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Former Illini Mary Pat Connolly recognized as “Trailblazer” at Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame

“We call ourselves the Title IX babies...”

Tony Baranek / Daily Southtown

When she suited up for Lourdes High School, she was known as one of the first in her class. Lourdes didn’t have an organized girl’s basketball team before Mary Pat Connolly — formerly Mary Pat Travnik — and coach Bob Lenihan rounded up some of Mary’s classmates.

“It wasn’t a girl’s sport. It was only guys back then,” says Connolly. “[Lenihan] came up to me and said, ‘Hey, would you like to start playing basketball?’ We practiced almost a whole year with no games. I corralled a bunch of girls in my class. There was no IHSA basketball for girls back then. Our big thing was was the CYO. It was like our city tournament.”

Fast forward a couple years to Connolly’s senior year of high school, and not only did Lenihan’s squad stay competitive in the CYO, but they managed to take home the title. Lenihan, also Mary’s eighth grade science teacher, knew he had a real treasure on his hands with Connolly. She was a 6-foot post player with a knack for crashing the boards and a competitive edge that comes from playing against the boys growing up.

“Recruiting was different back then,” said Connolly.

There weren’t AAU circuits full of college coaches and teenagers like there is today. In fact, a phone call from Lenihan down to Illinois women’s basketball’s new head coach, Steven Douglas, was all it took. Douglas promised Connolly that if she joined the team and paid tuition her first year, then she would be on scholarship for the remainder of her career as an Illini.

“We call ourselves the Title IX babies,” declares Connolly. “We were the first full scholarship female athletes at Illinois.”

Most familiar with college athletics are also familiar in some way with Title IX. The law itself states:

“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

It is a federal civil rights law that was passed as part of the Education Amendments of 1972. The law was created to increase equity in athletics, giving women opportunities to pursue athletics in ways they hadn’t seen before.

Connolly went on to have a successful career as an Illini. Twice she led the team in rebounding, including averages of 13.4 points and 11.2 rebounds during her junior campaign in 1977-78. She left Illinois as the school’s leading rebounder in 1979 to go along with 23 career double-doubles.

The Chicago Hustle and head coach Doug Bruno picked Connolly in the eighth round. She played in the Women’s Basketball League (WBL) for two seasons, earning $8,000 annually. The league disbanded after just its third season, but the memories she shared with teammates are unforgettable.

The Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame recognized Connolly and her teammates as “trailblazers of the game” during a June induction ceremony.

“It was awesome to see my teammates that I haven’t seen in 35-40 years,” Connolly recalls. “It was like walking through history because I knew all these people.”

In addition to meeting with Muffet McGraw, current Notre Dame women’s basketball head coach and former WBL player, Connolly also got to mingle with greats like Anne Donovan — former NCAA national champion, WNBA champion, and Olympic gold-medalist — and Geno Auriemma, current Connecticut women’s basketball head coach.

Connolly is the current, and only, head coach for women’s basketball at Marist High School where she’s established a powerhouse in the south suburbs. Through 16 seasons at the helm of the program, Connolly has recorded 12 regional titles, a 360-131 record, and a fourth-place finish at state in 2008.

She was helping out as an assistant at Carl Sandburg High School when talk of Marist, a former all-boys Catholic prep school, going co-ed started to swirl.

“There were rumblings of Marist going co-ed and I said immediately, ‘Oh my God, I want that job,’” Connolly said. “I was so intrigued by starting from scratch and doing things the way I thought they should be ran.”

And who better suited for the job than the woman who’s been a pioneer for the sport since she was a freshman in high school.

“It’s just great. I’m so blessed to be at Marist,” Connolly said. “It’s always felt like home to me.”

Connolly says there’s no timeline on retirement and that she still has a lot of energy, but there’s some unfinished business that she’s yet to take care of at the IHSA level.

“The only thing we haven’t done is win the state title,” she said. “I want this state championship for the school, and the girls, and that first graduating class. That wasn’t easy for them. If we won a state title, it would be because of them. They were trailblazers being the first girl’s class going into an all-male school.”

Connolly being recognized as a “trailblazer” with the rest of the WBL members couldn’t be any more fitting of a title for a wonderful basketball career. From starting her high school team, to being one of the first scholarship female athletes at the University of Illinois, to playing in one of the first professional women’s leagues, and capping it off by starting from scratch with her own program at Marist, Connolly has done it all.

Her accomplishments should be an inspiration for athletes everywhere, both male and female.

Retirement will have to wait, however. Connolly still has a state championship to win.