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From pioneers and champs to Hall of Fame for WHS female runners

Published February 8, 2024

Pioneers. Champions. Two labels that merit respect, celebration and honor.

So it was last week as Wheeling High School inducted into its Athletic Hall of Fame its pioneering girls cross country teams of 1975 through 1978, and the 1979 team, which won the inaugural Illinois girls cross country championship.

Title IX - which at long last pried open the door for female athletes - became federal law in 1972. By 1975, Wheeling coaches Jim Nagel and Mark Saylor were recruiting athletes for the school’s first female cross country team. “Those first teams were dedicated, disciplined, and committed,” recalled Saylor, who joined more than a dozen of the women athletes for February’s induction ceremony and reunion. “As a result, we were able to have many successful years of cross country.”

How successful? Wheeling’s girls began competing before the Illinois High School Association established an official state championship series, but the 1976 team won what was termed the “mythical state meet.” This was the Illinois Invitational Cross Country Meet for girls, organized by Nagel and a few other coaches of girls teams. The 1977 team earned a conference title and 2nd place finish in unofficial state competition. The 1978 team followed with an unofficial 4th place state finish. 

The cross country glass ceiling gave way officially in 1979, aided, in part, by the success and enthusiastic competition in the Illinois Invitational. Wheeling’s 1979 team emphatically marked the occasion, winning the IHSA’s first title. “I remember that it felt like a big deal to be recognized as a legitimate IHSA sport, and we were determined to secure the championship of the first-ever state meet,” said Betsy Petrie, who ran cross country each autumn from 1976 through 1979 and excelled in the 440-yard dash and high jump each spring.

Those first teams set the stage for decades of Wheeling girls’ distance running success that featured three more state titles from 1983 through 1986 along with two more 2nd place finishes and a pair of 4th place finishes by 2003.

The inductees recalled their favorite memories: working together for a common goal, summer training, small moments shared and long-time friendships forged. They also offered heartfelt thanks to coaches, parents and teammates. 

As for their perspective 45 years after their achievement?

“We were tough,” recalls Petrie, “but today’s female athletes are tougher, and the competition and expectations today are greater. “

Those early years of competing, Petrie said, helped develop invaluable lifelong attitudes and approaches to life. “We had coaches who didn’t see gender in the best way possible. As a result, I felt equal. I did the same workouts as the boys team,” she said. “This mindset has remained with me, and I find it empowered me to live out an equitable life, and also recognize when there were gender inequities – and try to do something about it.”

Similarly, Theresa Picchietti Budmats, who ran for the first state title team and excelled in track as well as cross country, appreciates both the long-term lessons learned and the increasingly impressive achievements of today’s female athletes.

 “Sports and good coaches are second-to-none catalysts for life,” she said. “Learning a work ethic, discipline, team and sportsmanship are characteristics that you will use the rest of your life. I am awed and inspired by what today's high school athletes are achieving in their sport.”

Hall of Fame Inductees for the 1975 through 1978 teams  - the Pioneers - include Gail Miloch

Huster, Janet Altman, Denise Begrowicz, Bonnie Buenzow Taylor, Donna Czaja, Diana Disano, Carolyn Ells, Kim Moran, Kathy Peter, Chris Rathje, Marilyn Schneider, Stephanie Stevens, Sue Timm, Marcia Warden, Michele Weissensee and Ann West.

The 1979 championship team included Debbie Rathje, Donna Stewart Grotthus, Betsy Buenzow Petrie, Theresa Picchietti Budmats, Debbie Bifulco Paust, Karen Egge, Julie Hendrickson D’Argo, Mary Krueger, Margaret Madden Schinler, Geri Sabal Egen, Kim Salpietro Zacharkiewicz, Christina Sanchez, and the Vogt sisters, Janice, Sharon and Theresa.