Valpo’s First Season in Valley Coincides with Conference’s 25th Year of Women’s Athletics
Valparaiso University women’s basketball coach Tracey Dorow was a player at Illinois State University when women’s athletics were incorporated into the Missouri Valley Conference in 1992, after women previously competed under the Gateway Conference banner from 1982–1992. Now, 25 years after her first season as an MVC student-athlete, Coach Dorow finds herself in her first season as a coach in The Valley during the anniversary season after Valpo gained full-fledged membership on July 1.
Even Coach Dorow — among the most talkative, friendly and interview-savvy coaches the conference has to offer — was at a loss for words when presented with the coincidental facts about her involvement in two significant years for women’s athletics in The Valley.
“It’s humbling to even think about,” she says. “I’m not even sure what to say, because not too many people can say that, and I’m in awe that it is actually a fact. It’s a great honor to say I’ve been a part of something that special.”
The Transition – Part I
While most Valpo coaches have transitioned into the Missouri Valley Conference for the first time this year, this marks the second time Coach Dorow has made the move to The Valley.
The first time, during her junior year at Illinois State, was different. Coach Dorow (then Tracey Bloodworth) and the Redbirds were competing against the same schools they had for her first two collegiate seasons. The conference had rebranded as part of The Valley, which previously featured only men’s teams while women’s teams from those same institutions participated in the Gateway Conference.
“The people from the Missouri Valley Conference came in, and it was a big deal to everyone at Illinois State,” Coach Dorow says. “I remember everybody being so excited about it and us moving to the new logos and the new league. Our coaches were thrilled, and that made it a big deal to us as players.”
The Transition – Part II
Two and a half decades later, Coach Dorow is the one establishing the tone for her team with her elation for the conference change.
This time, it’s an entirely new league, with the Crusaders set to go through a conference slate that features new opponents and new travel destinations.
“Now I’m on the other side of it, and I’m the one showing the enthusiasm to lead the way for our players,” Coach Dorow says. “As an 18-22-year-old, you don’t know you should be excited about it until later, but when your coaches and administrators are, you follow suit.”
Coach Dorow’s athletes have picked up on that excitement, as they recognize the importance of being a part of women’s athletics in The Valley, this season in particular.
“It’s an honor and a blessing to be a female athlete in The Valley during this celebration,” Valpo women’s basketball senior Dani Franklin says. “I am extremely fortunate to be a part of both the 25-year celebration and the move to The Valley during my final college season. I look forward to starting conference play and making some noise in the standings.”
When Valpo officially accepted its invitation to join The Valley, Coach Dorow immediately heard from numerous Valley administrators and her coaching peers from around the conference.
“By the time we made the announcement, every coach had reached out, welcomed me and offered any assistance they could provide,” she says. “It wasn’t just a small welcome to The Valley, it was an overwhelming welcome. A strong bond existed right from the start.”
Although Valpo is a first-year member of The Valley, the 25-year anniversary celebration gives the University an opportunity to celebrate and recognize its rich history of women’s athletics.
“Valpo has sponsored women’s athletics going back to the 1970s, and we are proud to have had extremely successful teams and outstanding individual student-athletes,” Valparaiso Director of Athletics Mark LaBarbera says. “This is a great opportunity for us to celebrate an outstanding tradition of women’s athletics here at Valparaiso University.”
The More Things Change, the More They Remain the Same
The nature of the collegiate athletics landscape is fluid in a day and age where schools jumping from conference to conference has become commonplace.
But The Valley is largely the same conference it was during Coach Dorow’s playing days. Seven of Valpo’s nine Valley foes were member institutions for the first season of women’s athletics in The Valley.
“That says a lot for the stability of the league,” Coach Dorow says. “People want to be part of the Missouri Valley Conference. It speaks volumes to what they strive to do in The Valley and what their goal is, which is to make it a great experience for student-athletes. You can ask any team, and they’re going to tell you being a part of this conference is an amazing experience. That’s really what collegiate athletics is all about.”
Another constant of women’s basketball in The Valley through the last 25 years has been the high level of competition.
“It was extremely good,” Coach Dorow says. “I have fond memories of playing at some beautiful venues. The atmosphere and the support for women’s athletics from Valley communities is first rate. I remember going to Missouri State and it was packed with thousands of people there.”
More Valpo in The Valley
Coach Dorow isn’t the only head coach on Valpo’s campus who experienced the Missouri Valley Conference as a student-athlete.
Softball coach Kate Stake is a 2005 graduate of Illinois State and started at second base for the Redbirds for four years under NFCA Hall of Fame head coach Melinda Fischer, who still holds that post at Illinois State.
“Coach Fischer is a great mentor, and she is in the generation that pioneered women’s athletics in The Valley,” Coach Stake says. “It’s nice to come back into such familiar territory. Four of the head softball coaches in The Valley were there when I played. There’s significant stability and not much turnover.”
When asked about the level of competition for softball in The Valley during her playing days, Coach Stake echoed Coach Dorow’s simple, yet effective response: “really high.”
“When I played, there were still only 48 teams going into the postseason in softball, but right after it went to 64, they were getting multiple at-large teams on a regular basis,” Coach Stake says. “These are the type of mid-major teams that create the upsets of the Power 5 teams and they’re upsets that aren’t really all that surprising. It’s not shocking when Illinois State beats a Big Ten team or when Drake and UNI go out and beat a Big 12 team.”
Coming Full Circle
The ties between Valpo and the history of women’s athletics in The Valley just keep going, as Senior Woman Administrator Kim Smith ‘01, associate director of athletics for compliance was an assistant coach for the men’s and women’s swim teams at Evansville for two seasons.
While Associate Director Smith was a member of the Purple Aces’ staff, The Valley stopped sponsoring men’s swimming, allowing her to be a part of the first season of a women’s only championship for Valley swimming. Rickey Perkins, who was the head coach at Evansville during Smith’s stint from 2005–2007, still holds that position, yet another testament to the stability of The Valley.
Everything has come full circle for Associate Director Smith, who a decade after experiencing The Valley as a coach has the opportunity to work with coaches and athletes who are transitioning into the MVC, many of them for the first time.
“One of the things that stands out in The Valley is the support of the conference office and the importance of women’s athletics,” Associate Director Smith says. “It’s exciting to be a part of a conference that is celebrating women in our first season. It’s important for us to continue to recognize the milestones of women working toward equality in all areas of society.”
The chance to compete in Valpo’s first season in one of the nation’s top mid-major conferences is unique for Valpo student-athletes. For Valpo’s women’s athletic teams, the opportunity to participate in The Valley’s celebration of 25 years of women’s athletics makes it even more special.
And it’s that word — opportunity — that is the theme of the year for many Valpo teams.
“Right now, everything is about opportunity,” Coach Dorow says. “Our team has the opportunity to completely transform its identity from what we were to what we want to be. We can come out in Year 1 and set the tone. We can make a name for ourselves in The Valley and do something really special.”