On Wednesday, Feb. 3, the Women’s Sports Foundation celebrated the 35th annual National Girls and Women in Sports Day, a day to celebrate the accomplishments of females in athletics and ensure that they have equal opportunities in sport in the future.
The day was highlighted by the first ever, online National Girls and Women in Sports Day Girls Fest, which was designed to engage elementary through high school level girls and honor all that they are, and all that they can be.
While the day recognizing women’s accomplishments in sport has only been celebrated the last 35 years, the history of women in athletics at Hillsboro High School dates back well before then.
The pages of the 1916 Hillsboro High School yearbook proudly proclaimed that “The year of 1915 saw the first step in the advancement of the position of women, as far as the Hillsboro High school and the girls attending that institution are concerned.”
For the first time in the school’s history, females were allowed to compete against one another, although the phrasing of the yearbook assured the reader that the decorum of the day was still intact.
“For the first time they were allowed to assume the garb of feminine athletes (or so-called ‘athletesses’) and gambol about on the campus,” the yearbook read, “playfully tossing the ball hither and thither, yet never growing in anyway unladylike.”
Despite the flowery frolic of the opening paragraph, reading further into the narrative, you get the feeling that the activities were a little more enthusiastic than you might guess from the early lines.
The school first began with a simple game they called German Bat-Ball, worrying that the exertion or freshness of the experiment might “prove too great a strain upon the here-to-fore semi-dormant constitutions.”
The passion to play of the young ladies seemed to be underestimated though as the game began to lose its luster due to its simplicity.
“In order to satisfy the ever-increasing desire for more strenuous recreation, the game of Captain Ball... was taken up,” the yearbook read.
The game seemed to be more fitting for the young athletes, with the seniors the only class that wasn’t able to fill out a full team of “at least fourteen good strong, husky girls.”
The junior class would beat out the sophomores in the game, which is similar to basketball, with players trying to pass a ball to a player stationed in the scoring circle; but with winter looming the promise of sports and outdoor recreation dissipated.
“The chill north wind came and blew its cold blue breath upon the sparsely clad athletesses and they shivered and gave up their happy hours of sportiveness,” the yearbook read, like something between a Greek tragedy and a romance novel.
As spring came, “enthusiasm has again broken the bonds of sedate ladylikeness” as the yearbook detailed preparations for the girls’ field meet. The junior girls were again leading the charge, throwing down “the gauntlet at the feet of the Senior captain.” It doesn’t say whether this gauntlet was literal or figurative, but a contract was signed by both classes and put in the high school vault at the Hillsboro National Bank.
Despite the fact that the event had not been held at press time, the author was bullish on the possible success of several of the athletes.
“There are several promising young specimens on either side - Nora Ellington has already been picked as the star broad jumper and Helen Hoffman as the breaker of the county record in the high jump,” it read, noting that the juniors held a distinct advantage over the upperclassmen. “Marian Ennis has been heard to whisper that she intends to enter everything. The rest of the class are too busy with the class play, hence the high hopes of the juniors.”
Regardless of how the field day turned out, the actions of Ellington, Hoffman, Ennis and the rest of the girls of Hillsboro High School in 1915-16 paved the way for the success of the Lady Hiltoppers in the future.
All eight of the sports that the school has fielded teams in with the IHSA have had some degree of success in the postseason.
The girls basketball team is 11 time regional champions, with two state trophies to their credit: a first in 2005-06 and a fourth in 2018-19. Those state teams yielded a glut of talented players, including Hope Schulte, who played for Illinois Wesleyan, and Sammi Matoush, who plays for Washington University in St. Louis and is the county’s all-time leading scorer regardless of gender with 2,883 points.
The Hillsboro girls golf team also picked up a state trophy, finishing third in 2007-08. Brooke Beeler was a Texas Christian University-bound senior on that team and capped off her career with her fourth straight medalist appearance, finishing third after coming in tenth as a freshman, 11th as a sophomore and claiming the state championship as a junior.
Future LPGA star Mary Beth Zimmerman (second in 1978 and fifth in 1977), Hannah Luckett (fifth in 2009 and 2010) and Lauren Williams (sixth in 2008) also earned medals at state for the Hiltoppers.
Hillsboro’s other two state trophies on the girls’ side came in cross country, which has experienced a resurgence of late despite the program being cut in 2003.
The Lady Hiltoppers were second overall in Class A in both 1990 and 1991 and followed that run up with Erin Landers taking sixth overall in 1993-94 and Melissa Kennett placing 20th in 1994-95.
And those three teams are just the start. Whether it be Maria Pretnar’s state championship in the shot put or the girls soccer team’s first ever regional in 2018, Hillsboro has shown the ability to be among the best despite being in a world where opportunities aren’t always equal for female athletes.
To end the narrative about girls athletics at HHS, the author tries to convey that a new era has been ushered in.
“But all this goes to show that the days of thrumming on the harpsicord, knitting socks for Belgians and playing tiddle-de-winks are over for the Hillsboro High School girls, and that hearafter, hence-forward and in the near future they shall partake of the here-to-fore forbidden pleasure of having a little life and not concealing it from the world at large.”
Whether this is a true feeling or wishful thinking, only the author knows, but undoubtedly the forebearers of Hillsboro girls athletics would be proud to see what their efforts have brought more than 100 years later.