10/11/2022

Just Let ‘em Play: Title IX, Youthful Dreams, and a Magical Volleyball Season

PROLOGUE



“Play is where life lives, where the game is the game.”  
GEORGE SHEEHAN

PART 1

Today, they march inexorably into their retirements.  But once, nearly fifty years ago, they were young and full of vigor.  So dominant were they that 47 years later this volleyball team can still lay serious claim to the title of best southern Illinois area team in the history of the sport. Their stubborn refusal to accept limits changed a small Illinois farm town, and their lives, forever for the better. Because of them, and others like them, young girls today are allowed to not only play but to dream. These six young girls and their equally young coach, unbeknownst to them at the time, were pioneers on the cusp of a social explosion that would become known as Title IX.

Despite their talent, they almost were not allowed to play for a state title, and we would not be celebrating their story. Their transgression was not of illegal performance drugs, violation of recruiting laws, poor sportsmanship, failing schoolwork, off court behavior outside the law; the normal litany of unacceptable behavior we see listed on Sportscenter when an outlaw team is shut down. No, the problem for the girls in Red Bud, Il in the fall of 1974 was they had been assigned at birth "female parts." If we followed the science of the day, we were led to the conclusion that the type of stress volleyball would place on girls' bodies at this fragile stage was not healthy for their developing reproductive systems. 

But, in time, the girls got their way, AND their team. They then, in search of a state title, set sail on a magical and unforgettable three-month sojourn. And what a team it was with a two-year record of 37-1 compiled against all-comers.

A Red Bud, IL high school volleyball match in the winter of 1974-1975 possessed all the qualities that make a heavyweight boxing match spellbinding. The six may have been a mild-mannered bunch off the court, but when the match began you didn’t dare blink, or you might miss the knockout. They didn’t roll with the punches, they rolled through them. Red Bud not only that year dominated -a 15-0 blowout in the district tournament clincher, 60-8 cumulative points in the four district games - but they hit the ball with such a smashing swing that opponents admitted in area media reports they were physically afraid to play Red Bud. The Musketeers featured five starters 5’11 or taller and a 5'7 setter, unheard-of height for the time. All were, quick, agile and leapers. The media described their aggressive play as “power volleyball.” The monster came out when the set went up, these easy-going young ladies transformed by the sight of the airborne ball.  In the district (mis)matchup, Deb Stamm smashed a kill so hard that when the ball ricocheted off the head of an overmatched blocker, the player was unconscious for five minutes. They had a collective killer mindset. “If we could get a good set,” remembers Stamm, her eyes aglow, “we were going to try and knock your head off.”   
 
Every heroic team needs an origin story that tests the bounds of belief. This group from a 400-student body high school has one hard to top. The 1974-75 season was only the second year of their school playing girls volleyball. A mere three months before Red Bud would shock the entire state of Illinois with their tenacious and skilled play on the volleyball court  the Musketeer volleyballers were ridiculed and tormented in the local media, chided for daring to dream of greatness. Specifically, their transgression was a simple request to enter district play in the state volleyball playoffs. 

The conference Red Bud belonged to, the Cahokia, had voted to not allow its member schools to participate in the 1975 volleyball state tournament, scheduled for January. Instead, girls at member schools would be offered a modified intramural type of program, playing only the other nine conference schools. The season would run the four calendar weeks of April. 

The reasoning behind the decision to hold the nine-match conference season during April was to not interfere with boys' basketball practice. Furthermore, these chavenestic peerless paragons of educational leadership send down the edict that any team who in defiance entered the state sanctioned regional tournament in January could not play in the Cahokia Conference April session.

The vote was 14-6. All twenty school officials, each principal and AD of the ten conference members, who cast ballots were male and Caucasian. 

Red Bud, with their local school board and administrative support, went rogue, thumbing their nose at the Cahokia Conference and filed paperwork with the state to enter the regional tournament. The Cahokia Conference then summarily threw the malcontents out on their butts and disinvited Red Bud from conference volleyball play.

That October an area sportswriter was blunt, asking who did they think they were, this rag- tag bunch from a pissant little school who had only one season of experience playing the sport? One year! How dare they even enter state play, let alone think they could shine, he demanded to know? “When’s the last time any team in any sport in this area won a state title? Stop dreaming Red Bud. Those Chicago kids play rough, and they have Olympic hopefuls up there,” wrote “Charlie,” the sports editor of a nearby weekly paper. His mocking insults would earn him forever local infamy, he destined at season’s end to, in absentia and by proxy, “eat crow” before a rollicking and packed gymnasium. “We’ll show Charlie” became the team’s rallying cry, hung on signs throughout town.

But Charlie was not alone in his pessimism. Even some locals felt the sport might be too “strenuous” for adolescent females and instead suggested the girls form an archery team. Before Title IX girls in this small town had two options to represent their school: cheerleader or pep squad. In 1974 the choice took on a more complicated dimension, and in the eyes of some, a more ominous one, be a jock or be a girl because you cannot be both. 

The prevailing thought of the day was that competitive athletics could be too dangerous for young girls’ developing “female parts.” An official of the Boston Marathon, in 1968, had refused the application of a woman wanting to enter the 26-mile race with a fear that the stress of a female running such a long distance might cause, “their uterus to fall out.” In 1972, Little League Baseball, Inc., when a 12-year-old girl attempted to infiltrate its corporate version of the national pastime, filed a motion in court claiming that if girls were hit in the chest with a ball, they could develop breast cancer.

In 1974, conservative parents feared and resented the embodiment brought by their teenage children to their nightly dinner table, often discomfited by outside rabble-rousers. Many blamed the “liberalism” that had invaded the schools for the rebellious youth of the day. The resulting generation gap was complicated.

But the times they were a changing, as Mr. Dylan sang and protests at high profile sports events were contoversial then (the 1968 Olympic medal stand black power salute), as now (Colin Kaepernick taking a knee), a microcosm of American society. It was a time of counterculture, and girls were now empowered by a new law with the non-descript name of Title IX, determined to do their own thing, to cast aside restrictions. Many girls of the day had no interest in wearing a little skirt and jumping around in support of the boys’ basketball and football teams. They didn’t want a boyfriend’s letter jacket; they wanted their own. They wanted competition. They wanted to be a real part of the team.

Before eccentric American journalist Ambrose Bierce at age 72 declared he was not going to wait around to die a diseased old man and disappeared forever into the mountains of Northern Mexico in search of Pancho Villa's revolution, he wrote, "A garter is an elastic band intended to keep a woman from coming out of her stockings and desolating the country." If so, then Title IX was the garter-dropper American female athletics had long craved and needed.

Title IX, a law passed by Congress in 1972, mandated equal opportunities for girls, most famously in high school and college athletics, was now rocking the nation. In 1974, Red Bud High School, who had never sponsored girls’ athletics before the preceding year, was faced with a possible rebellion. 

In this fiercely conservative 3,000-resident town, that October a group of talented young high school girls in this “America: Love it or Leave It” orderly enclave requested a volleyball team to play on. They wanted their local high school to sponsor them. Fortunately for the girls, under federal court mandate, the state of Illinois high school governing body planned that January, for the first time, to crown a state champion in the sport of girls’ volleyball. Before the court intervened, the state’s all white and male executive board had in 1972 unanimously voted down the idea of interscholastic athletics for girls. It was that uterus thing, again. But now the courts had forced their hand, girls had a right to a state tournament.

All schools, regardless of size, for the first year of state volleyball play would be lumped into one class as they fought for true state top honors. The Red Bud girls thought, if given the chance, they could hold their own.

The girls rejected what they saw as a pandering and penurious offering - an archery team. They wanted, instead, the challenge of playing the best volleyball teams in the state. 

At first, all 12 Red Bud girls who survived the October 1974 volleyball tryout cut played in each match. But, as the January finish line of state play neared, the top six – five talented seniors and a super-star sophomore – played nearly all the crucial minutes. They were now the Red Bud 6.

All six were outstanding students and National Honor Society members. All six would attend college. All would graduate and five would become PE teachers and volleyball coaches, just like their young mentor. All would marry, five would become mothers. One would divorce. They all followed the post-graduation road of success that led out of the small farm town, but interestingly, most, some after decades away, have returned home.

Time has passed, 47 years, to be exact. That is a lot of trips around the sun. The world has and will continue to change. But these “girls” are forever linked by their dreams, by a special season and by Title IX.

Diann Schrader was the unquestioned leader and star whose parents never came to games; they had a farm to run. But, no big deal, just the way it was. Farming was a hard job, she says. But they supported her in other ways. For example, they let her go all the way to Chicago on a bus by herself to attend a volleyball camp. Even paid for it. Her teammates were in such awe of her drive to win that when they finally lost, they felt not stinging disappointment for themselves but more for their leader, guilt for having let down their unassuming friend. She became a college professor. In mid-life she returned home, marrying in 2016, at age 58, the guy whose 1975 senior yearbook picture was directly above hers. It was a first marriage for both and as you can imagine, she says with a laugh, set the local gossip mill to grinding. She didn't care. Was it their age? No, she says, with another laugh, he's Catholic.

Deb Stamm was the sophomore, the youngest, the only non-senior who in the regional final match that year hit a volleyball so hard that it put an unlucky (face in the wrong place at the wrong time) opponent to sleep for five minutes. She built a façade that bordered on cocky toughness but admits today she spent that magical season, “scared and trying not to let down the seniors.” Her teammates still recall how competitive she was, intense. She oozed with raw talent, her abilities standing out even on a team of standouts. Later, she was heir apparent to her beloved mentor, even sat by Coach Griffin's side on the Musketeer bench as her trusty assistant for six years, but it just didn’t work out and she moved on.

Paula Snyder was the one with the most inward sense of responsibility. Her dad was the beloved principal at the local Lutheran grade school where he would coach in volleyball five of the Red Bud 6, giving them a leg up on the process of juggernaut building. He didn't make much money and mom stayed home with seven kids so the month before Christmas he worked at the Main Street Western Auto putting together toys for other parents' kids so he could buy presents for his own. When the big city girls at the state tournament made taunting cow sounds as the lone team in the field of eight from a small town exited their bus, and as her teammates awkwardly hung their heads as if not to have heard, it was Paula who fired back. The only one of the six who did not major in education and become a volleyball coach, she continued to bend gender expectations as an adult securing a career, first in West Virgina and then in Texas, as a well-compensated chemical engineer, but she never forgot the frugal lessons taught by dad.  

Cindy Guebert, the girl from the dairy farm, was both the team wit and the analyzer. She was the Rennaissance Girl. Not a rebel, more of a free spirit in a town that didn't tolerate hippies. If the team had a clown, she was it. Coach Griffin remembers her work ethic. As an 8th grader, with dad down with hernia surgery, she took over the milking and was late to school every day.  For a few years, she coached, and she taught. She married a CPA and took the most traditional of paths, a stay-at-home mom. But the marriage didn’t last and neither did a subsequent 15-year gig as an office manager. On a lark, at almost sixty years of age and somewhat adrift, she took a job as a golf course grounds keeper. After eight years, she loves it. The top greens in Champaign, IL are hers, she boasts. The farm girl, she says, has come full cycle and she could not be more content. She is, at age 65, still a main stay on a local sand volleyball team

Meg Gross was the one with a defiant streak, feisty, one teammate recalls. She always wanted to know why. She was the product of a willfully strong single mother who was abandoned by Meg's father who was off in Europe starting a new family, leaving Meg's mother to raise alone four children under the age of 10. Her mom ran the office at her Lutheran Elementary school.  It paid the bills, most months. Coach Griffin did not tolerate profanity and once in practice Meg had used a profane phrase for barn yard excrement and the whole team had paid the price. After that, "banana" became the team euphemism, as in "Holy Banana" and "Bull Banana." They don't think coach ever caught on. Her life took on a positive trajectory when as a teenager she found purpose from the demanding structure hammered home by her driven young coach. After college she taught in a two-room schoolhouse smack in the middle of the Nebraska prairie. She had a nine-year long-term relationship on the High Plains that just never quite got there. She would in time find her way back home, fall in love with a local cop, and raise five kids. 

Kim R. Liefer was the quietest and the dependable one. She was the only move-in. With a fighter pilot father just home from Vietnam, she before the start of her sophomore year moved with her parents and two brothers to Red Bud, her parent's hometown. Her teammates thought her "worldly" but soon knew her as the consummate friend. She had a knack of knowing how to fit in. RBHS was her 12th school in 11 years. Surprisingly, she would become the one who for the state tournament run brought them all together, the team “glue guy.”  Coach remembers Kim as steady, low maintenance. It was Halloween night '74 when her and Paula threw molasses on Coach's front porch. Coach was mad, "what a mess," she says today but never did figure out who did it, until now. Today Kim is the only one to not have acquiesced to the tug to return “home.” A newspaper executive, she had pushed past the sunny side of 30 and was living comfortably and confidently on her own in far off Massachusetts when she took a scuba diving class. She married the instructor and three kids later, has never left. She also went back to her first professional love, teaching and coaching volleyball. Before retiring a couple of years back, she saw in her life Title IX come full cycle; she started at her high school in Massachusetts a boys volleyball team, because "they deserved the same opportunities as the girls."

The leader, Coach Sandy Griffin, was a young no-nonsense 27-year-old who drove them hard, who had what still today they all recall (and 47 years later still reappears periodically in their restless dreams) as THE LOOK.  "I was petrified of her," says Kim. Almost a half century later, the coach holds solid to the group’s undivided loyalty and respect. They still believe in her. For two months before the start of practice in 1974 she put them through a demanding preseason conditioning regimen that was only slightly more fun than a series of rabies shots, but they trusted her, and it paid off. In 1972, two years before the magical run, she married the Red Bud High School Athletic Director. Collateral advantage at a time women coaches had to fight for every cent, she wily notes today, with a wink. The town joke of the day, that in 1974 she got what she wanted for her volleyball team, because she was sleeping with her boss, she concedes was by then, “oh so true."

The players all turn 65 years of age this year.  The six (and the coach) are still healthy and hearty.  But in 1974 they were 17-year-old unknowing teenage participants in one of the major socially impacting movements of their lifetime, the implementation of Title IX. But they didn’t know any of this. Or care. They just wanted to play volleyball. 

They roared through a 17-game regular season schedule unchallenged and undefeated. They paused in nearby Pinckneyville to destroy the field in the regional tournament - the championship match took 12 minutes to play. They took two unimpeded nights in McLeansboro to claim sectional honors. Next, they and their rapidly expanding bandwagon- jumping rowdy troupe of supporters rolled over to Carmi for an emotional super-sectional win over Granite City South.  

When the ball hit the floor for the final point, validating them as one of eight with a ticket punched to the big dance - the state tournament in Charleston - the memory of the pure joyful unrestrained midcourt celebration still brings chills to their coach. Finally, she thought. Diann says she has never or since felt such exhilaration. Kim describes a surreal almost out of body experience, a “look at us” epiphany of shock - “we really did this, we really did.” Deb remembers jumping as high as she could and landing in the arms of teammates. 

They loaded on to their custom souped-up and tricked out yellow school bus and off they went to state, but only after one heck of a pep rally send off. In Charleston they slew big school giants Champaign Central and Lincoln. 24 wins, 0 losses, that ought to “show Charlie.” 

Finally, they ran into one of those Chicago schools with “Olympic hopefuls” amongst a student body of over 4,000 and the Musketeers, now the darling small-town underdogs of the state tournament field, fell to New Trier East. It was heartbreaking. Despite 41 wins over two seasons, Diann Schrader says today that she still dreams of the haunting disappointment of the only loss of her high school career.  

Athletic heroes grow up differently than the rest of us. Like child stars in Hollywood, most of them are elevated to God-like status before they even turn 18 and then held to a standard the rest of their lives that often cannot be recreated. Their sad stories abound. They are slow to mature and sometimes never finish the job at all. Money talks. By college, the term student-athlete is heavy on the right side of the hyphen. 

But what if there had been no standards set by those who came before because, like in 1974-75, none had come before – they were the first? Would their story be purer and less entitled, their motives more honorable, their accomplishments less mitigated and easier to define? “We knew if we won, we got to play again and we liked to play so we kept winning,” remembers Paula Snyder. 



PART 2

Driving through Red Bud on a rainy day in September 2022, my wife Shawna and I stopped on the quaint main street for a Sunday break. During our hour long stay, on cue so it seemed, the sun emerged, and we were engulfed into a Hallmark movie set like town. This farming community is located 40 miles south of St. Louis, MO and even thought we are in the Land of Lincoln, the locals identify with the Show-Me State St. Louis metro area, especially with the town’s major league baseball affiliate, the Cardinals.  A fan of the hated Chicago Cubs is as rare in this town as a Democrat. Cardinal and MAGA red dominate.

The land between St. Louis and Red Bud is a quilt-like patchwork of corn and soybean fields, sprinkled in with an occasional dairy farm. On the drive south, east/west crossroads form intersections in first the small town of Columbia and then Waterloo, stitching together the common pattern found in rural MId-America, ten miles spacing of once railroad whistle- stop towns. Such towns are never bigger than needed to provide services to the locals.

Many Red Bud area residents commute to work daily in St. Louis, located on the western Missouri side of the nearby Mississippi River. Those who don’t commute either farm or find employment in one of the town’s three thriving light manufacturing factories. There is little transiency. Life here revolves around the belief that residents need to drop roots and get involved in their community.  

Red Bud is the kind of firm and reasoned place, we like to believe, that gives our nation its foundation and its backbone. It is a Norman Rockwell burg cut from endless fields of corn and soybeans, a wholesome place with all that one needs to raise a God-fearing family already right in place: good schools, an abundance of churches, spacious parks and two Dollar General stores. 

Nothing here changes much and long timers will tell you that is ok, that it gives the town a content equilibrium. Still, there is a paradox inherent in life in a small town between maddening boredom and the joyful bliss of simplicity and there are days, I am sure, the two can be indecipherable. None the less, at the risk of sounding like a big city wannabe wisecracker, I could write truthfully that Red Bud, IL is smack-dab in the middle of nowhere. But that is part of its charm. Towns like Red Bud can become a secret place of well-balanced karma, like Shangri-la. I was quickly smitten.

So, I felt “IT” when I first walked in the door of   The Burnt End BBQ. Stephen King wrote that in small towns, “people scent the wind with noses of uncommon keenness.” I smelled a story here. Inside, between bites into the dollar   basket pork rind special, we heard the hard to believe story of the local high school’s 1974-75 Musketeer’s volleyball team and their struggles to simply play. 

I find writing about high school athletics almost effortless. I would rather tell good stories than simply record history. These stories will, if you let them, tell themselves. It is that easy. What is cool is that with teenage athletics, truth really is stranger than fiction. The material base - the brief reign of the schoolboy (schoolgirl) idol - is a bittersweet paragon of American culture, the setting for Springsteen songs ("Glory Days") and Updike novels (Rabbit Run). Who couldn't write about that? And this story we heard in the shadow of the backdrop of small-town Red Bud Main Street hit me squarely between my Americana seeking eyes.

Everyone loves a good David and Goliath story. By season's end there was no doubt that the girls had been right all along. They did, by deed, belong with the “Olympic hopefuls.” And then if you think life in Red Bud, Il returned to just like it always had been before Title IX launched this rag-tag bunch into the limelight, you would be as misguided and oblivious as those who thought volleyball was too strenuous for high school girls, unwillingly caught in the crosshairs of historical change.

I am amazed (and grateful) that no one has seen fit to chronicle the story of the 1974-1975 Red Bud volleyball team. Now, I get the chance to earn the honor. 

The memories of the players and their coach are today compiled and then relegated to their individual subconscious - in the wins, the losses, postgame bus rides, and celebrations. But almost five decades after the community fire truck hauled this unlikely group of conquering feminine heroines up Main Street as guests of honor of the biggest party this little farm town had ever seen, these grand accomplishments are almost all but forgotten in a town where everything and nothing has changed. 

Today, the seven realize their achievements have gone mostly unrecognized. “We were all pretty humble people to begin with,” remembers Diann Schrader. “And we were all but Deb graduating, so shortly after we all moved away, and it was just kind of forgotten about.” Maybe being from a small area with limited media coverage had something to do with it, says Paula Snyder. “But the last few weeks since we've been talking about it for the first time in years, people around town want to hear the story and they tell others and then more people ask me about it.”  Coach Griffin is a ready and willing historical source. “I am so proud of what we did. I have the fondest memories. It would be great if the younger people who have never heard the story could hear it from those who lived it.” 

They don't today look the part of the "power" volleyball team that once made opponents literally fear for their safety when opposite the net of these now 65-year-old women. Think how cool it is to have it sink in that your grandma was once a bad ass.

Even in the town itself I found my inquiries of most met with “I have never heard that,” raised eyebrows. Regardless of the local neutered response, to me, it is a great story begging to be told. It has all the ingredients needed: conflict seeking justice and fairness, small battling big, proactive vs. reactive, contradictions and flaws, engaging characters and finally, resolution. 

Meg Gross says, maybe with a small twinge of bitterness, "I cannot believe that the school has never invited us back to be honored, ten years, twenty, then forty, nothing." I tell her it is, in my opinion, not malice but simply not knowing, for the locals and school officials I have share the story with have been surprised but receptive. How poetic (if they can make the climb) to have all back on the fire truck and leading the parade for a 50-year anniversary party.

After first hearing the story of six girls who just wanted to play, I, with seven granddaughters, had several thoughts: first, God bless the Red Bud 6 and the others who have paved a once unattainable path for my granddaughters. Second, what a great story. And finally, and most important, what an opportunity to write an impacting book.  

So, here is my plan to make it happen, how I am attempting to conquer a challenging task.

My top priority in my research of the Red Bud 6 has been tying it all together. When you take on the task of assembling a puzzle, before you find the pieces that fit, you must first remove those that do not. As I set aside the pieces that do not interlock, then suddenly those that do slide snugly into place. The six separate and wholistic puzzles that emerge will be the lives of these girls now turned middle-aged women.  

The subjects of this story are seven unique individuals (six players and a coach) who have taken seven equally unique, sometimes ambiguous paths through life, negotiating with various levels of successes the twists and turns of the topsy turvy baby boomer generation. It is imperative to the success of this project that I project this depth in my portrayal of each. The seven profiles I hope to find, will be quintessential American success stories, testimonials to lives well lived. 

By intent, as I complete each individual puzzle, seven diverging stories will emerge to stand alone.  But, like the great team chemistry they displayed on the volleyball court in 1975, they are not destined to stand alone. The strength of the group, I project, will emerge in 2022, just as it did 1975, when each individual story is successfully linked together with the others. 

I want to put a face on Title IX. To be more veracious, seven faces. We don’t need the biography of another world class female athlete who has ridden the wave of Title IX to renown and richness, i.e., Serena Williams or Jackie Joyner-Kersee.  What I seek, instead, is a good solid story about common women who as schoolgirl athletes were born at just the right time to have lived lives blessed by this impacting law. And they then moved on with life - the Red Bud 6, a team never spoiled by fame. 

That will be my final task, to stitch together a clear tapestry of their combined lives, both as carefree 17-year old's and now 65-year-old retirees. The fundamental fiber linking each is the landmark 1972 passing of Title IX. 

The 50-year impact of this law on one small town’s volleyball team will be this book - the feel-good story of the 1974-1975 Red Bud Musketeers - a Cinderella celebration for the ages. 

Time has a way of telling your story and I think this is just the right time.

Dave Almany

Red Bud, IL

October 2022









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