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Sue Panek: From St. Al's to BC. state champs to Div. I Final Four to the WNBA -- role of Title IX

Competing with the Terps

… took for granted playing girls’ basketball

As a young girl, she yearned to play competitive basketball — and for young women in the late 1970s and 1980s, that dream was one that young athletes could realistically envision.

However, without one change in American society, would Sue Panek have been able to win a PIAA state championship with Bishop Carroll, earn a Division I scholarship to an Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) team that became number one in the country during her four years, or secure a position as a coach in the WNBA (Women’s National Basketball Association)?

As they said in the 20th Century, “You’ve come a long way, baby,” and women’s basketball has made tremendous growth over the past 50 years.

The game has evolved into one that is now recognized across the nation as something special on a variety of levels.

Perhaps that growth would have occurred anyway, but without Title IX, however, that growth would not have been as exponential as it became in the late 20th Century. -- and would the young girls and women have experienced the same and they did?

“I cannot imagine not having that outlet”

Title IX was one part of a piece of educational legislation signed by President Richard Nixon in 1972, 50 years ago. Some historians debate whether or not he even realized the impact of what he was signing at the time. It was the result of some horse-trading by politicians, but It was what led the PIAA to start girls athletic high school championships in Pennsylvania because they realized that this was now federal law. Across the country, girl’s and women’s sports suddenly became part of almost every educational institution.

So, by the time that Sue Panek started looking to compete against other girls, the results of that little piece of legislation had become evident.

In the late 1970s, she started playing basketball while a student at St. Aloysius School in Cresson, and athletics became a focus of her education, motivating her to accomplish a great deal both on the court and in the classroom. She had the opportunity of being selected as an all-state player in high school,

I started playing in 1979 when I was a fourth grader. My dad always had me interested in sports as a little kid, rolling ball back and forth and throwing the ball. Because I was tall, basketball became my major interest of all the sports. I started playing with my dad [Joe] and with the boys in the neighborhood.

I cannot imagine going to school and not having the opportunity to play sports. It was what motivated me to do well in school, so that I could play sports. I cannot think of not having that outlet and not being able to play competitively.

Interview with Sue Panek, July 2022

When Sue’s mother, Donna, was a high school student, the only athletic outlet for most girls in Cambria County was cheerleading. Then in the 70s, the Immaculata College “Lady Macs” basketball team electrified the country with its exploits, winning national titles — albeit not ones sanctioned by the NCAA.

I have not read anything about exactly why women’s basketball took so long to take hold. After all, the first women’s college basketball game was played in the 1800s — 1896, to be exact -- but did not become popular in America until the late 20th Century.

Why did decades pass before women’s sports became so popular? Culturally, girls sports had not become a priority for society at that time. That is somewhat strange since the first women’s college basketball game was played in the 19th Century.

The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) did not have a classification for girls basketball until 1973, and it included just one class.

As I have written earlier, Lilly High School fielded a girls team in the 1920s, but girls basketball sort of drifted out of the popular realm until some larger schools started programs in the 1960s.

Sue started playing with her dad as a youngster and never thought about why her mother did not have the chance to compete like she did. Sue played in the 1980s and those of her age came to take for granted the idea of girls playing basketball competitively, just like the guys.

They played in their driveways or their backyards, and she competed against the boys, too, but yearned for the day that she could play against the girls,

Basketball in Pennsylvania would not have advanced without Title IX. In the past, girls did not have access to sports in school.

When I finally got to St. Al’s. I remember hearing about Maureen Latherer, and I looked up to her. That led me to B.C. and it served as inspiration for our team there.

Without Title IX, that would not have happened.

Interview with Sue Panek, July 2022

The Lady Huskies, coached by Deb Yesenosky, captured the state title for B.C. in 1987, but the truth is that the NCAA did not recognize women until 1982.

However, after the signing of Title IX legislation in 1972, the opportunities started to explode, but they were still not exactly like those for the guys. That took time to emerge, and today, Sue, who became a Division I basketball player at the University of Maryland and then an WNBA coach, realizes how important Title IX has been to the development of women’s sports.

State Champs!

Title IX was part of the educational legislation signed by President Richard Nixon 50 years ago. That move was what led the PIAA to start girls athletic championships because they realized that this was now federal law.

In the late 1970s, Sue Panek started playing basketball while a student at St. Aloysius School in Cresson, and it became a focus of her education, motivating her to accomplishments both on the court and in the classroom,

Panek did well playing for St. Aloysius and then by 1987, she became part of a Bishop Carroll High School girls team that captured the PIAA State Class A Championship. That opportunity led to her signing a letter-of-intent to play at Maryland early in her senior year of high school.

1987 PIAA State Champs, Bishop Carroll

Title IX major factor In opportunities

During those years, if Sue had heard of Title IX, she may not have fully understood the impact that it would have not just on women’s athletics, but also on opportunities for women as a whole.

While Title IX was signed in 1972, that did not mean that women were immediately given respect and recognition by the powers to be in college basketball.

From its signing until a decade later, in 1982, the women crowned a national champion, but it was under the auspices of the AIAW (Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women). Finally, the NCAA announced that it would recognize women’s basketball and held the first NCAA Tournament, ending the AIAW dominance.

That did not mean that men’s and women’s sports were considered equal, and when Sue arrived on the Maryland campus as a freshman in 1988, she quickly realized that the men’s and women’s programs were not really equivalent. She saw that change over her four years, but not initially.

At the time, the men’s program was under direction of the famous — or infamous, depending upon your perspective — Lefty Driesell,

I saw some of the bias just in terms of the men’s team and how (women’s Coach) Chris Weller had to fight hard for practice time at Cole Fieldhouse. She had to fight, fight, fight. We finally worked it out, and then Lefty left after (former Maryland player) Len Bias (died of a drug overdose).

But playing at that level had always been my goal. We had a chance to travel and I got to fly to California to play (the University of Southern California) and Long Beach. I was able to meet my hero, Cheryl Miller, who was coaching at USC.

Interview with Sue Panek, July 2022

Some subtle differences could be seen in the programs. The Maryland women would travel by bus to many of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) games in her early years, and they had to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on the trip instead of stopping at a restaurant. Those changed over her four years, but it took some tremendous accomplishments to see that occur.

Reached the Final Four in her freshman year

The Terps at that time were led by Vicky Bullet, who later played on the 1988 and 1992 Olympic teams. They advanced to the Final Four, which was a tremendous accomplishment for a young girl from a small rural area of Pennsylvania. Later in her career, her team reached number 1 in the national polls, so she watched the evolution of women’s basketball at Maryland,

We played Tennessee in the [NCAA Final Four] semifinals in Tacoma, Washington, and lost to them. Then, in my senior year I was blessed to see us become number one in the country for four or five weeks. We played before a sellout crowd in Cole Fieldhouse, and that had never happened before.

We ended up losing to Virginia and that dropped us in the polls, but it was a historical event in 1992.

Interview with Sue Panek, July 2022

Money drives the bus

The key to improvement and respect is the money that came into the program,

We did not care about many of these things. We were just happy to be playing at that level. The men’s locker room was huge and was very nice while ours was a hole in the wall. We were just happy to be in Cole Fieldhouse practicing.

But, the marketing of the program grew as we improved. Then, they invested money into the program.

The first two years, we ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on the way to the games. We would be three to a room in the hotels. They gave us seven dollars for a meal, but we could not go over that or we had to pay for it ourselves.

Later, we were then two to a room and going to restaurants. They actually started having a marketing person for women’s basketball because of the success that we had.

Interview with Sue Panek, July 2022

As a WNBA coach at a youth clinic

To WNBA and teaching

After graduating from Maryland with a degree in Kinesiology, Sue coached at Florida State for three years and then at Maryland for one before an opportunity came to enter the nascent women’s professional ranks.

She served as an assistant coach in the league for ten years with the Charlotte Sting, Washington Mystic, and the Atlanta Dream.

After that, she decided to forgo basketball and coaching and entered the field of education. She now serves as a teacher in the Charlotte-Mecklenberg School district, working with special students.

She enjoyed her time in basketball, and thanks Title IX for the opportunity, but now her life is spent with children — and today, entering her 18th year of teaching, she loves that.

However, she will always be grateful for the opportunities in life that she experienced because of the athletic avenues that were guaranteed by a simple little thing known as Title IX.

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