It was the 1974 school year. The time of President Nixon’s resignation, the Middle East oil embargo, and a Swedish rock group called ABBA was all the rage in Europe. That same school year, four female lacrosse players joined the DU men’s lacrosse ‘B’ team, playing against Air Force in Colorado Springs to open the season. The final score, an 18-1 AFA drubbing of Denver, was the least important event that day, as players from both teams dealt with a new trend that was sweeping the nation – women playing college sports.
Two years earlier, in the summer of 1972, Title IX was passed by Congress, but would not be fully implemented at the collegiate level for the next 12 years. After years of various interpretations of Title IX, The Civil Rights Restoration Act was passed in 1988 to cover all programs of any educational institution that receives any federal assistance, both direct and indirect to offer equal access to men and women. In 1994, twenty years after the ‘Denver Four’, the Equity in Athletics Disclosure act required that federally-assisted educational institutions disclose information on roster sizes for men’s and women’s athletic teams; as well as budgets for recruiting, scholarships, coaches’ salaries, and other expenses, annually.
Perhaps the University of Denver had an early jump start on the winds of change in 1974 when four DU students, all hailing from the east coast, saw a flyer announcing lacrosse tryouts on campus. Barbara (Bobbie) Brandon, Annie Hoskinson, Susan Starker, and Melissa Pollock decided to try out for DU’s men’s lacrosse team, as there was no women’s team at DU to play on, as DU women’s varsity lacrosse was still decades away, and did not take the field until 1999.
In that era, lacrosse was primarily an eastern sport, and DU’s men’s program was started in 1966 to take advantage of DU’s significant east coast student base. But the sport was fairly new in the west and had trouble keeping traction, bouncing between club status and varsity status in that era. In 1973, DU downgraded men’s lacrosse from varsity to a club sport. Tim Tenny (’74, ’75, ’76) was hired as the new head coach with the goal to help elevate the program back to varsity status. In 1974, his first season at the helm, Tenny called for open tryouts for his lacrosse team on the DU campus.
The result yielded the uncharacteristic female foursome. Tenny liked the skill and energy of the women players at tryouts and all four women made the DU ‘B’ team. Competition rules required that the women had to wear the same team-issued protective gear as the men’s team. This was a big adjustment for the DU women, who grew up on the east coast playing women’s lacrosse, a significantly different, non-contact game that did not allow helmets, gloves, or pads for field players. Thus, the female athletes were fitted with 1970s team gear, all designed and sized for men, which were all oversized for female bodies. But the women soon adjusted and found themselves deployed as everyday practice players, as the DU varsity and the ‘B’ team often scrimmaged together under Coach Tenny.
Bobbie Brandon, a primary source of information for this LetsGoDU article, was a prep lacrosse player from Wayne, Pennsylvania (outside Philadelphia) and played lacrosse and field hockey for Radnor (Pa.) High School. She matriculated at DU because of the mountains and active lifestyle which included skiing with the DU ski team. “The flyer said ‘lacrosse players’, so we thought ‘why not?’ At the time DU only had men’s lacrosse.”
Prior to that time, women were all relegated to club sports at DU. In lieu of varsity sports, intramural sports were a huge part of campus life in the early ’70s as an outlet for women interested in sports – mostly co-ed clubs/teams, sorority athletic competitions, and leagues outside the University of Denver campus.
The four female lacrosse players were readily accepted by their DU male teammates and attended team practices, meetings, and, of course, the associated social events with the team. “We were part of the team,” said Brandon.
Tenny decided to unleash his four newcomers on Air Force in the first ‘B’ game of the season. A male-dominated service branch that would not admit female pilots until 1976, the Falcons made for an unlikely foe. Upon arriving at the Air Force Academy for the game, the four women were ushered to the shiny new Air Force women’s locker room. “It was amazing, we had never seen anything like it at that time,” said Brandon. “The facilities were amazing.”
The Air Force varsity coach, Ed Keating, approved playing Denver’s co-ed team but did not tell “the big brass” at the Academy, according to a Denver Post account of the game. The Cadets’ junior varsity coach, Bill Markham, waited until game time to tell his Air Force players they would be playing against women. While there was some hesitation at first, the game went forward and the Denver women’s lacrosse players were inserted into the game, playing limited minutes.
DU sports history was made that day.
Tenny commented on the lopsided DU loss to the Denver Post, “Well, they (the four women) played as well as some of the guys.”
Naturally, memories have faded since that day. The four true pioneers who took to the field did not see their participation as unique or overly important at the time. However, the Denver Post saw fit to document their story – as the women just wanted to play lacrosse. However, Title IX, after numerous fits and starts, would eventually take hold and truly transform women’s sports on the DU campus and around the country, eventually leading to the explosion of varsity programs for women. For example, today in NCAA lacrosse alone, there are far more women’s varsity programs than there are men’s programs in each of the three NCAA Divisions. Today, there are 120 NCAA Division I women’s teams, 114 NCAA Division II women’s lacrosse teams, and 291 NCAA Division III women’s lacrosse teams, compared to just 74 NCAA D-I men’s lacrosse teams, 75 D-II men’s lacrosse teams, and 247 D-III men’s lacrosse teams.
“Maybe we were a small part of history,” said Brandon. “We had so much fun.”
Today, the University of Denver sponsors 10 NCAA D-I teams for women, including lacrosse. And Women’s lacrosse at Denver is currently ranked 4th in the country, the highest ranking in the history of the program.
Years later, the four have moved on to lives and careers of their own. Bobbie Brandon is a mother and retired school teacher. Annie Hoskinson held the role of Executive Director at Sportswomen of Colorado and worked at DU from 2017-2022. She was inducted into the DU Sports Hall of Fame in 2000 for basketball and field hockey. Susan Starker is a self-management support (SMS) nurse providing senior care in Little Rock, Ark. Melissa Pollock passed away at the age of 62 in Evergreen, Colorado.
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Photos: Courtesy of The Denver Post. Top photo: Head Coach Tim Tenny gives instructions to Susan Starker at the 1974 game at Air Force.