Broken barriers: Pioneer women in BYU sports

Broken barriers: Pioneer women in BYU sports

Story and cover art by Jeff Salcedo

This story is part of the March 2022 issue of The Daily Universe Magazine.

An intercollegiate women’s basketball game between Brigham Young Academy and the University of Utah 123 years ago kick-started BYU’s history of women’s intercollegiate sports.

In the century-plus of women’s sports at BYU, the school went through some key moments in its growth: The first BYU women’s sport became sanctioned in 1969, Title IX was passed by United States Congress, Elaine Michaelis guided BYU women’s sports as director of women’s intercollegiate athletics, softball became the last sanctioned sports added in 2000 and the men’s and women’s athletics department would merge together in 2004, helping BYU women’s sports grow in the process.

Subsequently, five national championships, hundreds of all-Americans, thousands of student-athletes, an ensuing move to a Power 5 conference and full-team NIL deals have encompassed BYU’s rich history of women’s sports since that inaugural basketball game against Utah.

“(BYU’s women’s sports) is having so much success,” former BYU women’s sports publicist Norma Collett Bertoch said. “Every one of our women’s sports programs consistently rank in the top 25, they consistently win conference championships, they consistently win and compete at the national level.”

BYU wouldn’t be where it is today in women’s sports without a few key individuals helping to set the foundation and break barriers along the way. The Daily Universe Sports team spent several weeks looking through the historical accomplishments of female athletes at BYU and compiled a list of those whose contributions helped lay the foundation for the Cougars’ incredible success.   

Leona Holbrook

When Leona Holbrook first came to BYU as the head of the women’s Department of Physical Education in 1937, intercollegiate women’s sports was a far cry to what it would become by her retirement in 1974.

At the time of Holbrook’s appointment, female athletes at BYU had sparse opportunities to compete in intercollegiate sporting events. “Female athletes could only participate in a limited way in a handful of sports,” as her BYU Hall of Fame induction puts it. 

Three years later, the landscape of BYU women’s sports would be flipped on its head under Holbrook’s supervision. 

Basketball, softball, tennis, volleyball, badminton, field hockey and skiing all became available for BYU female athletes to play in 1940, the first four of which continue to be played at BYU under NCAA sanctioning. 

Throughout her tenure, Holbrook would emphasize the importance of continuing efforts to grow women’s sports in the nation.

“We have our women’s ways. We have the desire and the dedication,” Holbrook said. “The future is certain. We must make some certain designs for participation in women’s sports in America.”

Holbrook would do her own part in providing female athletes with sporting opportunities as she guided over 400 BYU athletes in intercollegiate competition during her tenure.

Although Holbrook never directly worked to get women’s sports sanctioned during her time, her efforts in expanding women’s sports at BYU helped set the foundation for the transition into sanctioned play. 

Leona Holbrook (right) chats with students in the 1930s. (BYU Library)

1969 women’s volleyball team

After decades of BYU women’s sports competing in unsanctioned intercollegiate play, the 1969 women’s volleyball squad broke ground in becoming the first BYU women’s sport to compete in sanctioned play. 

The Cougars broke the sanctioned sports barrier by competing in the Division for Girls’ and Womens’ Sports (DWGS) Nationals. 

BYU was impressive on the court, finishing the season with a 19-3 record, but its legacy goes beyond volleyball. 

Shortly after women’s volleyball entered sanctioned play, sanctioned women’s sports would boom at BYU. Basketball, gymnastics and swimming and diving would become sanctioned in 1972, followed by tennis the next year. 

The growth of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIWA), which followed the passing of Title IX, gave female collegiate athletes a chance to compete under sanctioning. 

BYU took full advantage of AIWA’s growth as sanctioned women’s sports grew to seven before the end of the 1970s as golf joined in 1976 and track and field joined in 1978.

The AIWA would dissolve after serving as the primary sanctioning board for intercollegiate women’s sports for a decade, with the NCAA replacing it as the primary governing board for intercollegiate women’s sports.

The transition to the NCAA would prove to be no problem for BYU, as it continued to expand with soccer in 1995 and softball in 2000.

Currently, BYU competes under NCAA sanctioning with 10 women’s sports, a substantial growth since the 1969 volleyball team took the court in the DWGS nationals.

Lu Wallace

The passing of Title IX saw the expansion of women’s sports across the nation. 

Lu Wallace, the women’s athletics administrator, played a key part in helping expand women’s sports at BYU. 

Wallace, like Holbrook, got her start at BYU as a physical education teacher in 1956. Wallace also served as women’s gymnastics head coach for 13 years, winning eight ICCWPE titles during her stint. 

On top of her teaching and coaching endeavors, Wallace moved into the sports administrative world in 1972 as the passing of Title IX allowed for newfound growth in women’s sports. 

It was Wallace’s task to help BYU intercollegiate women’s sports grow in her position and throughout her 23 years as women’s athletic administrator, she brought BYU intercollegiate women’s sports to new heights. 

“Lu Wallace is arguably the single biggest reason BYU’s women’s athletics is where it is today,” former BYU swimming head coach Stan Crump said of Wallace in 1995.

Wallace’s first innovative move was to offer 11 female athletes athletic scholarships in 1973, the first year the AIWA allowed so. 

Wallace also navigated the ever-evolving sanctioned women’s sports world for BYU as she led the Cougars in their transition to the NCAA from the AIWA. She also guided BYU in their conference realignments from the Intermountain Athletic Conference to the High Country Athletic Conference to the Western Athletic Conference, where the Cougars resided in when Wallace retired. 

Wallace’s legacy and work still lives on to this day as her work of compiling 100 years of BYU women’s sports continues to be used by BYU sports administrators. 

“It’s a remarkable history and (the book) is something that we use all the time,” BYU Senior Director of Athletic Communications Duff Tittle said. “Literally, like several times a month, I go to that book when we’re researching a question that a member of the media has or former players looking for information.”

Lu Wallace poses in her last interview as women’s athletic administrator. (BYU Magazine)

Ellen Larsen

Ellen Larsen broke into the male-dominated field of sports administration by becoming the first women sports information director at BYU in 1976.

Larsen, one of the first women SIDs in the nation, started out in her administrative role with the women’s volleyball team before transitioning to working with all women’s sports. 

A part of Larsen’s role was to gather information on players, teams and results, which live to this day. Much of the historical data that media and BYU fans view online are the result of Larsen’s work over the years. 

“Without her we’re missing a lot of the history of women’s athletics,” Tittle said. “She was responsible during her time there to make sure we had historical records: win-loss record, rosters of all the previous teams, stats and data.”

Larsen’s work even transcended technology. 

“Now it’s all online, but at one point it was taken from stuff she had created and then we put it online,” Tittle said.

Without Larsen’s work, the history of BYU women’s sports may have been forgotten.

“I give her all the credit for all those years she was here, making sure there was a historical record in place. Before her there’s not much by way of women’s records,” Tittle said.

While Larsen’s dutiful work lives on, she is also remembered for the passion and emotions she shared with the female athletes.

“I remember going to a cross country meet and seeing her scream her lungs out for Janeth (Caizalitin), ‘Go Janeth! Go Janeth!’” former BYU SID Ralph Zobell said.

Tina Gunn 

Female athletes found a new pathway to become the face of their university as national sanctioned play grew through the nation in the early 1970s. Tina Gunn made the most of this opportunity during her four-year basketball career at BYU.

The Florida native came across the nation to Provo with the intention of being a dual-sport athlete in basketball and volleyball. During her freshman year, in which she averaged 14.9 points per game, Gunn decided to focus solely on basketball.

Gunn’s decision proved to be a smart one.

The 6-foot-5 center led BYU to three-straight AIAW Championships Tournament appearances. Gunn led the Cougars in scoring in each of those seasons. She also improved her scoring averages every season leading up to her senior year.

As a senior, Gunn posted 31.2 points per game and 967 total points, both best in the nation, en route to first-team All-American honors.

Gunn’s scoring efficiency put her as the all-time career leading scorer at BYU, a record she still holds today. 

1997 Women’s Cross Country Team

The BYU’s women’s cross country team found itself with a unique opportunity on a brisk November day in Greenville, South Carolina in 1997: become the first women’s sports team to win a sanctioned national championship in BYU history. 

The odds weren’t in BYU’s favor, as defending national champion Stanford was expected to repeat. 

The Cougars had to do the unthinkable in order to be the first women’s team to bring a national championship to Provo: upset the overwhelming favorites, who hadn’t been defeated in over a year.

This seemingly unattainable feat slowly became a reality as the starting pistol fired off.

All-American Courtney Pugmire placed first for the Cougars with a time of 16:58, good for eighth overall. 

Fellow All-American Maggie Chan crossed the finish shortly after Pugmire to finish 13th. 

Elizabeth Jackson and Tara Haynes posted strong performances, finishing 22nd and 27th, respectively. 

Emily Nay was the last Cougar to finish in a scoring position, coming in at 33rd place and helping BYU finish with 100 points.

The 100 points proved to be enough as BYU outlasted the defending national champions by two points.

The victory not only brought BYU its first national championship in women’s sports, but set a foundation for national success at BYU.

Women’s cross country went on to win three more national championships in the next five years under head coach Patrick Shane. 

“Patrick Shane did a great job with the women’s cross country program and they got the national titles that helped lay the groundwork for the super program there,” Zobell said. 

Cross country continues to succeed at BYU in the present as they won their fifth national championship in the 2020-2021 season under head coach Diljeet Taylor. 

The success goes beyond cross country, however, as BYU women’s sports continue to compete for national titles, including a national runner-up in soccer and a Sweet 16 appearance for women’s volleyball.

The 1997 women’s cross country team poses with the national championship trophy and became the first BYU women’s sports team to win a sanctioned national championship. (

Shauna Rohbock

The BYU women’s soccer team began the 1995 season with a transition into NCAA sanctioned play, and Shauna Rohbock made sure the transition went smooth. 

Rohbock’s freshman season coincided with the inaugural sanctioned season for the Cougars. The freshman impressed for BYU as she scored 20 goals in 20 games.

Rohbock and BYU took great strides in her sophomore season. Rohbock led the Cougs to a 22-1 record and a WAC Tournament championship as she scored 35 goals in 23 games.

Year by year, Rohbock led BYU to new, uncharted territories.

In Rohbock’s junior season, BYU made its first NCAA Tournament appearance. Rohbock capped her career with two NCAA Tournament wins, the first in BYU women’s soccer history. 

Over her career, Rohbock scored 94 goals in 90 games, placing her as the career leader in goals scored, a record she holds to this day.

Erin Thorn

Erin Thorn made her mark on BYU women’s basketball history with her precision from the 3-point line.

The sharpshooter led BYU to three NCAA Tournament appearances and a MWC Tournament championship in her career.

Thorn helped the Cougars to a Sweet 16 appearance, their deepest NCAA Tournament run to date, as she scored 16 points in the upset win over Iowa State.

At the end of her career, Thorn established herself as BYU’s fourth all-time career leader in scoring and first in career 3-pointers made

Thorn was the first BYU player drafted to the WNBA and established a decade-long career in the league. 

Ashley Hatch

Ashley Hatch made an immediate impact in her freshman season for BYU women’s soccer in 2013 as she led the Cougars with six goals and seven assists. She finished her career at BYU with 47 goals, but her impact for the program goes far beyond her four seasons at South Field.

“We knew Ashley had the potential to be a phenomenal player for us and because of her work rate, her competitiveness, over her career she blossomed,” BYU women’s soccer head coach Jen Rockwood said.

Hatch became the first BYU women’s soccer player to play for the Senior United States Women’s National Team in the middle of her senior season on Oct. 19, 2016 in a friendly against Switzerland. The 18-minute-substitution debut opened the previously locked door for BYU soccer players trying to enter the ranks of the best international women’s soccer team.

“Ashley kind of broke the mold,” Rockwood said. “She’s playing with them now. She’s worked really hard, it didn’t come easy for her.”

Although Hatch went goalless in her brief debut, she returned to BYU just eight days later to score and assist in a 4-0 win against Saint Mary’s.

Three months later, Hatch went on to make BYU history again as she became the highest ever female athlete selected in a professional league draft when the North Carolina Courage selected her second overall in the NWSL Draft. 

Hatch’s knack for scoring goals didn’t go away upon her transition to the pro level as she scored seven goals to win NWSL Rookie of the Year.

Since then, Hatch has gone on to put BYU soccer on the map by winning the W-League championship, NWSL Golden Boot and a NWSL championship.

Despite her success in the pros, it took two years to get her next cap for the national team in 2018. Another three years followed for Hatch to get another national team appearance, in which she scored a goal against Denmark.

“She got that first cap, but didn’t get another invite. Then she went to the pros and won rookie of the year and this last year, through her determination and work, won the golden boot,” Rockwood said. “It’s so fun to see her development.”

Hatch’s development was on full display in the 2022 SheBelieves Cup as she helped the USWNT win the tournament by scoring a goal in two appearances.

Ashley Hatch celebrates in her United States Women’s National Team senior debut in 2016, during her senior season. (BYU women’s soccer)

Mary Lake

Most students enjoy the summer before their senior year of college back at home relaxing without a care in the world, but Mary Lake isn’t like most students.

The 5-foot-7 BYU volleyball standout was traveling the world, winning a gold medal and helping her nation qualify for the upcoming Olympics.

Lake’s defensive prowess as a libero helped her earn her first call up for the senior United States team for the Volleyball Nations League in the summer of 2019, just months away from the start of her senior season. 

“It was humbling, and I felt very grateful,” Lake said. “I wasn’t shocked because I have confidence in my abilities. I just didn’t expect them to want me to go and play with them.”

Lake and Team USA went on to win in the Volleyball Nations League, overcoming a 0-2 deficit against Brazil in the process.

Lake’s busy summer with Team USA wasn’t over after winning gold in the Volleyball Nations League, however, as she earned another call up to be a part of the Olympic Qualification Tournament team.

This tournament proved to be another success for Lake and the USA as they went undefeated in their three games to punch their ticket to Tokyo. 

Lake returned to Provo to lead the Cougars to an NCAA Tournament second-round appearance, picking up the all-time digs record at BYU in the process. She also won her third WCC first-team honors and third WCC Defensive Play of the Year.

Mary Lake poses with the Volleyball Nations League trophy after beating Brazil 3-2 in China during the 2019 summer. (BYU women’s volleyball)

Despite the growth BYU women’s sports have made throughout their history, the disparity between women’s and men’s sports at the NCAA level remains.

Just last year, women’s basketball earned the 11th seed in the NCAA Women’s Tournament after a 17-5 regular season and a WCC Conference Championship Game appearance. Their reward for accomplishing this feat? A small dumbbell rack and a few yoga mats as a weight room, a far cry compared to the brand-new squat racks, barbells and olympic lifting areas at the men’s tournament.

BYU has a rich history of athletes, coaches and administrators lifting women’s sports to where they stand now and there will be more to come, continuing to close the discrepancies between men’s and women’s sports.

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