The El Paso-Juarez Sol were a rollicking, co-ed pro volleyball squad that drew crowds to the El Paso Civic Center with a combination of international Olympic stars and cornball promotions during the late 1970’s. The Sol were original members of the International Volleyball Association, a start-up operation in 1975 with five teams clustered in the Western U.S. The Sol were the only team located outside of Southern California during that first season, though the league eventually grew to include clubs in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Washington. IVA volleyball featured two women and four men on the court at all times and the league didn’t take itself too seriously. Sol games featured a roving P.A. announcer named Paul “The Mouth” Strelzin who galloped around the arena on a stick horse.
The league managed to attract top volleyball talent from around the globe. The Sol’s first year roster included American player-coach Mary Jo Peppler, the top female in the league and 70’s-famous from her appearances on ABC’s Superstars competition, and hirsute Brazilian hitter-blocker Lino De Melo Gama of Brazil, better known as “The Caveman”. But the Sol finished the 1975 schedule in last place and Peppler departed.
The Sol’s finest season came in 1977. The team lured Ed Skorek, the 34-year old hitter-blocker from Poland’s gold medal-winning team at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, to El Paso. The 6′ 5″ Pole dominated the league all summer long, even earning the relatively unknown Sol a big write-up in Sports Illustrated. But a late season injury caused Skorek to miss the championship series. Without the league’s best player, the Sol lost to the Orange County Stars in the 1977 IVA finals.
Skorek decided not to return to the United States in 1978 and the Sol returned to middling status in the league. The team ran out of money during the 1978 season and the Sol closed up shop following the season. The IVA continued on for two more years, shutting down midway through its sixth season in the summer of 1980.
The Racine (WI) Belles were charter members of the historic All-American Girls Professional Baseball League during the war summer of 1943. The Midwest-based AAGPBL was founded by Chicago Cubs owner Philip K. Wrigley when it appeared that the war and the military draft might imperil the continued operation of Major League Baseball. The women’s league was originally conceived as a softball league in 1943, but evolved into a baseball competition through a series of gradual rules changes throughout the 1940’s. The league used underhand pitching, for example, for its first few seasons. Wrigley gave up the league after its first season when it became clear that Major League Baseball would survive the war. But his gum advertising guru Arthur Meyerhoff took over management of the AAGPBL and kept it operating into the post-war era.
The AAGPBL found an audience in places like Racine – where Belles attendance would peak at a very respectable 102,413 fans in 1946 – and continued to operate until 1954. The Belles won the first championship of the AAGPBL in 1943, defeating the Kenosha Comets. They would win a second crown in 1946.
As late as 1947, Belles attendance topped 100,000, but interested declined rapidly in the summers that followed. In 1949 attendance fell to 44,912 and the money-losing club was re-organized under the auspices of a non-profit organization the following winter. Crowds continued to shrink (an estimated 30,000 admissions for the 1950 season) and Belles management announced it would withdraw from the AAGPBL in September 1950.
Rights to the Belles franchise and its players were later assigned to Battle Creek, Michigan under new management, though many of the Belles players declined to follow the club to Michigan. The Battle Creek Belles played two further seasons, going out of business at the end of the 1952 campaign.
The Ravens’ top player was 28-year old Donna Lopiano, a former star with the Raybestos Brakettes, a legendary amateur team in her native state of Connecticut. Lopiano played for the Brakettes from 1963 until 1972 before retiring to pursue a career in collegiate sports administration at the dawn of the Title IX era. The Brakettes entered WPS in 1976 also, becoming the Connecticut Falcons franchise. Lopiano reportedly agreed to play for Chicago rather than re-join her former teammates in the interests of creating more parity for the league. She appeared only in weekend games for the Ravens, while holding down her job as Director of Women’s Athletics at the University of Texas during the week.
The Ravens finished their only season with a 57-63 record and then lost to the eventual champion Connecticut Falcons in the first round of the playoffs. Following the 1976 season, six of the ten original WPS franchises went out of business, including the Ravens. The shrunked league managed to hang on for three more summers before folding in the spring of 1980.
Donna Lopiano went on to become one of the most influential voices in women’s sports, most notably as CEO of the Women’s Sports Foundation from 1992 to 2007.
The original Boston Breakers soccer club was a founding member of the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) from 2001 to 2003. The WUSA was the first professional soccer league for women in North America, backed by a consortium of cable television companies and executives who were intrigued by the groundbreaking success of the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup, hosted by the United States. The Breakers franchise was backed by Amos Hostetter, the billionaire co-founder of Continental Cablevision.
The provenance of the team’s name was somewhat odd. Like many fledgling sports teams, the soon-to-be-Boston Breakers instituted a Name-The-Team contest. The winning entry was attributed to a 15-year old teenage girl from suburban Easton, Massachusetts. What was strange about the choice was that Boston already had a high profile pro sports flop that had used the same identity in the recent past. The Boston Breakers of the United States Football League had even used a similar blue/white color scheme and played in the very same stadium (Boston University’s Nickerson Field) as the new women’s soccer team. The football Breakers came and went in a single season in 1983 – very much in the living memory of countless local sports fans and Boston’s sporting press.
But “Breakers” it was to be. In May of 2000, each of the eight WUSA franchises received three players from the United States Women’s National Team tha captivated the nation during the World Cup ten months earlier. The U.S. National Teamers – known as “Founders” since they also had a small equity stake in the league – were meant to form both the talent nucleus and the marketing tent poles for each franchise. The Breakers received All-Universe midfielder Kristine Lilly and stalwart defender Kate Sobrero. The team’s third allocation, however, was a bust. Tracy Ducar, the USWNT’s reserve goalkeeper, suffered an eye-injury late in the WUSA’s 2001 debut season and was thereafter unseated by less-heralded Canadian National Team goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc for the Breakers starting job.
The burden of scoring goals fell to the Breakers’ international signings. Boston received German National Team stars Maren Meinert and Bettina Wiegmann along with the Norwegian duo of Ragnhild Gulbrandsen (who would join in 2002) and Dagny Mellgren. Though Gulbrandsen would disappoint and Wiegmann retired after two seasons, Meinert and Mellgren quickly emerged as premier scoring threats, with Lilly often setting the table with deft assists.
Despite fine individual performances from the likes of Lilly, Meinert, Mellgren and a previously unheralded University of Virginia midfielder named Angela Hucles, the Breakers disappointed as a team during the first two seasons of the WUSA. Under Head Coach Jay Hoffman, the team finished 6th place and out of the playoffs in both campaigns. The Breakers were also something of a Jekyll & Hyde club – virtually unbeatable at home, where they had established one of the most loyal followings in the WUSA, but unable to perform consistently on the road.
The club’s fortunes turned in 2003 with the hiring of Swedish manager Pia Sundhage to take over for Hoffman. The Breakers finally became a tough road team, equaling their success at home. Meinert was phenomenal at the top of the attack, winning league Most Valuable Player honors. At 10-4-7, the Breakers finished top of the table in the WUSA’s regular season. However, Boston was bounced on penalty kicks in the playoff semi-final by the eventual league champion Washington Freedom.
One month later, the WUSA abruptly closed its doors on September 15, 2003. There were inklings that the league was in trouble. The league cut roster sizes from 18 to 16 following the 2002 season and dropped the salary cap from $834,500 to $595,750. The “Founders” (mostly) accepted large pay cuts. But it wasn’t enough. While attendance was not far off from expectations, corporate sponsorship for the league never hit critical mass. Still, the timing of the shutdown shocked many outside observers, coming just five days before the start of the 2003 Women’s World Cup – which would be held in the United States once again, thanks to the SARS outbreak creating havoc in China, the original host of the tournament.
A lackluster effort to revive corporate support for the WUSA through a series of neutral-site “festivals” in the summer of 2004 flopped. From 2008 through 2008, there was no top-flight women’s pro soccer league in North America. When a new league – Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) – began play in 2009, a franchise was quickly awarded to Boston, based upon the warm reception to the WUSA-era Breakers club. The WPS franchise revived the Breakers name and logo. The “New” Breakers of 2009 included three veterans of the original 2001-2003 Breakers club – Angela Hucles, Kristine Lilly and seldom-used Mary-Frances Monroe. The team also featured several front office holdovers who returned to work for the new club, including Team President Joe Cummings, who launched both editions of the team.
The new/2009 edition of the Breakers remains active today in 2014 as a member of the National Women’s Soccer League.
==Boston Breakers Matches on Fun While It Lasted==
Here we have a terrific program that Fun While It Lasted recently acquired from the collection of women’s basketball historian John Molina. This comes from a rare college/pro doubleheader hosted by the Old Dominion University Lady Monarchs in November 1980. The front end of the double dip was a pre-season exhibition game between the Chicago Hustle and the Dallas Diamonds of the short-lived Women’s Professional Basketball League (1978-1981).
At the time, Old Dominion was the powerhouse team in women’s college basketball. In 1980, the Lady Monarchs were two-time defending AIAW national champions. And the Norfolk, Virginia school produced the top two draft picks in the 1980 Women’s Professional Basketball League draft. Nancy Lieberman, widely considered the greatest female basketball player in the United States, went #1 overall to the Dallas Diamonds. After a three-month holdout, Lieberman signed a record-breaking $100,000 contract with the financially shaky Diamonds, double the benchmark $50K deal inked by UCLA’s Ann Meyers a year earlier. 6′ 5″ Danish center Inge Nissen went #2 overall to the Hustle. No less dominant than Lieberman, Nissen cut a much lower public (and financial) profile.
The University imported the Diamonds and the Hustle for this pre-season tune-up and then retired Lieberman and Nissen’s numbers at halftime of the ODU-James Madison contest that followed. According to The Associated Press, it was the first time a university retired the jerseys of its alumni in the (relatively short) history of women’s college basketball.
To the delight of the ODU faithful, Lieberman (20 pts. for Dallas) and Nissen (18 pts. for Chicago) led all scorers in Dallas’ 80-66 victory.
Despite losing two future Hall of Famers in Lieberman and Nissen in 1980, the cupboard was hardly bare at Old Dominion heading into the 1980-81 college basketball season. For one thing, the Lady Monarchs still had the unstoppable 6′ 8″ sophomore center Anne Donovan. Lieberman (appearing “short” at 5′ 10″), Donovan and Nissen are pictured on the cover of the evening’s game program (above right). ESPNW writer Mechelle Voepel notes that the iconic photo of the three future Hall-of-Famers hung in the ODU Field House for years.
Donovan would lead the Lady Monarchs to a third consecutive Final Four appearance in 1981. But unlike Lieberman and Nissen, she would never get the chance to play pro basketball in the United States. The Women’s Professional Basketball League folded in 1981 at the conclusion of Lieberman and Nissen’s rookie seasons. Donovan played overseas and gold medals with the U.S. Olympic team in 1984 and 1988.
Donovan and Lieberman were enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in the mid-1990’s. Both went on to coach in the WNBA and Donovan coached the U.S. women to Olympic Gold in 2008. Inge Nissen, as always, has remained in the background in comparison to her legendary ODU teammates. Nissen was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2012, but still lacks that most basic credential of modern day notoriety – her own Wikipedia entry.