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WOMEN FIRST!

by Doug Ireland

Women first.

Along with being the gentlemanly approach, it’s also the story of Northwestern State University, founded in 1884 as the state’s Normal School training teachers. In those days, teachers were almost exclusively women.

And in those days, contrary to what many believe, women played sports. They didn’t play football – it hadn’t quite been invented yet, nor had basketball – but they played lawn tennis, golf and baseball. Indoor base ball (two words back then, base ball), to be precise.

The male population of Louisiana Normal School gradually increased to numbers which allowed the creation of a football team in 1907, and the construction of an athletic field with an oval track, a competition field for football and a 1,000-seat grandstand in 1911. Two years earlier, the Normal had formed a varsity women’s basketball team. They played on an outdoor court, and so did the men’s team that was created in 1912.

An appreciative audience recently enjoyed hearing about NSU’s timeline of sports and intercollegiate athletics, and the venues that hosted them through the years. Debbie Smith, the chief of historic landscapes at the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, presented the facts of the matter in a lunchtime program at the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and Northwest Louisiana History Museum in Natchitoches.

A day later, a full field of 80 golfers teed off at Demon Hills in the 32nd Annual Don’t Die Wondering Classic supporting the NSU Lady Demon basketball program. None of them thought about the really deep roots of women’s sports at Northwestern, but all of them had a blast while generating thousands of much-needed dollars to help new coach Anna Nimz and her staff get off to a good start.

At the same time, hundreds of high school cross country runners were racing at NSU on the same course around the Walter P. Ledet Track Complex that will host the state LHSAA championships in mid-November.

The end of November will usher in the first intercollegiate competition of 2020 when the Demons and Lady Demons tip off their basketball seasons. Final arrangements on their schedules are being made, in pencil. As we’ve seen this summer and fall, sports schedules are subject to late changes and rearranges. Nimz will get her debut as a four-year, NCAA Division I head coach, while her counterpart, Mike McConathy, begins his 22nd season as the Demons’ bench boss, and his 38th year as a college head coach, in circumstances that are, hopefully, unique. Prather Coliseum (opened in 1964, Smith told us), will have different seating arrangements to address coronavirus concerns, and there will be the cardboard cutout fans in the stands like you’ve gotten accustomed to in pro sports and big-money college football.

There also will be real humans cheering, and a pep band, and cheerleaders (although the cheerleaders won’t be on the court, which will be especially welcome news for some of the fans). All of the ticket opportunities can be found at NSUDemons.com, along with the opportunity to buy “All In” tickets that provide admission to every Northwestern home sports contest in 2020-21, and the chance to put your mug, or your pet’s pic, on one of those cardboard cutouts.

Future historians will note these times and how we handled them. In her presentation, Smith focused on the facilities and did not address the infamous Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918-20. However, NSU’s archives apparently do.

Normal’s football team played four games in 1919, and seven in 1920, numbers not unusual for those days. The basketball team went 10-1 in 1918-19 (again, a reasonably robust schedule) and 10-3 in 1920-21. But there are no records of any games in 1919-20. None. A century later, we’ll hope history doesn’t repeat itself this winter. Plenty of preparation is ongoing to avoid it.

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