Before the Golden Suns: Celebrating 50 Years of Title IX

1955 Wonder Girls State AAU Champions
Members of the 1955 AAU women's basketball team from Arkansas Tech were: (front row, left-to-right) Betty Lynch, Liz Parker, Shirley Mullens, Carol Turney; (second row, left-to-right) Shirley Ward, Sue Price, Helen Ruth Camfield, Wanda DuMond; (third row, left-to-right) Ila Koone, Jane Mason, Coach Margaret Wilson, Helen Sue Camfield and Jean Sanders.

Editor’s note: In observance of the 50th anniversary of Title IX, we share this retrospective on the origins of the women’s basketball program at Arkansas Tech University and the role it played in building opportunities for all female student-athletes at Arkansas Tech.

Forty-five years of Arkansas Tech Golden Suns intercollegiate women’s basketball have yielded a distinguished list of accomplishments and immeasurable good will for the university throughout the United States.

Arkansas Tech has won more than 1,000 women’s basketball games and the Golden Suns have an all-time winning percentage of .776.

Two NAIA national championships, one NCAA Division II national runner-up finish and seven national tournament semifinal appearances are proudly noted by banners that hang in Tucker Coliseum.

Add 26 regular season conference championships, 25 trips to national tournaments and 18 All-Americans, and it becomes obvious why the name Golden Suns has become synonymous with excellence in women’s college basketball.

The record books tell us this remarkable story of Arkansas Tech women’s basketball began in 1977.

That is a true statement, as that was the year in which women’s basketball became an official intercollegiate sport sponsored by the ATU Department of Athletics.

But 1977 was far from the first time that a group of young women came together on the Arkansas Tech campus for the cause of putting a leather ball through an iron hoop.

Early Days

Agricola yearbook archives indicate that women’s basketball was played on the Tech campus as early as 1914.

Women’s teams from Tech played limited schedules throughout the mid-to-late 1920s under the direction of coaches Nora Brown and Edna Hood Ferguson. The team is referred to as the Wonderettes as early as the 1927 Agricola.

The 1931 team might have been the best of those early Tech women’s squads. Star players such as Myrthinne Moore, Bonna Dale Van Dalsem, Mary Ellen Morgan and Ester Mears led the 1931 Tech women’s team to a 5-2 record, including two wins over both Henderson State and College of the Ozarks (now University of the Ozarks).

But that was the last major note of women’s basketball on the Tech campus for two decades. The 1932 Agricola indicates that as the school made a full transition from agricultural high school to junior college, the women’s team found great difficulty in scheduling games. By 1935, women’s sports at Tech became purely intramural in nature.

That all changed in 1951. That was when a physical education teacher named Elizabeth Davis and a group of 18 female students created Tech’s first formalized women’s basketball team of the post-World War II era. The 1951 team is noted in the Agricola as the Wonder Ladies.

Those were the days long before the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) or the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) delved into women’s athletics.

That day would not arrive until more than three decades later.

Fortunately for the female athletes at Arkansas Tech, the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) did offer opportunities for young women to participate in competitive sports.

Tech’s women’s basketball team went to the AAU State Tournament for the first time in 1952 under the direction of coaches Deward Dopson and Bruce Smith, both of whom had recently completed their playing careers with the Wonder Boys basketball program.

The 1952 Tech AAU women’s squad adopted the nickname Wonder Girls. It was a moniker that stuck for 15 years.

That year was beneficial training in the art of coaching for Dopson — the All-Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference center later coached the Arkansas Tech Wonder Boys to the 1970 NAIA National Tournament. But he and Smith were just filling in as the Wonder Girls’ coaches in 1952 until a more permanent leader could be found.

That leader emerged in the fall of 1952 when Dr. Margaret Wilson joined the physical education faculty at Tech.

A graduate of the University of Arkansas, Wilson took charge of the Wonder Girls AAU team in 1953 with Polly Lefler and Maxine Martin as the co-captains of her first Tech squad.

State Champions

After steadily building her team during the 1953 and 1954 seasons, Wilson took the Wonder Girls to the 1955 AAU State Tournament with hopes of bringing home the title for the first time ever.

Tech defeated Little Rock Independents 46-44 in the first round and then avenged a pair of regular-season losses to traditional power Beebe Junior College by defeating it 33-32 in the semifinals.

That set a championship match-up with Cabot. It was another barn burner, but that was nothing new for the Wonder Girls. Tech emerged with a 38-36 win behind all-state selections Jean Sanders and Liz Parker.

The Wonder Girls went on to compete in the 1955 AAU National Tournament at St. Joseph, Mo., the same town that later hosted Arkansas Tech women’s basketball teams in 2010 and 2011 for the NCAA Division II Elite Eight.

In 1955, Tech was paired against Nashville Business College in the first round of the AAU National Tournament.

Nashville Business College and Wayland College (now Wayland Baptist University) were to AAU women’s basketball then what Tennessee and Connecticut have been to NCAA Division I women’s basketball in the modern era.

Nashville Business and Wayland combined to win 21 AAU national championships and finish as AAU national runner-up 15 times from 1940-76.

Needless to say, NBC was the toughest opponent that the fledgling Arkansas Tech AAU women’s team had ever faced. Nashville Business College defeated the Wonder Girls 36-14, one of 689 career wins for legendary Nashville Business head coach John Head.

End of the Wilson Era

The years that followed brought plenty of individual accolades for the Tech AAU squad, but never the team success that the 1955 Wonder Girls enjoyed.

Nancy Biggs, Judy Martin, Sue Carol Brunner, Lou Nell McCraw and Geneva Sanders were among Tech’s standout players and all-state AAU performers during the late 1950s.

After Coreta Cowart coached the team in 1958 and 1959, Wilson returned to the helm of the program in 1960. That season saw Kalynn Wilson and Burla Hedden earn all-state honors for the Wonder Girls.

Wilson restored the program to a competitive level. Tech finished as state runner-up in 1962. The 1963 Tech AAU squad might have earned the Wonder Girls’ second state title were it not for Stuttgart’s home court advantage in the semifinal round.

Two years later, Tech was stunned by a buzzer beater in the semifinals of the 1965 AAU State Tournament. It was Wilson’s final game as Wonder Girls’ head coach.

Barbara Pugh, Barbara Mattox and Wilma Laffoon were among the all-state players on Wilson’s final few Tech teams.

Building for the Future

Eva Harrell took over as head coach in 1966. Her arrival coincided with that of a freshman named Ann Welch, who went on to earn multiple AAU All-State awards and an invitation to try out for the first-ever United States women’s basketball team in the Olympics.

The Tech women’s team saw another name change in 1967. As had been the case in the 1920s, the team came to be known as the Wonderettes.

Welch, her sister Caroline Welch and Carolyn Butler formed the nucleus of Tech women’s teams that finished third in the AAU State Tournament in 1966 and 1968.

Sherma Granger, Janice Green, Marcia Short and Brenda Snow are also noted in the Agricola yearbooks of that time as key contributors for the Wonderettes.

Coaches Annette Gathright and then Judy Kee guided the Wonderettes through their final few seasons of competition.

The 1969 Tech women’s squad was the first to only play against teams from other colleges. During the AAU days, the schedule often included club teams from around the state and country.

The new era included participation the Arkansas Women’s Extramural Sports Association, which later evolved to become the Arkansas Women’s Intercollegiate Sports Association.

The Wonderettes took second place in the organization’s tournament in 1970, and they finished in a three-way tie for first place in the AWESA in 1972.

The final few seasons of extramural women’s basketball at Tech did not yield as much success on the court, but there was one final contribution to be made to the future of women’s athletics at Arkansas Tech.

That came during the 1975-76 academic year, when the female student-athletes on campus voted to change their nickname to Golden Suns.

When the athletic department added women’s basketball, women’s volleyball and women’s tennis in advance of the 1977-78 academic year, the new nickname was adopted as well.

A Proud Legacy

Today, Golden Suns basketball is known far and wide thanks to the success of coaches Jim Yeager, Jim Dickerson, Joe Foley, Todd Schaefer and Dave Wilbers.

The name has also been made great by All-America women’s basketball student-athletes such as Sherry Raney, Donna Brunson, Lanell Dawson, Cindi Patton, Kala Cooley, Amanda Hill, Stephanie Strack, Alison Setliff, Dawn Grell, Carin Pinion, Kim Stephens, Heather Campbell, Jennifer Richardson. Amanda Grappe, Jenny Vining, Natalia Santos, Rosie Silva and Fatima Adams.

What began with basketball has expanded to include six additional intercollegiate sports for women at Arkansas Tech — cross country, golf, softball, tennis, track and field and volleyball. Each has contributed to the competitive success of ATU athletics at the conference, regional and national levels while simultaneously providing scholarship opportunities that were historically unavailable to women.

Coach Margaret Wilson and players like Jean Sanders, Liz Parker and Ann Welch are the pioneers who helped bring those opportunities into reality.

They and the rest of the Wonder Ladies, Wonder Girls and Wonderettes will always be remembered for how they opened the door to women’s athletics on campus and set a foundation for the success that followed.