Lessons in Teamwork

Intercollegiate women’s athletics at NWC celebrates 50th anniversary


Northwestern College’s first women’s athletes learned a lot about teamwork—with an emphasis on “work.”

First, they made a case for starting intercollegiate athletics at Northwestern in 1970–71 by lobbying Athletic Director Don Jacobsen. Several of them had played high school basketball and participated in NWC “powderpuff ”intramural games, so why couldn’t they compete against other colleges?

Once they got approval, they embarked upon the process of finding opponents. Using the paperwork for the men’s conference, several students worked with Jacobsen to form the structure for the women’s Io-Kota Conference.

Uniforms? The basketball team began by wearing their own shorts and T-shirts with numbered pinafores over them.

Facilities? When Northwestern added field hockey and softball a couple of years later, the players prepared the fields and built the goal nets.

The fan base was mostly the athletes’ parents—and the men of First East Colenbrander, the teams’ unofficial cheerleaders. The basketball team practiced in the Auditorium when the men weren’t using the facility, or in Orange City’s Town Hall. By the end of the decade, the men’s and women’s teams practiced at the same time in the Auditorium, with each squad getting a half court.

The women’s teams were known first as the Raiderettes. “None of us liked that—it sounded like something you would put in your hair,” says Brenda Meyer ’76. By the mid-1970s, the moniker was Lady Raiders.

Even with meager resources, the women loved the opportunity to compete. “We didn’t have women’s athletics in my high school, and I craved being an athlete,” says Mary Ver Steeg ’72, a member of the first NWC basketball team who returned to coach from 1975 to 1982. “It was fabulous to be on a college team. I loved every minute of it, including practicing.”

“We had a band of sisters who were able to grow together not only in sports but in academics and faith,” says Meyer.

Meyer and Karen (De Boer ’79) Woudstra remember team Bible studies and the Christ-centered emphasis Coach Ver Steeg instilled in her squads. “The teams had a sense of purpose and a focus on serving one another,” says Woudstra.

Northwestern’s early women’s teams experienced a good amount of success. In the inaugural year for intercollegiate basketball, the Raiderettes won their first five games and finished 8-4. Northwestern’s volleyball teams went 81-40 from 1976 to 1981, and the softball teams were undefeated in the conference from 1977 to 1980.

Jean Mast was Northwestern’s first women’s coach, leading the volleyball, basketball, field hockey and softball teams while also teaching. When Ver Steeg returned to campus, she coached volleyball, basketball, softball and tennis.

Dr. Earl Woudstra ’78, Northwestern’s head women’s basketball coach from 1994 to 2011 and athletic director from 2014 to 2019, notes that the Raiders’ efforts in the 1980s and 1990s to hire more coaches was one of the keys to the growth of the women’s athletic programs, as coaches could focus on a particular sport and be a better advocate for that team. The construction of the Bultman Center, with its equality of locker rooms for men’s and women’s sports, also was a factor. “That sent a strong message that all of the sports are important.”

From its humble beginnings, Northwestern’s women’s athletics program has become a powerhouse, with five national championships in basketball to its credit. Thousands of women have grown through the relationships they developed as Raiders and the lessons they learned about hard work, commitment, glorifying God, and what it means to be part of a team.

Ver Steeg shares one lesson from her coaching days: “I told them that if they were late for away games, we would leave. I graced one gal a couple of times. Finally one day we left without her. I drove slow because I didn’t really want to leave her—she was one of my starters! We saw her running behind the van, carrying her duffel bag. I made her run a couple blocks before we stopped.”

She was never late again.

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