Townsend: A pioneer in women’s sports
LVN Editor Emeritus
RENO — More than one century ago, the pioneering spirit led to the founding of Fallon and the establishment of many small ranching communities scattered from Leeteville to Stillwater.
Little did the Lahontan Valley know it had another pioneering spirit in the mid-1970s. Ellen Townsend, the 1975 Churchill County High School salutatorian, was inducted into the first Greenwave Hall of Fame two years ago because of her involvement with high school athletics and, later, she became a trendsetter in three sports at the University of Nevada.
The Nevada Athletics Hall of Fame inducted an all-female class Thursday at its annual dinner and then recognized the nine athletes during halftime of Saturday’s football game. Nevada joined the National Women’s Athletic Association in 1919.
“We wanted to celebrate the anniversary because we felt it was important for our women and all the achievements they had,” said Rhonda Lundin Bennett, Nevada’s senior associate athletics director/senior woman administrator.
It was both a rewarding and emotional night for Townsend and the other athletes who excelled in a number of sports to include rifle, volleyball, basketball and softball. For Townsend and three multi-sport stars from the 1970s — Pat Hixson, Regina Ratigan and Cindy Rock — the road to achieving Wolf Pack immortality took a winding road at the high school level. Townsend, who became the first Fallon female athlete inducted into the Nevada Athletics Hall of Fame, played collegiate volleyball, softball and women’s basketball from the mid-to-late 1970s.
“We were at a disadvantage because there weren’t many high school sports,” Townsend said of the girls’ programs.
The federal government decided to do something about gender inequality with the passage of a bill designed to level the playing field between male and female athletics. Congress passed Title IX of the federal Education Amendments Act of 1972 that states, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”
Townsend, though, remembers how one Fallon coach made a difference for her. The late Mark Winans, who will be inducted into this year’s Greenwave Hall of Fame, saw potential in a gifted athlete.
“He was awesome,” Townsend immediately said of her mentor. “First of all, he let me try out as a junior for JV basketball. I didn’t make it, but he said, ‘You could practice with us (on varsity).’ Then he started the golf team and convinced me to go out, and we won a state championship. He was just a great person, and obviously he died way too young.”
Townsend also played volleyball, which was a Girls Athletic Association sport in the early 1970s.
Years after graduating from CCHS, Townsend visited Winans several times when he was living in Medford, Ore., and she always had the same, warm feeling about her former coach.
“He was passionate about basketball, but he loved his family too,” she said.
Winans pushed Townsend to excel and to believe in herself. She became a state field champion and record holder in the softball throw and held state records in the shot put and discus in 1975. Six years later, Townsend was named Fallon’s female Athlete of the Decade for the 1970s.
At Nevada, Townsend showed her athletic abilities in three sports, and according to the university, she was instrumental in the development of women’s sports in the post-Title IX era by helping to lead the Wolf Pack to three NCIAC titles in 1976-77 in volleyball, women’s basketball and softball.
According to the university, “Records of women’s athletics from this era are scarce but (Townsend) is widely considered to be one of the top female athletes from this era by her teammates.”
Townsend played third base and led the softball team in on-base percentage in 1976 (.531), doubles (three), triples (six) and runs batted in (15) as a freshman. She also batted in 16 runs in 1977. She led the volleyball team with 230 assists in 1977 and also had 25 digs and eight aces that year.
Townsend remembers the volleyball team qualifying for the regional tournament at the University of California, Davis. Nevada upset one of the top teams there, Cal Poly Pomona.
“It was real thrilling to do that,” she recalled. “We came to play and won. We expected to win.”
That year the Wolf Pack advanced to the national tournament.
“It was a great experience,” she added.
Townsend’s own passion for volleyball, however, has allowed her to see the progression of women’s sports for the past three decades from a front-row seat as a referee.
“The best place to watch Nevada volleyball is from the court — playing, coaching or officiating,” she said. “I’ve seen some fantastic athletes like Tristin and Carly (Fallon’s Tristin Adams and Carly Sorensen, both of whom played for Nevada from 2003-06). Since I started, I’m seeing a lot more opportunities, a lot more money put into things like professional sports.”
Townsend also has a word of advice for athletes. Don’t become one-dimensional. She said athletes should play a number of sports like they do in Fallon and other similar communities.
“We can all help each other,” she said.
Bennett, who came to Reno in 2005, said Townsend, Hixson, Ratigan and Rock, along with former women’s coach, athletic director and Hall of Fame member Dr. Luella J. Lilly, set the foundation for women’s sports at Nevada.
“Many played right after Title IX,” Bennet said. “We had started complying with Title IX and trying to figure out what to do with it. They were really the trailblazers. They went to college world series, nationals, regionals. It was important for us to recognize them and showcase the achievements they had.”
During Thursday’s dinner when the athlete discussed their experiences at Nevada, Bennett said she was impressed with their stories. She described the stories as inspirational, and each tale told of a journey each women traveled to play in athletics. Bennett said women didn’t have as many opportunities in the early to mid 1970s as they do now, but Nevada did offer basketball, volleyball and softball, and the teams were competitive.
“We were tracking high-level talent, out-of-state talent,” Bennett said. “This is a tribute to Dr. Lilly and the presidents at the time, and Dick Trachok (retired athletic director).We really had women’s sports at a high level.”
Bennett said this year’s Hall of Fame inductions will be long remembered, not only for the women but also for Nevada and the many communities each inductee represents. Being a part of this historic event was also not lost with Townsend’s family and friends. They attended the dinner with Townsend and cheered, and others displayed signs of support for her prior to the halftime recognition at the football game.
“It was fantastic,” Bennett said of the support. “We reconnected with so many women who played here in the 1970s and 80s. We were able to bring back so many people.”