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Section VI ?girls play ?in transition

Pam Amabile was one of the lucky ones. She began her high school sports career in 1974 and played three years of varsity softball and basketball for Frontier High School. She went on to Erie Community College where she twice was an All-American in both sports. She played softball at Indiana University on scholarship.

Amabile was fortunate because she came within a few years of being among the thousands of talented girls whose careers never started because they were born too soon. It took the passage of Title IX in 1972 to open up an opportunity for her,

"I didn't feel like we were denied, but the same opportunities weren't there," said Amabile, 53, who is in the Frontier and ECC halls of fame. "You couldn't go to state tournaments back then, but we didn't know the difference, we just went out and played."

Look in any yearbook published at any public high school in Western New York before 1972 and you will not find photos of any interscholastic sports teams for girls. They did not exist. The only outlet for female athletes throughout the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s were intramurals, or they could cheer for the boys teams.

> The early years

In the years leading up to Title IX, schools offered girls Sports Days where the top athletes from four schools would meet and play games in a round-robin format. Then there were the Play Days, at which girls from two schools, regardless of athletic ability, would play. These teams never practiced and uniforms were often a one-piece jump suit with a pinnie worn over it. Girls wrote their uniform number in magic marker.

Cindy Breski, a 1965 graduate of Lancaster, managed to gain induction into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame in 2008 without hitting a jump shot or driving in any runs while in high school. She remembered in junior high playing a version of six-man basketball in which a player could only take three dribbles before having to pass. Of the six players on the floor, only two could play both halves of the court.

"In high school that's just the way it was," she said. "We had Play Days where you would play for 20 minutes, but those were few and far between. You just signed up and you went. You never practiced."

Breski played basketball for Brockport State, but said they played only a 10-game schedule. She graduated in the spring of 1969 and that fall began a 33-year teaching and coaching career at Tonawanda High School.

Early in her coaching career, girls went to the five-man game in basketball and Breski said she grabbed every reference book she could on how to coach a game she never really played.

Before Title IX, Breski said she would bring her team in for 6 a.m. practice before school because the boys always had the gym after school. Breski, now 65, has seen an enormous transformation in girls sports.

"I watch college softball and basketball on TV and it's just amazing the athletes and the training they have nowadays," she said.

> ECIC takes the lead

In a Buffalo Evening News article dated March 14, 1972 reporter Chuck Korbar wrote: "With girls interscholastic and extra-mural sports programs in mind, a meeting has been called by the physical education women of Section VI at Amherst High School."

Rita Eichenger, a long-since retired PE teacher who taught at all three Williamsville schools during her career, was at that historic meeting.

"We were all very much involved in getting the girls to compete," she said. "Before we had permission, I would put the girls in one or two cars and we'd go over to one of the private schools like Buffalo Seminary, and play games on the QT. No one would know. I just remember the principal I worked with at the time [Sam Gang], he was all for it. And the girls were ready to go, our kids were 100 percent wanting to compete."

It was Eichenger and fellow PE teachers the late Kay Palmer of Eden and Mary Byrnes-Foyle of Hamburg who first formed the Erie County Girls Athletic Association (ECGAA), the precursor to today's ECIC.

The four original sports were field hockey, volleyball, basketball and softball.

With state competitions a ways off, girls in the 1970s played four sports seasons instead of the three that are offered today. In softball, league games could be played in June. The season ended with sectionals.

Soon the Niagara Frontier League and Niagara-Orleans League came on board.

Retired Kenmore West boys basketball coach Dick Harvey coached a lot of years in the NFL before he retired in 2000, but got his start coaching coed ninth grade track in 1966.

He was around in 1970-1971, when you would see the occasional girl on a boys team as they were allowed to compete together in non-contact sports such as swimming, rifle, tennis, track and bowling. He saw the transition from the extra-mural programs he used to run at Franklin, Kenmore Middle and Hoover, to full-fledged interscholastic competition.

"Some of the girls at that age level in many ways were superior to boys because the growth rate is different. You could tell who were the very good athletes. They wanted to learn and they wanted to participate," he said.

Today, some WNY high schools offer as many as 16 varsity sports for girls. Recent additions have been ice hockey and golf. Nearly every sport crowns a state competition.

email: mmonnin@buffnews.com