The Impact of Women in Sport at Fisher

March 26, 2021

Sean Farnsworth ’05, director of Sports Information, shares the history of women in sport at Fisher.

A collage of three photos: coach Phil Kahler speaking with a basketball player on the sidelines, Emily Markarian field hockey, coach LInda Michele on the sidelines

Nearly every day, I’m fortunate enough to escape my office for a few minutes and walk around what I think is one of the most picturesque campuses in the Northeast. As I do, I’m often reminded of how much change has happened at Fisher since I first stepped foot on campus as a freshman over 20 years ago. With new residence halls, a bustling athletic center, a new chapel, and more, I’m comforted knowing that I can walk past Haffey Hall, where I stayed as a freshman, and see that some things remain as they once were.

Driving through campus it’s easy to see evolution, particularly in the Athletic Department, which scarcely resembles its humble beginnings. Athletics has transformed from playing on makeshift fields with little to no lighting or fanfare to having state-of-the-art stadiums that house one of the largest video boards in NCAA Division III, which serve as the summer home of the Buffalo Bills.

While the physical changes to campus and the Athletic Department are evident at every turn, perhaps the most profound change has been slightly obscured by time. Today, the College competes in 25 varsity sports and features nearly 700 student-athletes. But in the early 1970s, just three years after admitting women for the first time in its history, Fisher laid the groundwork for the inclusion of women’s sports.

In 1974, then President Fr. Lavery hired a coach with a successful career in the high school ranks to serve as the College’s athletic director. Little did he know the influence that Phil Kahler would have on the growth and development of women’s sports at Fisher.

With just a handful of women enrolled at Fisher at the time, the College moved forward and created a basketball and volleyball team with Kahler at the helm. Neither team had much success in its inaugural season, yet Kahler was undeterred and hit the recruiting trail determined to mold both teams into perennial powerhouses.

“Very few women’s coaches were really out recruiting when I got started [at Fisher],” said Kahler in a 2008 interview with The Toledo Blade. “Title IX hadn’t even kicked in yet, so there weren’t a lot of organized sports for girls. But, I recruited aggressively and we had a lot of early success and developed a reputation in this area.”

It didn’t take long for the tides to turn as the volleyball team went from 4-8 in its first season to 18-4 the following year, while the women’s basketball team turned a 3-10 performance into a 25-1 record in just its second season. The rest, as they say, is history. Fisher women’s basketball has gone on to win more than 1,000 games— the fourth most among any Division III team—while the women’s volleyball program has turned in well over 1,100 victories over the last 47 years. The two teams have combined to produce nearly 50 All-Americans, earning 18 NCAA berths, and two national runner-up finishes.

Following the successes of the basketball and volleyball programs, Fisher broadened its commitment to women’s sports with the addition of soccer and tennis in the late-1970s. Softball debuted in the spring of 1984, with a cheerleading team soon to follow. In 2000, Fisher added women’s lacrosse, followed by golf, then cross country, field hockey, rowing, and track and field in 2011.

Today, the decisions made to expand Fisher’s Athletic Department have bolstered the College’s rich and illustrious history. In all, women’s teams at Fisher have won 26 Empire 8 Championships since 2000 and have qualified for the NCAA Championship 43 times overall. The women’s lacrosse team has won 10 Empire 8 titles, including the last eight, while the softball team has earned seven championships, including each of the last three.

The impact of women’s sports at Fisher can also be seen in the department’s hierarchy. Jill McCabe has served as associate director of athletics and senior woman administrator for over 20 years, while Jen Granger ’95 has been the department’s assistant athletic director and business manager for nearly three decades. Together the duo, along with director of athletics Bob Ward, oversees every critical function of the department, including recruitment, budgeting, scheduling, transportation, Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, and so much more.

The impact of the women of Fisher athletics cannot be overstated. In fact, it’s clear that without the addition of women’s sports and the numerous accomplishments by female student-athletes, coaches, administrators, faculty athletics representatives, sports medicine personnel, sports information staff, administrative assistants, interns, and more, the department would be but a fraction of what it is today.

Humor me. Try, if you can, to envision an athletics department without three national runner-up finishes; without Robin (Mortensen) Reed’s 2,421 points and more than 1,500 rebounds; without two-time All-American field hockey player, and one of the most prolific scorers in Division III history, Emily Markarian ’18; without the NCAA record 1,540 career strikeouts that Lindsey Thayer ’18 produced; without the eight straight Empire 8 Championships and humble attitude of women’s lacrosse coach Linda Michele; without the nearly 500 All-Conference honorees or All-Americans, Player of the Year, and Rookie of the Year selections. Take away these accomplishments and what’s left doesn’t seem to have the same luster as before.

It’s no secret that collegiate athletics has shifted immensely since Fisher first took the field in the fall of 1962. Today, the role of an athletics department, regardless of size and division, transcends wins and losses and has grown to become a critical promotional element that encompasses branding, recruitment and enrollment, alumni engagement, fundraising, and more.

To the women of Fisher who pioneered these accomplishments, and all those who have carried on their legacy of excellence and commitment, I say thank you. Thank you for all of the memories and for the example you have set. This year, we celebrate 50 years of women at Fisher, and I know I speak for so many when I say I’m looking forward to what the next 50 years hold.

Go, Cardinals!

Editors note: At the time of publication, it was announced that Jill McCabe will be joining Marymount University as athletic director and assistant vice president. We are proud to know that all the great work she has done in her time at Fisher has been recognized. Congratulations and thank you, Jill. You will be missed.