Four for Three for IX

Four for Three for IX

Taneesha Dupree (above) and Katherin Ihnen (left) were 3-sport MCAC standouts

These multi-sport standouts add up to IX in Minnesota.

This week marks the 45th anniversary of the landmark Title IX law - legislation which forever changed the sports landscape in the U.S.-  and the topic of girls and women in sport has moved to the front burner in many publications and media environments. 

And, as the Pittsburg Gazette recently reported in their story regarding Twin's No. 1 Pick Alex Kirilloff and his Tommy John surgery, the phenomenon of youth sport specialization, and the over-use injuries associated with it, continues to garner front-page headlines.  

While it may seem that more and more athletes - regardless of gender - are focusing at continually younger ages on only one athletic endeavor, there are yet some pockets of college sports where a point guard can also be a shortstop and the center on the basketball team comes into the gym in game-shape from their fall season.

And, more often than not, that rare, multi-sport college athlete is a woman.

Women's college sports garner interest around Minnesota

As many fans around the land of 10,000 lakes shook their head at the NCAA seeding snub of the Gopher softball team this past spring or as many followed the Minnesota women's hockey team on their ride to the NCAA Women's Hockey Frozen Four, other athletes were suiting up for two or three teams at their Minnesota college of choice.   Over 20 female athletes around the Minnesota College Athletic Conference - the Minnesota State system league of two-year colleges – competed for at least two varsity teams while enrolled at a campus of the sprawling, state-wide community college association.  Even more rare, a smattering of that group found a way to shine for three different collegiate varsity squads in the same annual cycle.

The MCAC, heading into its 50th year in the fall, is comprised of community college athletic programs that can sometimes look like a good bowl of alphabet soup.   There is RCTC (Rochester Community and Technical College) found in the Med City of southeast Minnesota, and NCTC (Northland Community and Technical College), a leading two-year program in and around Thief River Falls, just an hour south of the Canadian border.  Halfway in between lies St. Cloud Technical and Community College (SCTCC), one of the few schools designated by its municipal relationship, rather than is compass or region demarcation. All told, there are sixteen in-state intercollegiate programs in the Minnesota College Athletic Conference, and regardless of north or south, east or west, metro or rural, there is a good chance female athletes are excelling for more than one team as they work towards their associate degree and perhaps a chance at a four-year college roster spot somewhere down the line.

No Sleep 'till Brooklyn

For a sports fan in Worthington, Minnesota, one can be excused if they think they are seeing triple when watching the LadyJays of Minnesota West Community and Technical College compete.  That is because, whether it's volleyball, basketball or softball season, they will have a game program in their hands with 'Katherin Ihnen' and 'Brooklyn Barnett' listed on it.   Ihnen, a freshman who hails from Round Lake, Minnesota and Barnett, a Milford, Iowa product, both compete and excel for Minnesota West in each of the main team sports offered for female athletes.  Not surprisingly, Inhen's 5'10" frame is well suited to serving as a middle-blocker (volleyball), a wing/post in hoops and a pitcher/infielder come spring time.  In contrast, the 5'5" Barnett roams the volleyball court as a setter and the hardwood in the point guard role. 

A job she shares with her triple-sport colleague however, is that as a pitcher for the LadyJays.  

Both standouts take up residence in the infield when not on the rubber and neither has far to walk when the dugout makes a change.  In fact, the two three-sport stars combined for another impressive number this past March and April; together, they accounted for all 147.2 innings pitched in softball for coach Jeff Linder's Minnesota West squad. 

Rosalie Hayenga, the women's athletic director at Minnesota West said –"I know that in today's day and age it is more and more common for kids to specialize, so it is a refreshing sight to find these athletes who love to play all three sports.  I think that is sometimes our advantage at a smaller two year school.  We often find that at a bigger school sometimes kids aren't allowed to play multiple sports, but here we encourage it and sometimes that is very attractive for a student -athlete who is not ready to give up on other sports."    

If the dual threat of Inhern-Barnett tandem wasn't enough, several long-time sport aficionados in outstate Minnesota will note the Jeff Linder is a two-sport standout himself, serving as the head football coach in the fall for the Bluejays, as well as being the LadyJay softball skipper. Not quite a three-sport career, but Linder is one of the few coaches who can claim coaching both men and women in vastly different sports in the same academic year at the college level.

Hayenga, a stand-out basketball athlete at Minnesota State-Moorhead and Worthington native went on to note:  "I think it  can be a grind at the college level, so you have to find the right kind of kid that can handle playing all 3 sports - especially during the overlap of seasons, but as I have often found these kids are special. They are hard workers and are playing because they simply love the sport.  As a coach, you can't ask for more than that."

Triple Play

Mapquest will tell you that it is a solid six-hour drive from Worthington to the Iron Range communities of Virginia and Eveleth, Minnesota but a sports fan stays in the Minnesota College Athletic Conference when doing so, and they will find more female athletes who suit up for an intercollegiate program across the fall, winter and spring seasons.

Mesabi Range College, home to the Norsemen and Lady Norse, was featured in a 2015 Mike Kasuba-penned-piece (his final Star Tribune article) highlighting the geographic and racial diversity of its football roster, with athletes hailing from Florida, Texas and other southern states,  pursuing an opportunity to compete.

This past season, another anomaly on some MRC rosters would be the appearance of one 'You, Me and (Boissy)Dupree.'  Actually, six appearances of Boissy and Dupree for the Lady Norse.  

Alexis Boissy and Taneesha Dupree tag team for Mesabi Range in volleyball, basketball and softball.  Both hail from the upper Midwest, with Boissy coming from Dresser, Wisconsin, just past the eastern edge of the metro and Dupree traveling down state road 135 from Tower, Minnesota to the Mesabi campus. 

However, with practices and competitions starting in mid-August for volleyball, stretching through a long basketball season and wrapping up with softball on the diamonds across the Range, going home was reserved only for those long holiday breaks (and likely to swap out athletic shoes).

In some college settings, it may be tough to get coaches to even agree to share their human capital in such a manner; with wins and losses looming as the main metric in some athletic departments, the idea of an athlete having allegiance to more than one sport could be difficult.  Not so at this level, according to JoJo Scott, the athletic director and volleyball coach at Mesabi Range:  "…we encourage student-athletes to continue playing all of the sports they wish to.  Davis (basketball), Brad (softball) and I work well on the women's side in recruiting multi-sport athletes."

Although three seasons may seem unpalatable to some, these athletes found it not to diminish the quality of performance; both Boissy and Dupree appeared in all 27 MRC basketball games (starting most), over 30 of the Lady Norse's 36 softball contests and 80% of the volleyball season matches.  Boissy was a All-MCAC first team performer in hoops, while also making the MCAC North All-Division softball team. Dupree's solid but supporting role for the Mesabi Range squads wasn't always recognized with external accolades, but a cursory viewing of a Mesabi Range box score- any box score, any season- showed a plethora of minutes played and impact had.

Bud, long before Bo

Certainly the three-sport-a-year model is not for every student-athlete and, regardless of gender, the dedication, time-management skills and willingness to rest when possible is likely the secret to success for Ihnen, Barnett, Dupree and Boissy.  To put this discussion in perspective, the ubiquitous 'Bo Know's' Nike campaign, featuring dual sport pro Bo Jackson, ran in the 1989-1990 advertising cycle.  Current college freshman student-athlete were born in the late 90's or early 2000's.

In the MCAC three-season set-up, the opportunity exists for a male football-basketball-baseball standout to pursue a Bud Grant, 2.0; the former head coach of the Minnesota Vikings who played football, basketball and baseball for the Gophers.  Until then, however, the small college Minnesota sports landscape will have four athletes - with three seasons - to help show the value of IX.  

Story courtesy of MCAC Sports

Photos courtesy of Mesabi Range athletics and Daily Globe sports