Title IX: Softball and the power of support


Collin Maguire / Iowa State Daily

Iowa State plays Northern Iowa at the Cyclone Sports Complex on April 6.

Anthony Hanson

On April 26, Iowa State softball faced in-state rival Iowa at the Cyclone Sports Complex.

Having just faced undefeated Oklahoma, arguably the greatest college softball team in history, the Cyclones were on a five-game losing streak and desperately needed a bounce-back win. Iowa State also needed every win it could get to boost its RPI ranking and return to the NCAA tournament for a consecutive year.

Iowa State and Iowa hadn’t faced one another since 2019, and the outcome of the rivalry game would break a tie for the all-sport CyHawk series trophy.

Unwavering fan base

Head coach Jamie Pinkerton and company understood this was more than a non-conference game.

The Iowa State community did too.

In the stands, head basketball coach T.J. Otzelberger, basketball senior George Conditt, former wrestler Kyven Gadson and many other student-athletes showed support. Ashley Joens threw the game’s first pitch, accompanied by her women’s basketball teammates fresh off their own NCAA tournament run. 

In addition, the official announced the attendance of 1,450 as a program record.

The second-best official attendance number was 804. The university’s fan base was showing up to the Cyclone Sports Complex in its strongest numbers for one of the team’s biggest moments in recent history.

“To be able to have that much support is just incredible,” Lea Nelson said.

Nelson is currently a junior and pinch-runner for the Iowa State softball team. She achieved Academic All-Big 12 honors in 2022 and earned the Dr. Gerald Lage Academic Achievement Award, the conference’s highest academic honor.

“I’ve never really felt like just because I’m a female, in the male-dominated field of athletics; I’ve never felt like I didn’t have support,” Nelson said.

Fifty years ago, Title IX guaranteed equal support for male and female athletes. Neither men nor women could be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under programs receiving financing from the Federal government, according to the 1972 law.

But since the landmark legislation, female athletics, particularly the sport of softball, have progressed much further.

Unforeseen growth

The final game of the 2022 Women’s College World Series between Big 12 rivals Texas and Oklahoma averaged 1.7 million viewers for its ESPN broadcast. According to ESPN, the matchup featured Oklahoma winning its sixth national title and peaked at 2.1 million viewers.

The Men’s College World Series, however, garnered 1.63 million viewers on average and peaked at 1.9 million. Television viewership for softball surpassed that of baseball in the 2022 postseason.

“It’s kind of exciting, and it’s only going to go up from here,” Nelson said. “Hopefully, it just gets easier and easier for women in college athletics.”

Before Title IX made it easier for women in college athletics, Iowa State softball competed in the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW), the 1970s counterpart of the NCAA.

The Cyclones enjoyed a season of pre-Title IX success, in fact. In 1971, Iowa State was runner-up at the AIAW Women’s College World Series in Omaha. Physical education instructor Pat Noe was named outstanding manager at the 1971 tournament. Noe herself created the team and received no funding from the university, according to A Series Of Their Own: History Of The Women’s College World Series.

The 1972 legislation opened the door for women’s college athletics nationwide, and the Cyclones continued their early success. Between 1976 and 1978, Iowa State won two of the first three Big Eight Conference tournaments.

In 1987, led by head coach Deb Kuhn, Iowa State reached its first NCAA tournament. Iowa State finished 32-18 during its postseason milestone season.

After 34 years away from the NCAA tournament, Iowa State, led by shortstop Sami Williams, returned to the postseason in 2021. During five seasons in Ames, Williams became the program leader in home runs, hits, doubles and runs scored. The former shortstop is a symbol of the program’s trajectory. 

Without Williams, and for the first time since 1988 and 1989, Iowa State recorded consecutive winning seasons when it finished 28-27 in the 2022 season.

“It’s a really awesome feeling to be able to be a part of really great softball here,” Nelson said. “I can see that a lot of younger athletes are really looking up to us. With Title IX, they shouldn’t have to worry about if they can do the same thing because they can easily be in our shoes.”

Iowa State finished its April 26 matchup with Iowa by securing a thrilling rivalry win by a final score of 5-4. As a result, the Cyclones received the all-sport bragging rights in the CyHawk series.

Iowa State fell short of reaching its first-ever consecutive NCAA tournament in 2022. While the sport of softball grows, the team also has a “growth mindset,” Head coach Jamie Pinkerton said shortly after completing the 2022 season. 

Eight members of Iowa State softball’s 2022 offensive lineup will return for the 2023 season.