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The other day, a reporter from a daily newspaper in Iowa interviewed me about my new book, A Higher Level: Southwest State Women's Tennis 1979-1992.
His first question:
"What," he said, "made you write a book about a sport like tennis and a book about a team no one has ever heard about? That seems like a pretty narrow subject area, doesn't it?"
I responded quickly: "Well, it's about a lot more than tennis."
That's the short answer.
It's also the true answer.
The book certainly is about tennis, and a small-college women’s program at that. The Southwest State team from Marshall, Minnesota, was an awfully good program during the fourteen seasons I write about — rising from mere scraps (shoddy facilities, no scholarship funds, a remote geographic location) to become one of the nation’s premier small-college women’s tennis teams. The Pintos, as Southwest’s women’s sports teams were called then, produced nine All-Americans in tennis during that time, 135 all-conference or all-NAIA District players, won nine consecutive conference championships and earned important national awards. Coach Hugh Curtler was named the NAIA National Coach of the Year in 1990. Players Sharon DeRemer Williams (1984) and Leslie Jacobsen Bosch (1992) won the Arthur Ashe Award, college tennis’ most prestigious honor.
Just chronicling the success of the tennis program — not only did it dominate schools at its level, it played, and sometimes defeated NCAA Division I opponents such as Iowa State, Drake, Creighton and Wichita State — would make for an interesting chapter of southwest Minnesota history.
But it is in how the Pintos won, and what we can learn from them by considering their story, that A Higher Level becomes something more than a tennis book
Two quick ways in which this is more than a tennis book: It discusses the Pintos’ academic success — they were probably better in the classroom than they even were on the court. Curtler recruited smart players. Many were students in SSU’s Honors Program, reserved for the school’s top students. Curtler, himself a towering academic of national reputation, founded and directed the Honors Program, and therefore was closely involved in tracking and shaping their academic progress. Some became Academic All-Americans or were named their conference’s top scholar-athlete. With all that, they showed there can be a successful balance between academics and athletics.
They won while keeping their grades strong, and without cheating or corruption. That plays into a second key theme of the book: Curtler has long been troubled by the scandals and corruption of major-college sports, especially in sports like football and men’s basketball. For years, he has written about the need to do major reform before there is serious damage to the academic mission of America’s universities. Two huge scandals over the past two years — at the football programs at Ohio State and Penn State — increased his sense of urgency for reform. Author of 12 books, Curtler also continues to write a daily blog on the Internet (hughcurtler.word.press.com). In not quite a year, as the Penn State child-molestation scandal turned worse and worse, revealing not just a child predator’s monstrous acts but a football program way out of control, Curtler blogged almost twenty times about the scandal or other college football issues. At one point, he shot me an e-mail that said, ““My goodness, how we could use some real heroes—like the women who played tennis for SSU in the ‘80s!”
As essential as academic success is, there is yet another theme that runs throughout the book and which fascinates me, and which I think has much to say to us today. That is the rural prairie itself, and the Pintos’ ability to master it to great advantage. In so many ways, they were 20th-century models of the Midwest pioneer spirit, rising while so much around them — the rural economy, rural population — was falling. It was like standing head-first into a storm of locusts and emerging the better for it.
The Pintos were an interesting amalgam of players. Some landed at SSU after suffering major knee injuries that thwarted their hopes of NCAA Division I careers — they had that kind of talent. By the middle of the fourteen-year span, the roster also was dotted with international players — top juniors players from nations such as Colombia, Mexico, The Netherlands and Finland who sought a place to play college tennis in the U.S. Southwest State, and Curtler’s open-minded approach, provided the place. So the team became a mixture of Minnesota farm girls, young women from the Twin Cities suburbs, and players from the lush near-rainforest big cities of Colombia, and players from northern Europe.
There was never much scholarship money. The facilities never improved: they had outdoor courts that were constantly vulnerable to the harsh winds and cold of a Minnesota spring, with an asphalt surface hardly suitable to competitive college tennis. Indoors, they played on two makeshift courts drawn with rolls of plastic tape over the slick, hardwood basketball floor in SSU’s Old PE Gym. Opponents openly mocked those courts, and sometimes tried to boycott them.
As I write in the book: “Not only did they prove it’s possible to compete on a national level while maintaining personal and program integrity, they provide us with insights into adapting and surviving in a rural Midwest where the economy, loss of population and harsh winter weather all can be unbearable obstacles. They showed how people of diverse backgrounds … can find common purpose and unite around it. They make for an interesting, often insightful study on team-building, leadership and the use of new ideas that cuts across all kinds of disciplines. What Curtler and his players did was probably ahead of its time, and can certainly be applied today by business, government, education and other organizations and institutions looking to improve performance—or remain relevant on the plains of the rural Midwest. And they showed what the human body and mind are capable of with will-power, hard work and a belief in one’s self that, aided by the right kind of leadership and camaraderie, can lead a person back from serious injury or to success in an event where many others would simply be blown off the court.”
They were also ground-breakers, maybe not with horse and plow, but by riding the first wave of women’s college athletics that came after the federal law commonly known as Title IX was enacted in 1972. The law required public schools and universities to give females the same opportunities to play sports that males had. While it was years before women’s teams had the same quality facilities as their male counterparts, the tennis team still took the opportunity at full promise — and full throttle.
The pioneer comparison is inevitable, and accurate.
I wrote: “They became both metaphor for the arc of history in the region, and representative of the qualities needed to make good in today’s rural realities.
Just as small towns and small schools today face constant financial struggles, so did the tennis team. Just as small-town businesses face hurdles trying to recruit and retain talented employees, so did the tennis team. Just as small-town leaders and residents alike are often frustrated by the lack of resources and amenities their cities seem to lack, so, too, was the tennis team. Frustrated, but not overcome.”
On one of the first pages of A Higher Level, there is an aerial photo that shows the university in its early days in the late 1960s — buildings and a football field on the northeast edge of Marshall, surrounded almost wholly by flat farmland. There has been a lot of development over the years as the university grew, but there also have remained many farmfields and, just two miles to the northwest, one of the nation’s largest corn-ethanol processing plants opened in 1982. Once rural, always rural.
While there are harsh conditions and an isolation that drives many off the prairie, others embrace the backdrop of dark-loamed soil and, a slower pace of life, uncrowded spaces, and find it peaceful. Those who embrace it also see it as a place to turn daydream into reality, with room to think, work and build.
“[We had] success that was rooted out of nothing more than heart, determination, plus a coach who was invested in us and believed in the raw talent that stood before him. We were coachable, but unbreakable,” former player Jamie Horswell Kidder said.
“You tell a bunch of gals who attend a university in Marshall, Minnesota, which many cannot even locate on a map or ever heard of, that they can’t have the success of other large universities or private colleges, and you breed yourself [a team] that doesn’t believe in the words ‘can’t.’ How many other teams have to play on pitted outdoor courts with threadbare nets torn by the winds and gusts that stir in?”
Carolina Gomez, a native of the South American country of Colombia, underwent one of the most severe transitions to Marshall and Southwest State. Her home was near the equator, and she’d never experienced a Minnesota winter until December 1985, when she flew to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. She was transferring from the University of Tennessee to SSU, and Curtler and his wife Linda were going to pick up Gomez at the airport. Her plane landed in the middle of a full-scale Minnesota snowstorm — one that blocked roads, painted the landscape a bleak and opaque white. Gomez thought Minnesota’s bare trees were dead, and as she stared out the window of the Curtlers’ car on the 150-mile drive back to southwest Minnesota, she simply thought, “Oh, my God.”
Was she going to be one of those who was quickly driven away by the prairie’s conditions? Or would Gomez find something within her — a pioneer’s spirit, an adventurer’s heart — that would allow her to become like one of those farmers who turned unbroken soil into some of the world’s best farmland?
She became the second — overcoming her initial shock at the remoteness and the cold to eventually engage the region wholeheartedly. She married a southwest Minnesota native, became a repeat All-American on the tennis team and in 2011 was inducted into the university’s Athletic Hall of Honor. The prairie didn’t beat her. She, like so many of her teammates, learned to conquer the weather — joking she needed a physics class to adjust to playing outdoors with the wind speeds — and melded quickly, seamlessly with her new teammates. In 1989, Gomez’s last year at SSU, the roster had five players who were or would become All-Americans.
That’s not just building a sod house out in the country. That’s building a two-story, sturdy-and-big-framed home, and a barn and a machine shed — and the hardware (trophies galore) — to fill the buildings.
“Once I got to know more people at SSU—professors, students, staff—I felt at home,” Gomez told me. “I talked to professors in the hallway, to the secretaries, to the janitorial staff. Everyone was friendly. …
“Experiencing at times solitude made me open my eyes and my heart to my inner self. I learned to be alone and okay. I learned to cherish the moment. Also, I discovered a beauty in the openness of the landscape, which at first seemed too flat and uninteresting. I felt the strength of nature in the form of blizzards and the strong winds.
“Also having classmates with disabilities [SSU was a leader in making its campus accessible to those with disabilities] made me realize how lucky I was. I respected their tenacity and will to do things. I also read books like [O.E. Rolvaag’s classic immigrant pioneer novel] Giants in the Earth, and other books by local writers and professors like Bill Holm and Leo Dangel, which helped me understand even more the history and culture of the place.”
By the end of the run, by 1992, Curtler, Gomez and all the rest of the Pintos who played those fourteen seasons had done their own important bit to shape the history and culture of the place. One of my goals with A Higher Level is to remind readers of the team’s legacy, that its players went around the nation representing southwest Minnesota — and were proud to do so, proud to call the prairie home. The courts may have been pitted, as Horswell Kidder said, and the place hard to find on a map. But it was their home, and they could always find their way there.
A Higher Level: Southwest State Women’s Tennis 1979-1992 is available online through www.ellispress.com and, in Kindle form, on amazon.com. The hard-copy book will be available on Amazon after Christmas. The book is sold in Marshall at the downtown Arts Center, Fabrics Plus and the SMSU campus bookstore. It is published by Ellis Press.