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50 Years of ’Cuse Women’s Athletics

Syracuse celebrates women’s varsity sports, which have transformed the Orange into a Division 1 powerhouse.
Women athletes throw caps at graduation.

Women’s sports contribute to the Orange’s 95% graduation success rate, one of the highest in the NCAA.

Syracuse University has fielded 14 women’s intercollegiate athletics programs, contributing to a rich legacy of student-athlete success. To commemorate the 1971 debut of women’s athletics, a celebration of 50 Years of ’Cuse Women’s Athletics is taking place during the 2021-22 seasons.

The First 50 Years

Women’s athletics at Syracuse date back to 1898, when members of the classes of 1900-01 organized a public game of basketball. The event was followed by various women’s intercollegiate contests and the construction of the Women’s Gym.

Fast forward to the early ’70s with the founding of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) and the passage of Title IX, prohibiting sex discrimination on campus. These milestones paved the way for Syracuse’s first season of women’s sports in 1971-72. Supported by a $1,000 annual budget, Orange women initially competed in basketball, fencing, swimming and diving, tennis and volleyball.

Archive women's rowing team posed image.

Since its inception in 1977, the rowing team has competed in nine NCAA championships, achieving a program-best 10th in 2021.

These programs and others flourished over the next decade, thanks to the appointment of Doris Soladay as the University’s first women’s athletics director and the NCAA’s absorption of the AIAW.

Today, women’s intercollegiate sports at Syracuse encompass basketball, cross country, field hockey, ice hockey, lacrosse, rowing, soccer, softball, swimming and diving, tennis, indoor and outdoor track and field, and volleyball. Many of these programs have succeeded on the national stage:

1985 women's basketball team.

With seconds left on the clock, the Orange beat Villanova, 57-56, to win the 1985 BIG EAST championship.

  • The women’s basketball team has participated in 12 NCAA tournaments, including the 2016 national championship. It also was crowned the 1985 BIG EAST champion.
  • Women’s cross country has qualified for nine NCAA championships in the past 12 seasons, finishing a program-best 10th in 2010.
  • The field hockey team won Syracuse’s first women’s national title in 2015. The program also has earned nine conference and six tournament championships.
  • The women’s ice hockey team has reached the College Hockey America championship game nine times, claiming the tournament title in 2019 and 2022. The team clinched the CHA regular season championship in 2022, the first in program history. The team also has played in two NCAA tournaments.
CHA Champions 2019.

The ice hockey program, which notched its 200th win on Jan. 29, 2022, boasts some the best players in the country.

  • Women’s lacrosse has appeared in 18 NCAA tournaments, advancing to three national championships and seven Final Four games. The program owns one ACC and three BIG EAST titles.
  • The rowing team has competed in nine NCAA championships, achieving a program-best 10th in 2021.
  • Women’s soccer participated in its first NCAA tournament in 1998. The team finished third in the BIG EAST standings in 2011-12, before moving to the ACC in 2013.
  • The softball program advanced to the NCAA tournament three times in a row from 2010-12.
Women's lacross team poses with ACC championship sign.

Women’s lacrosse is one of the Orange’s winningest programs, having appeared in three national championships and seven Final Four games.

  • The women’s swimming and diving team garnered 18 BIG EAST individual and relay championships before closing doors in 2009.
  • The tennis program has punched its ticket to the NCAA tournament four times, in addition to sweeping the inaugural BIG EAST championship in 1982.
  • Women’s track and field has produced 21 All-Americans, six individual ACC titles and 80 individual BIG EAST championships.
  • The volleyball team, which earned its first NCAA tournament bid in 2018, has collected more than 900 wins.

First in Academics

A group of students in cap and gowns.

Female student-athletes account for 45% of Syracuse’s athletics program.

The University’s 265 female student-athletes account for 45% of the entire athletics program. Women athletes, of whom 65 self-identify as international, are enrolled in 77 majors across 10 schools and colleges on campus.

Women’s sports are integral to the Orange’s 95% graduation success rate (GSR), one of the nation’s highest. The tennis and volleyball programs have achieved 100% GSRs every year for the past decade. Moreover, the women’s basketball, soccer, rowing and ice hockey programs often boast perfect GSR scores.

First Women’s Athletic Scholarships

Female tennis player.

Abbe Seldin ’78 was the first female student-athlete to win a tennis scholarship.

When Abbe Seldin ’78 enrolled at Syracuse in 1974, the idea of a woman receiving an athletic scholarship was just that—an “idea.” Until she persuaded then Chancellor Melvin Eggers otherwise. “I told him that I loved playing tennis and needed the support of women’s athletics to get going on some Title IX issues,” recalls Seldin, who battled gender discrimination in high school with help from Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

In 1975, Seldin became part of the first cohort of female student-athletes to receive scholarships. She was joined by Karen Cohen ’77 (volleyball and basketball), Susan Helmrich ’77 (swimming and diving), Heidi Mahler ’77 (field hockey as well as swimming and diving), Leila Shahbender ’76 (swimming and diving) and Harriet Novarr (volleyball and basketball).

Today, 196 women—a third of all Syracuse student-athletes—are on scholarship.

First Athlete of the Year

Before the Summer Olympics, the international field hockey career and the NCAA championship, Alyssa Manley ’16 epitomized leadership on and off the pitch. Her efforts caught the attention of The Collegiate Women Sports Awards, which earned the talented midfielder the 2015 Honda Sports Award—a Syracuse first. For more than four decades, the award has recognized the nation’s top women athletes in 12 NCAA-sanctioned sports.

Women on field in middle of field hockey game.

Alyssa Manley ’16 (right) was the Orange’s first recipient of the Honda Sports Award, given to the best female student-athlete in each of the NCAA’s 12 sports.

“Alyssa is one of the most humble, hard-working people you’d ever meet,” says Head Coach Ange Bradley of the ACC Defensive Player of the Year and the three-time All-American.

Manley, who started 66 straight games and recorded 80 points at Syracuse, joined the U.S. women’s national team after graduation. “I give it my all so that at the end of the game, I don’t wish I had done more,” says the former Orange captain.

First Women’s Athletics Director

A pioneer of gender equality in sport, Doris Soladay was the Orange’s first—and only—women’s athletics director from 1975-84. Her influence extended well beyond campus, where she helped reshape national sports within the guidelines of Title IX.

Woman cuts ribbon at rowing boat dedication.

Doris Soladay (with bottle) at a boat christening ceremony in her honor. She was the first women’s athletics director from 1975-84.

Soladay came to Syracuse in 1960 from the University of Colorado Boulder. Over the next 35 years, she shone as a beloved professor and pioneering administrator, working alongside Director of Athletics Jake Crouthamel to elevate men’s and women’s sports at Syracuse. Soladay also played key roles at the NCAA, The BIG EAST Conference, the Eastern College Athletic Conference and the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women.

The Soladay Award, which annually recognizes Syracuse’s top male and female senior student-athletes, is named for Doris, who died in 2001.

First Women’s National Title

Women team national champions pose.

The field hockey program has nine conference and six tournament championships under its belt. ­ ­

The field hockey program notched Syracuse’s first NCAA women’s title in 2015 with a 4-2 win over North Carolina. The championship capped a 21-1 season, earning Head Coach Ange Bradley top honors from the ACC and National Field Hockey Coaches Association. “I’m numb. I’ve been chasing this dream for 25 years,” she told reporters following the victory. “I have no feeling because it’s so unreal.”

The Orange have boasted the ACC’s winningest record since joining the league—arguably field hockey’s most competitive—in 2013.

First Women’s Jersey Retirement

Legette-Jack at jersey retirement.

Basketball standout Felisha Legette-Jack ’89 at her jersey retirement ceremony last fall.

The Orange made history on Nov. 14, 2021, when the jersey of women’s basketball standout Felisha Legette-Jack ’89 was raised to the rafters during a home game against Notre Dame. “There’s nothing special about me,” said the veteran coach during the halftime ceremony. “I’ve just put in the work.”

Felisha Legette-Jack.

At Syracuse, Legette-Jack amassed 1,526 points and 927 rebounds.

The first female student-athlete to have her number retired at Syracuse, Legette-Jack—along with rower Anna Goodale ’05 and lacrosse player Katie Rowan Thomson ’09—also is the first woman to have her uniform retired.

Legette-Jack was a freshman when she led the Orange to their first BIG EAST title in 1985. The conference’s rookie of the year went on to rack up 1,526 points and 927 rebounds—records that still stand—and become a three-time all-league player.

Since 2012, Legette-Jack has served as head coach of the Buffalo Bulls women’s basketball team, where she is the winningest coach in program history.

First All-Americans

Syracuse has produced more than a hundred All-American student-athletes—players selected by coaching associations and the national media as the best in their respective positions.

group of the women's lacrosse team celebrates.

The following are the Orange’s first female All-Americans by sport:

1978: Robin Butler ’80, Wendy Evans ’79, Patsy Klotz ’80 and Liz Vilbert ’81 (relay swimming)

1981: Kim Dick ’82 (basketball)

1987: Diane DiPhillips ’87 (track and field)

1991: Kelly Larkin ’92 (field hockey)

1994: Jana Strnadova ’96 (tennis)

1996: Tyla Brennan ’99 (soccer)

1999: Katrina Hable ’01 (lacrosse)

2000: Jillian Kott ’02 (rowing)

2004: Kelly Duan ’06 (volleyball)

2006: Alexis Switenko ’06 (softball)

2011: Lauren Penny ’12 (cross country)

This story was updated on March 11, 2022.

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