreciation in Deb’s voice through the phone. I tell her as much.

“Oh, absolutely,” she declares. “I haven’t seen them in years, but I still have a great appreciation for them.” Then, unabashedly: “I think about them often. I do. Both of them.”

Some historical context.

This 1971-1972 Centaurette Season is the final gasp of the pre-Title IX world of women’s athletics. In that era, nothing — nothing — could be taken for granted.

“This team was all do-it-yourself,” Wayne says.

But in this same season Immaculata College, outside Philadelphia, would now-famously win the very first women’s national college basketball championships. And on June 23, 1972, Title IX and its transformative possibilities for women’s athletics would be signed into law. No one in that moment knew what the future held, but it was a heady time to be thinking about it.

Meanwhile, for the Centaurettes that year, after a few weeks of preseason practice they get word that an informal scrimmage has been organized against the Lehigh University women’s freshman team, at their place. But when they arrive, the gym is set up for a real game, with clock, referees, scorers’ table, all that. It gets ugly quick.

“I don’t remember the score, but we were kept to single digits,” it says in Walt’s notes. “Our high scorer had two points.”

Back in their dorm room that night, coaches Walt and Wayne figure that this women’s hoops experiment is over. “Had they been embarrassed enough to not want to go on?”  But everyone showed up – “strong” and “determined” – for the next practice.

For the real games, Coach Compardo got the team grey ALLENTOWN COLLEGE T-shirts —  “and blue polyester shorts,” Sue says, dripping sarcasm. “And we were happy to get them.”

I can tell you that in 1971-1972 the first women’s basketball team at Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales went 0 and 8 or 0 and 9. As Walt has it in his notes: “We had a DEFEATED season.” There were losses to schools like Cedar Crest, Our Lady of Angels, Moravian. There was a tournament of sorts at the end with St. Joe’s and LaSalle, according to Walt and Wayne, organized by Tim Kelley (again: It needed to be done; Tim got it done). I can’t tell you any scores, which is just as well.

Though that is also not the point.

“I was not an athlete,” Maria Martinez wrote to me in response to an all-points email. “I never played basketball before. But it didn’t matter. What mattered was that we were starting a program for the women.”

Which makes it all the more a shame that this first team (and the ’72-’73 team as well) has been left unrecorded in the otherwise mindboggling DeSales University athletics archive.  There is nothing nefarious about this oversight, I am positive. And I’m certain the ommision is not for lack of trying on the SID’s part. The hope here is simply that Centaur Seasons can help fill in the blanks.

Because the very fact that Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales University put a women’s team on the court in that seminal season of Title IX is well worth celebrating.

Why not invite them all back to a game next year?

“Not too many years after I graduated,” Sue told me when we talked, “I saw in an alumni newsletter what the team was like. And it made me think, Wow, we just had what we had. Look at what they have now!”

She said that when she was at the college she didn’t – maybe couldn’t – see much beyond where she was right then.

That basketball team she spent so much time getting onto the court? “I thought we were just a little side note,” she says. “I didn’t see us then as us contributing to a ‘program,’ or building Allentown College into a place where people would really want to go. It just wasn’t something we thought about AT ALL back then. We didn’t know what the future held for women athletes, in that moment in time.”

So what about now, this moment in time?  These days the DeSales University women’s Bulldog basketball program is a perennial power, having won an average of 20 games a season over the past decade.

“Without us realizing it,” Sue says, “we really pulled something off.”

*          *          *          *          *          *

The 1971-1972 Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales women’s basketball team: Kathy Anthony Gray, Deborah Bubba Dolan, Ann Conahan (manager), Mary Ellen Ewell Strohl, Julie Gleason, Maria Martinez,  Molly Maclean Monte,  Sue McCandless Pfeil, Violetta Romano-Lucey, Gail Roney Mallett,  Stevie Tagye, Sally Wise Swanson. Coaches: Walt Pfeil and V. Wayne Rizzo.

The 1972-1973 Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales women’s basketball team (which also went 0-and-8/-9: Kathy Anthony Gray, Deborah Barnak Burke, Deborah Bubba Dolan, Deborah DeNardo, Sue McCandless Pfeil, Stephanie Tagye,  Regina Scirrotto Ivcic, Sylvia Stubits, Sally Wise Swanson. Coach: Mrs. Mary Wendell

There appears to have been no team in 1973-1974, the last year of these CENTAUR SEASONS.

Source: May 11, 1972 Allentown College 7th Annual Sports Banquet program (Tony Mazzeo collection); May 10, 1973 Allentown College 8th Annual Sports Banquet program (Steve McKee); DeSales University Alumni Directory, 2012 edition

And yes: Walt and Sue married a few years after they graduated in 1973.

On April 9th, 2013 at 12:48 pm, Jerry Weiss said:

Steve,

Great story! So many memories and history – Title IX. Sue and the other did not do this to make history. They just wanted to do it and have some fun along the way. Come to think it that’s how allot of things were done at AC in those days. Just thinking of the Beach Boys song that waa adapted for AC ” …wish they could all be Center Valley girls…” Long live the Centaurettes!

Jerry
’75


On April 9th, 2013 at 2:27 pm, Debbie Bubba Dolan said:

Steve,
Great job…thanks so much for including us.
Deb


On April 10th, 2013 at 7:55 pm, bob devine said:

What great memories! I heard from Deb on my website. Wonderful to hear from you. Hope all is well.


On April 11th, 2013 at 10:02 am, Karen Brittle said:

So excited to see my dad and mom written about on your blog! I love how you are profiling the “subculture” of Allentown College Centaurs at a time that was obviously important and nuanced. It’s funny to think of ladies doing layups on the sidecourt baskets as history-making, but your blog shows it was in this case! Thanks for recording this. Karen Brittle (Pfeil)



 
     

Welcome to CENTAUR SEASONS: A ‘memory blog’ of the basketball beginnings of a half-good, half-bad, all-new college team.

Once, I was a Centaur.

I played basketball for Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales in Center Valley, Pa. I was on four of the school’s first seven teams, was MVP senior year and in 1974 graduated in the fifth class.

My junior year I kept a diary: A History of the Events of the 1972-1973 Allentown College B-Ball Season, as Chronicled by, and With the Personal Memoirs + Occassional [sic] Philosophizing of the Author, One Stephen J. McKee.  One-hundred-forty-five hand-writ pages. (Yes, I was an English major.)

But it occurs to me now: Were I today a “Bulldog” playing for “DeSales University” (both mascot and name changed in 2000), my private “History” would be not a diary but a blog.

So starting November 30  “…Personal Memoirs…” will be re-imagined as CENTAUR SEASONS

A blog before its time, posted 40 years after in real time.

Meanwhile, beginning on September 24, here at CENTAUR SEASONS the preseason has already tipped off, with stories, interviews and reminiscences of the people, the place and the purpose of those early years of Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales.

Check back often. Sign up for CentaurSeasonAlerts. Email CENTAUR SEASONS to friends.

We were not a bad team, we Centaurs. We just weren’t very good. Winning was always the goal, if never exactly the point. How could it be, with victories so few?

Back then Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales was a couple of buildings in some cornfields.  Our commitment to the school’s basketball program was far greater than was the school’s commitment us. So what? We got to play college ball – and paid for the privilege! In return, we got to be part of a team, wear the red and blue, be Centaurs. And we got to create a place that was, right then, as much concept as it was college, making itself up as we went along.

What we got was a once-in-a-life-time chance.

All we had to do was keep showing up -- next practice, next game, next season. And so we did.

Welcome to CENTAUR SEASONS.

×