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updated: 5/24/2012 10:20 PM

Forty years later, girls playing on a much different field

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Peg Kopec has sent 78 girls to collegiate volleyball programs and won eight state championships at St. Francis.

But she still remembers the days when she was kicked off her own practice court.

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"One of my first years at St. Francis when boys basketball started, they pushed us to Marianjoy (Rehabilitation Hospital, down the street) to practice," Kopec said. "It was a different time for lots of things."

Today thousands of girls across the state participate in 15 IHSA sports, matching their boys counterparts.

The playing field wasn't always this level.

Forty years ago next month, things shifted with the passage of Title IX. The law required gender equality for women and men in all educational institutions that receive federal funding.

Change was not without struggle.

Amy Gibson, who has taught health and P.E. at West Chicago for 33 years and coached swimming for 10, was a sophomore at Champaign Central at the time of Title IX. She played tennis at school and swam through the YMCA because there was no girls swim team at school. She remembers a "chaotic" time. Determining what sports to have. Finding space for girls and boys to practice. Hiring coaches, finding equipment and uniforms -- it all hit schools at once.

Gibson went on to the University of Illinois, where she first had to swim for a year to "prove herself" before being offered one of two athletic scholarships available to the team.

"There was no recruiting. I don't even think we knew what that was," Gibson said. "We competed because we liked to swim. For us it was an opportunity to represent your school."

Eileen Diekemper can well appreciate how far we've come since Title IX. She's seen it firsthand with her daughter Jackelyn.

Jackelyn pitched at Naperville North and Illinois and is now an assistant softball coach at Naperville Central.

Eileen, who was 15 when Title IX passed, played basketball collegiately at Gonzaga two years ahead of former Utah Jazz star John Stockton.

Gonzaga's women actually made the Sweet Sixteen before the men but were still treated like second-class citizens in many respects.

Her first year at Gonzaga Diekemper and her teammates practiced in a side gym 20 feet shorter than the main floor. They changed in a general women's locker room with the rest of the women on campus and were on an academic scholarship with a minimum 3.0 GPA required to compete.

When they traveled to Washington State, they played in a classroom gymnasium in a P.E. facility.

By the time Jackelyn was in high school, she was playing AAU basketball with the Shooting Stars. Eileen found the quality of ball at a Naperville North girls Sunday league "unbelievable."

"That was not around when I was playing," Eileen said. "My hope is girls don't take it for granted because it's been a long, hard process."

Kopec can relate to the pushing and nudging toward equal opportunity. When she came to St. Francis there was a "large" gym for the boys and "small" gym for the girls, with separate P.E. programs that she said "changed immediately."

Nowadays, she appreciates how equitable things are. When a St. Francis team goes to state, regardless of sport or gender, they are given the same sendoff. That is the climate girls grow up in now. Kopec is torn to tell her kids that it was ever any other way.

"Part of me feels that they should know the fighting done for them, it's part of the story and makes you appreciate it all," she said. "But the other part is that they shouldn't think there was ever any fighting done, why there was a need. Why be reminded that it was not equal? It should be expected that it was equal."

A world of opportunity has indeed been opened up.

Before Title IX, only one in 27 girls played high school sports. The primary actitivies for girls were cheerleading and square dancing. Intramural-like "play days" were occasionally scheduled in other sports. By the 2006-07 school year 3 million girls were participating in high school athletics. Through Title IX, more women have had opportunities to go to college and earn professional degrees through athletic scholarships.

More and more young ladies who played sports are coming back to teach and coach it, like Jackelyn Diekemper. They in turn are role models for the next wave of female athletes.

"The beauty of Title IX is today girls expect to be able to do whatever they want," Kopec said.

The field is leveling, but it isn't there yet. Women still make up a disproportionate number of college athletes and don't receive near the amount of scholarship money.

When Jackelyn Diekemper came to Naperville North, the softball team played on an old baseball field with a backstop 32 feet behind home plate. The "dugout" consisted of a bench and a chain link fence. Seed money was raised, and the Saturday before the 9/11 attacks a request was sent out for a new field.

Step by step, women in sports are on the same footing as men.

"It's really come a long way," Eileen Diekemper said. "The biggest thing the girls playing now need to know is that they are on a stage and there are a lot of younger girls watching them play. It is a privilege, and it comes with responsibility. Title IX, it gave them that privilege."

jwelge@dailyherald.com

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