Humble Beginnings: A Dynasty Born From Opportunity
The year was 1983. Fraggle Rock was in its debut season on the airwaves. The average price of gas was $1.16. Mario Bros. was first released in Japan. Sally Ride became the first American woman in space.
Aside from being excellent trivia points, 1983 featured historical points all around the United States. That fall something significant happened in the trails of the American Southwest. The Pacific Coast Athletic Association (soon to be the Big West Conference in 1988) began a women's cross country season with three teams vying for a championship in UC Irvine, UC Santa Barbara and UNLV. The significance of that season? It marked the first women's competition sponsored by the PCAA and was the first women's sport sponsorship by a league west of the Rockies.
What no one foresaw was that season marking the beginning of the first women's dynasty in Big West history, the formidable UC Irvine women's cross country team. The Anteaters cruised to the title in that inaugural season, nabbing the top three finishers on their way to an 18-point showing. With the field expanded to five the following year, UCI was even more dominant as it posted a perfect 15-point score to win the championship again. It is a score that has yet to be duplicated in the 30+ years following the event. UC Irvine would go on to win nine of the first 10 Big West Women's Cross Country titles, nine straight Women's Athlete of the Year awards and nine Big West Coach of the Year honors in the first 10 seasons for the man in charge, Vince O'Boyle.
In their own words, Jill (Harrington) Bowlus, Jennifer (Abraham) Gonzalez and O'Boyle take us back to the humble beginnings of Anteater glory.
Head Coach (1982-2013)
12 Big West Women's Cross Country Titles
12-time Big West Women's Coach of the Year
"Let's go back a little bit... (Athletic director) Linda Dempsey told me after I got offered the track & field job that I'd be coaching cross country and that the women would be placed in the PCAA in the fall of 1983."
"So I went down to Irvine after getting the job, and no offense to the women on the team back then, but they didn't have matching uniforms and with the exception of three or four athletes, it was kind of like an intramural or club team. They didn't know much about me, and I didn't know very much about them."
"With me having a community college background, I had some contacts one of which was Orange Coast Community. The coach at the time Gordy Fitzell and I were great friends, and he had one of the best teams in the state. His girls were ready to transfer so with the combination of that and the holdovers at Irvine, I could see us having a decent team. Then we were able to get a few high school recruits, one of which was Jennifer Abraham. That's how we got the whole thing started."
"I didn't redshirt anybody so once we got rolling a little bit, the word was getting out that we were getting serious. There weren't too many shows in town back then. UCLA had a decent team... Cal was alright, and so we were a pretty good alternative. The school (UCI) wasn't that big yet, maybe 10,000 students, and I had a small stipend for scholarships. It was maybe $1,000 or $1,500 and that was pretty good scholarship money back then. I had a volunteer assistant but that was it. It was a small show."
"The competition (in the league) was there but the word was out that UC Irvine was a pretty good spot. I don't like to blow my horn but we treated the kids well and we didn't travel a lot. We went to Stanford, San Diego, Riverside... we put together a schedule that made us successful in those years. I still maintained contacts with the junior and community colleges that got us athletes that were pretty good. And they were all great students so that was easy to get them admitted. I also sniffed around a lot in Northern California and anywhere I could because who wouldn't want to come to Southern California and Newport Beach? They'd have to look up where the school was because this was the early days of computers but once they did, it was a major selling point especially for the Northern California kids. I'd tell them it was really the University of California, Newport Beach."
"Later in the '80s we REALLY got some good kids. So good that we were beating the UCLAs and Oregons of the world who were putting more money into their programs. We were the small ship surrounded by big ships and people would really take notice of that. Eventually with the scholarship dollars increasing around the country, we weren't able to keep up but before that we had teams with multiple All-Americans and a top-five team nationally. Runners like Buffy Rabbitt, Jennifer Abraham and Rayna Cervantes helped us compete against anyone. We were able to get some really good ones."
"People would say well it's not that impressive to win a title with only a few teams in your league. It was so much fun back then because we were a small team and we could always find each other in the early conference races. But when you take those conference titles and move on to Regionals and finish in the top 10, top five, it makes people notice. When I look back at it, my motto was if were bringing in good students, why can't we have good runners? I wasn't afraid to make a phone call trying to get the best I could get. I would lay in bed wondering how I would get the money for these kids. My philosophy has always been if you don't knock on the door, then you'll never know. I always thought those knocks would be good for the conference because it would make people step up. A lot of newcomers weren't superstars coming in, but they loved to work. And they loved to push each other to make themselves great."
"Linda Dempsey was such an important person because she gave me the keys and told me to go. Tim Tift was very supportive. Rob Halvaks was great as a business manager. Those were the three that really helped me. The support was tremendous from all angles... We had everything set up and it was really kind of easy. No one had that kind of support back then. I wasn't afraid to roll up the sleeves and get after it. The relationships I had with the community colleges, me making a point to go to high schools and meet coaches and even through speaking engagements and my time on the NCAA Rules Committee. It all helped. Also with the kids coming in, it was their attitude that put us over the top. I'm not afraid to work so if youre willing to work, then I'm willing to help you. That was the way we did it."
JILL (HARRINGTON) BOWLUS
UCI Runner 1986-1987
1986 Big West Champion
1986 Big West Women's Cross Country Athlete of the Year
"I was at San Diego State my first year and the coach Fred LaPlante left a few weeks after my first semester there. So I redshirted, and my parents moved from Palos Verdes to Irvine my freshman year, and I had no idea where I wanted to go. I wrote a note and put it on Vince's office door. Kind of crazy right? He responded to me and invited me to work out with the team in the summer."
"I worked out with the team all summer and really liked the girls. I really liked Vince much more than the interim coach at SDSU. I knew that situation wasn't for me so I was happy to go to Irvine and run for Vince."
"There were women who came before me who were the trailblazers. I was lucky enough to meet and work out with Ruth Wysocki, and she shared stories of the time before Title IX, and I really had no idea things were so unequal for women athletes. We all benefited from their struggle. It was awesome being an athlete at UC Irvine. We felt special and honored to represent UCI."
"I never joined a sorority because I felt like my team was stronger than any sorority could ever be. We had a lot of academic achievers and dedicated, strong willed women athletes. We were a family, and I think we still are. We still get together and a cool thing is a lot of us are now teachers. I think Vince modeled us through education and competition."
"Vince treated the student-athletes like adults that were vested in a common goal to perform. He treated us all like we were top athletes and believed we would perform at high levels. I consider him a friend, and he's been invited to a lot of my big family events. My daughter went to California, and he would ask for updates like it was she was his own athlete."
"I realize how lucky we were because it was a great program. It was set up for us to be successful academically and athletically. Both were valued... That's something that I didnt see in other women's programs around the country."
JENNIFER (ABRAHAM) GONZALEZ
UCI Runner 1983-1986
1985 Big West Champion
1985 Big West Women's Cross Country Athlete of the Year
"In high school I ran locally at Foothill High (Tustin), and I was actually late to running, starting up my junior year. I had some success, and my senior year I was running pretty fast. Santa Barbara, Stanford and UC Irvine recruited me but I just really liked Vince and the girls he had on the team. It seemed like a great place to continue my running career and to keep competing and getting better. I also really liked the support I would be getting there."
"I'm actually surprised 1983 was the first one! Maybe Vince told us and it didn't sink in. That's so incredible. What Vince did that was so great was that he recruited athletes from junior colleges that were older and mature to go along with freshmen. I was stepping into a team that already knew how to compete and was ready to step their games up a notch. We didn't have an awareness that we were the first. We just were really serious about running, working to be faster and encouraging each other through the process. It was all about taking the next step, especially for me."
"That's the reason we were able to make it a dynasty, all the girls who came in looking to compete. The veterans really helped me and the other girls along that first year. So then my sophomore year I was able to fill that role for our new runners too."
"In fact my second year, I was our number one runner and had a chance to win the conference meet. Vince had always talked to us about teamwork and so in the last mile of the race, I ran with one of my teammates Lori Shanoff. I wasn't sprinting to beat her, that wasn't the point. The point was the team. We finished in a virtual tie and she beat me by hundredths of a second. That's what creates dynasties, working together as a team. The older ones help the younger ones. My next year after winning the league meet I couldn't compete in postseason but we had plenty of runners to see us through. To me that's what it was all about - the ethos of were all in this together. When we all run well, we're all going to benefit. That's why we were able to remain competitive through those years."
"One of those things Vince is really good at is he's always interested in learning. He would always introduce us to people he knew like Lance Harter who is the head women's coach at Arkansas. Vince knew that in order to be a good coach you always have to learn, ask questions and serve your athletes as best you can. For me, I became a coach, and there's a lot that Vince did that I continue to do. One of those is you learn from everybody and make connections."
"Vince valued us as human beings before we were runners. A lot of collegiate runners have problems but Vince treated us as people instead of just athletes. We always felt that way and never felt that our worth was tied into us running fast. Our worth was our worth as individuals in a family and the running came secondary. I've taken that into my own coaching - people first, athletes second."