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GENERATIONS: Girls sports, becoming a league of their own

The little pony-tailed girls who had started out playing on the boys’ Squirts teams have gone from new kids on the block to a league of their own and Minnesota State Hockey Championship contenders, a story as inspirational as watching the Olympics.

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The Bemidji High School 1996-2002 girls hockey team.
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Now that the Olympics have ended, my TV consumption has returned to reruns of favorite sitcoms and occasionally binge-watching something on Netflix.

Nothing is as emotionally charged as watching competitors represent their countries at a worldwide pandemic-delayed event, often returning to a sport after battling back from major injuries or personal tragedies.

The dedication, skills and effort the athletes demonstrate are truly inspirational. I hated to see the games come to a close. I could’ve watched many more hours of skateboarders catching 20 feet of air between unbelievable aerial maneuvers in the half dome and other spectacular feats on snow or ice.

Fortunately, another immersion in sports gave me similar feelings.

My last two columns have been about women in winter sports , as featured in the current exhibit at the Beltrami County History Center, so the transition from the Olympics to local female athletes who have broken barriers and led the way in women’s sports was a short one.

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With the girls high school hockey state finals on TV, I returned to my notes, files, photos and various exhibit items I’ve been working with and focused on the birth of girls hockey in Bemidji.

I had visited with Rick Coe and Pete Sullivan, the first Bemidji High School coaches a few weeks ago. Their reminiscences of coaching the first BHS girls teams took me back over 25 years to a time when girls were breaking into sports that had traditionally been only for boys and Title IX was holding schools accountable, ensuring that districts maintain equity in offering girls and boys sports.

Girls swimming and basketball were among the earliest girls sports in Bemidji in the 1970s, but the transformation was not immediate.

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A newspaper clipping from March 25, 2000, shows Bemidji girls hockey coach Rick Coe speaking to his team during the state semifinals against Austin at the State Fair Coliseum.
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Team memories

Jean Fulton Weyer, who played basketball the first year it was offered at BHS, remembers having to wear gym clothes as uniforms. Their numbers were blue electrical tape, sewn onto their shirts by their moms. Girls’ sports had a long way to go.

When the first little girls in Bemidji took an interest in “the boys game” of hockey in the late 1980s, a few of them played on the boys Bemidji Youth Hockey teams — like Crystal Sorenson, Erica Fossand, Carrie Miller and Erin Sullivan.

Carrie remembers starting out as a kindergartner with figure skating but, since her older brother played hockey and she just loved to skate, the next year she joined Youth Hockey, too.

“My mom would pick me up after figure skating and I’d put on my pads over my pink spandex and go to hockey practice,” she recalled.

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When the girls played on the boys teams there was rarely more than one girl on a team — more often there was none.

Erica was the goalie on her team. The other girls scored regularly on their teams, but the boys weren’t sure how to accept them. Carrie remembers scoring a goal and everyone rushing to hug her but then backing away when they realized it was the girl on the team who had scored.

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A plaque shows the Bemidji High School 1999-2000 girls hockey team when they became Section 8 Champions.
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Then the University of Minnesota held a demonstration for girls hockey in Duluth. Pete and his wife Nancy took Erin, who became one of 40 little girls with ponytails sprouting out of their helmets.

Within a few years, enough girls were playing hockey to warrant a BYH girls’ league. In 1994-95, The Bemidji Pioneer’s sports pages often reported Carrie and Erin as top scorers, in spite of the fact that they were among the youngest girls on the team.

Many of the other young players on the team (which finished second at the state tournament in March 1995) would play together through high school.

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A Pioneer newspaper clipping from 1996 shows the first Bemidji high school girls hockey team.
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Pushing for the girls

As more girls played hockey, the push to offer the sport at BHS started. Early in 1995, a survey was sent out to other northern Minnesota schools, a well thought out presentation was delivered to the school board, debates ensued, but eventually, the decision was made.

Girls hockey would be offered at BHS for the 1996-97 school year, with certain stipulations, but the opportunity was there.
The next hurdle was deciding whether seventh- and eighth-graders, many of whom had much more hockey experience than the high school girls, could play on the varsity team. Middle school players were allowed on the varsity team if they could make the cut, which four seventh-graders and four eighth-graders did.

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There were still details to be worked out: Not a lot of other northern schools had teams yet, so travel was long and trying to schedule games with the existing teams was also a challenge. The girls’ first game was in Hudson, Wis., followed by five more away games in Fergus Falls, Hibbing, Duluth, Rochester and International Falls before a series of four home games.

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A team photo and roster are pictured from the Bemidji girls hockey team in 2000.
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At the end of their first season, the girls had a win/loss record of 14-7-0. More schools added girls hockey to their programs in the next few years, but the Lumberjacks continued to improve and win games against their toughest competition.

The win/loss records in the next three years were 17-5-3 in 1997-98, 16-8-1 in 1998-99, and 25-4-1 in 1999-2000, when they were Section 8 Champions and went to state.

The little pony-tailed girls who had started out playing on the boys’ Squirts teams had gone from new kids on the block to a league of their own and Minnesota State Hockey Championship contenders, a story as inspirational as watching the Olympics.

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Tickets to the 2000 Girls Hockey Semifinals.
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A Feb. 27, 2000, Pioneer newspaper clipping shows when Eagan beat Bemidji 3-2 in the 2000 State Girls' Hockey Tournament in Falcon Heights.
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