‘It’s about intentionality’: 50 years after Title IX, the quest to buoy women’s sports continues in New Hampshire

  • Coe-Brown volleyball players celebrate their Division II semifinal victory over John Stark on Nov. 3. Rich Miyara / NH Sports Photography

  • Haile Comeau prepares to hit the ball in Coe-Brown's D-II semifinal matchup with John Stark on Nov. 3, 2022. Rich Miyara—NH Sports Photography

  • Pembroke girls' soccer coach Jess Kaufman Desrochers receives the D-II runner-up trophy after the Spartans came up short in the championship game against Pelham on Nov. 4. Rich Miyara—NH Sports Photography

  • Pembroke teammates Gwen Thomas and Ryley Leblanc (right) celebrate after Pembroke scored late in regulation against Bow in the D-II semifinals on Nov. 1. The Spartans advanced to the D-II championship game after their 2-1 victory. Rich Miyara—NH Sports Photography

  • Girls' basketball coach Annie Alosa (center) talks with one of her players, Sam Will, while Lauren Roy shoots during an open gym session at Bishop Brady High School on Thursday, August 3, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) ELIZABETH FRANTZ

  • Girls' basketball coach Annie Alosa during an open gym session at Bishop Brady High School on Thursday, August 3, 2017. Alosa opens the gym in the mornings during the summer for her athletes. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) ELIZABETH FRANTZ

Monitor staff
Published: 11/26/2022 11:00:36 AM

Annie Mattarazzo still remembers the funny looks she got after leaving her high school prom early so she could make it to her AAU basketball tournament.

This was 2004, over three decades after the passage of Title IX, the law that protects against discrimination based on sex and was an unequivocal turning point for female participation in sports. That didn’t stop Mattarazzo from feeling like she was different.

“I had great friends that supported that (decision), but I was definitely one of few,” she said, now 18 years after the fact. “There was always a Memorial Day basketball tournament.”

To her, departing her prom early so she could play in a basketball tournament that she looked forward to all year seemed perfectly logical. Her peers seemed to think otherwise.

Now, Mattarazzo’s in her second stint as the athletic director for Bishop Brady High School. She’s one of only two female athletic directors out of 15 schools in the Concord Monitor’s coverage area.

Title IX was celebrated for its 50th anniversary over the summer. Hailed as landmark legislation that undoubtedly transformed athletic opportunities for female athletes, area coaches and athletic directors say more work is still needed. Of the 35 girls’ sports teams in the Monitor’s coverage area this fall, 17 were coached by women. By contrast, 28 of the 29 boys’ teams had a male coach. There were also 27 co-ed teams for cross country, golf and bass fishing, of which only three had female coaches.

That’s not to say men can’t be good coaches and role models for female athletes. As Mattarazzo said, her biggest influence in her playing and coaching career has been her dad, Sal Alosa, who’s currently the Bishop Brady girls’ basketball coach.

However, as Mattarazzo and other area coaches explain, it’s still important for female athletes to play for female coaches, especially at the high school level. Female coaches in the Concord area have worked hard to facilitate future playing and coaching opportunities for their female athletes so they can stay involved with the sports they love.

“The more we empower the high school young lady to feel like they can do anything or try anything, I think it will be better for them in the end,” Mattarazzo said. “I think that increase will happen for us, getting more females into coaching.”

‘You’ve been through it’

Renee Zobel’s coached volleyball for 18 years, including the last five at Coe-Brown Northwood Academy, where the Bears won the D-II championship in 2021 and finished as runners-up this season.

She also played volleyball for two years at Wheaton College, about 25 miles west of Chicago. She’s always loved the sport. But she stopped playing before she graduated college because she didn’t connect with her coach, and she didn’t want to lose her passion for the game.

“The coach didn’t take the time to really invest in her players,” Zobel said.

Almost two decades later, she’s come to view coaching as a way of being that role model she wishes she had in college while also investing in helping younger coaches become those role models as well.

“This is something that I care a lot about,” she said of continuing to create opportunities for women in the coaching world. “But at the same time, my best coaches who were the most impactful for me were male, so I really believe in having good coaches who value people first. Those are the folks who are both competent but also really dialed in on the people we coach and not necessarily just the positions and the names.”

She noted that volleyball is a little different from soccer or basketball because it hasn’t historically been dominated by male participation. There’s also a higher percentage of female volleyball coaches for the girls’ teams across the state than for other sports. However, she still feels a responsibility to continue to engage more female coaches in high school women’s sports.

“We’re in a unique position as females to be coaching young women, especially at the high school age,” Zobel said. “It’s just a really tough time in life, and you’ve been through it. … There’s a different experience being a female student-athlete in high school and a male student-athlete in high school, so the relatability there, we can go have (those) conversations.”

Pembroke girls’ soccer coach Jess Kaufman Desrochers just wrapped up her 13th season leading the Spartans. Her team finished the 2022 season 15-3-1 and was the Division II runner-up for the second straight year.

She views the role of head coach as that of a teacher, and the soccer field is her classroom. It’s more than just drawing up good plays and running through drills. It’s about developing those interpersonal connections with her players.

“It is so important for female athletes to have great role models and female role models because there’s so many aspects of the game and of sports and of competition that coaches have to tap into,” she said. “I’ll always say the sports psychology of a teenage girl can be a fickle creature. Just having female coaches with female athletes so that we can tap into some of those obstacles that might come up as we work on team chemistry and camaraderie (is important) because our team is like a family.”

‘I can do this because I want to do this’

Before her time at Bishop Brady, Mattarazzo was an assistant coach for UMass-Lowell women’s basketball under Kathy O’Neil, who spent 26 years as the River Hawks head coach through 2011. She constantly heard about how different things used to be and how they’ve evolved drastically since.

“Title IX is life changing for females,” she said. “Kathy was coaching for (almost) 30 years at UMass-Lowell, and to hear their stories, and to hear how they pushed and fought and were passionate about getting their opportunity and making their mark, and it wasn’t always easy. Being able to hear their stories was very impactful for me to understand really how far we’ve come.”

One of the ways she thinks about developing the next generation of female coaches is through creating the right environment for her student-athletes. The hope is that they have a positive experience playing in high school, potentially motivating them to explore playing in college.

As an athletic director now, Mattarazzo likes to talk to her players about the value college athletics can provide, whether that’s at a Division I level or playing in community college. Even if they don’t end up playing college athletics, they can still get that experience reaching out to coaches, learning about what it takes to play at the next level, and maybe that entices them to continue to be around their sport, she said.

In addition to encouraging her students to think about future opportunities in their sports, Mattarazzo also pointed to the 2019 forum Woman-to-Woman: Shooting for Greatness, hosted by the Bishop Guertin girls’ basketball program and the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College as another powerful tool for facilitating opportunities for female athletes.

“Putting a lot of females in a room, young ladies who play sports, and then many of whom who are extra passionate about sports and now are dreaming about playing at the next level and are getting those opportunities, is just empowering because now you’re having conversations with like-minded bodies and people with the same goals and the same vision,” she said. “You learn a lot. Having all those young ladies in a room just allowed them to look left and right and say, ‘Well, she can do this, and she wants to do this. I can do this because I want to do this.’ ”

In Zobel’s eyes, creating more opportunities for female coaches requires this type of thoughtfulness with all of her players. Things aren’t just magically going to improve.

“It’s about intentionality,” she said. “Sometimes it’s not your starters, it’s not your kids who see the court a lot. Sometimes it’s the kids who are wonderful teammates and play a great role and contribute to the team in a million different ways that make them successful that aren’t necessarily on the court. Often those kids, the way they think about the game, the way they see things, become amazing coaches down the line.”

There needs to be a focused effort on cultivating those leadership skills from a young age with her high school athletes across the entire roster.

“I think a lot of us rely on leaders to identify themselves naturally and forget the fact that it’s just like any other skill, and you can teach it,” Zobel said. “Investing in those skills with the younger generation, I think, can pay dividends in not only creating successful humans in the future but creating some really great coaches with really great ways of seeing the world.”

Half a century after Title IX’s passage, the work continues. Mattarazzo said she hopes more conferences like Woman-to-Woman will take place moving forward. For those who’ve invested in women’s sports throughout their entire lives, especially those who’ve spent the most time with younger female athletes, there’s lots of reason for optimism about what the future holds.

“We’re starting to see a trend, even on the national stage of more females, often mentored by those really great male coaches, coming in and really shining,” Zobel said. “It’s exciting to see that.”

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