Columbia HS female athletics have rich history as Title IX celebrates 50th anniversary

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MAPLEWOOD/SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Over the past half-century, there have been great teams and athletes when it comes to female sports, whether it’s on the high school, college or professional level.

All that was made possible in part thanks to the congressional passage of Title IX on June 23, 1972. In the words of the U.S. Department of Education, “Title IX protects people from discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance.” 

Because of Title IX, opportunities for female athletics blossomed. 

In the last 50 years, Columbia High School has seen great female athletes and teams.

In a phone interview with the News-Record, former CHS legendary girls basketball head coach Johanna Wright shared her thoughts about the impact of Title IX.

Wright got into sports at a young age. She grew up with an older brother who played college ball. She recalled how her brother babysat her and took her to parks and backyards. “That’s how I learned to play sports,” she said.

In 1972, Wright was an assistant coach/player at Bennett College in Greensboro, N.C. Two years later, she arrived at White Plains High School in New York, where she coached girls basketball, gymnastics, track and field, and cheerleading.

Wright was one of the few female coaches.

“There weren’t too many women coaching at that time,” said Wright of her time at White Plains. “Most of your opponents’ coaches were men.” 

Wright coached at CHS from 1983 to 2012, amassing more than 600 victories and leading her teams to numerous conference, county, sectional and state group titles. In fact, CHS was going for a perfect season in 1998, but lost in the ultimate game to Mendham in the state Tournament of Champions championship game at Rutgers University. Wright’s daughter, Jazmine Wright, was a senior on that team. Jazmine Wright scored more than 2,000 points in her CHS career. When Johanna Wright retired in 2012, Jazmine Wright succeeded her mother as the CHS girls basketball head coach. 

Johanna Wright, who also led Columbia to the state TOC championship game in 2001 at the old Meadowlands Arena, was a recipient of the prestigious Frank McGuire Foundation Award in 2001. She also coached in the first McDonald’s All-American girls basketball game at Madison Square Garden in 2002.

Title IX was particularly meaningful to Amy Cohen, a 1988 Columbia High School graduate who lettered in gymnastics and volleyball. Cohen was a co-captain of the Brown University gymnastics team. In her senior year at Brown in 1992, she and 12 other Brown female athletes brought a lawsuit against the university for violation of Title IX after the school cut funding for gymnastics and volleyball. The Supreme Court refused to hear Brown’s appeal in 1997, upholding the appellate court’s decision that the university was in violation of the law. The university and the gymnastics team eventually reached a settlement that included continued funding for gymnastics and volleyball, while also elevating women’s lightweight crew, water polo and equestrian teams to varsity status.

In a recent phone interview with the News-Record, Cohen recalled the fight to keep gymnastics at Brown. “I was devastated,” said Cohen about the university’s decision to drop gymnastics. “Gymnastics is a sport that ends after college. After many, many years of hard work, I was going to miss my final year. At the time, Title IX was not well known. Now, 50 years after its passing and 30 years after my case, it has led to tremendous growth in opportunity for women and girls in sports. It’s really a driving force for equality for women in education. Title IX has been responsible for the large part of the progress that has been made, and, while there is still a long way to go, there has been huge progress.” 

At Columbia High School, there have been numerous legendary athletes, especially in track and field, such as four-time Olympian Joetta Clark; her younger sister, Hazel Clark, a three-time Olympian; and Olivia Baker. Joetta Clark, a 1980 CHS graduate, won four state Meets of Champions in the 800-meters for CHS before competing at the University of Tennessee, where she was an NCAA champion. She then competed in the 1988, 1992, 1996 and 2000 Olympics. Hazel Clark, a 1995 CHS graduate, was an NCAA champion at the University of Florida and competed in the 2000, 2004 and 2008 Olympics. Baker, a 2014 CHS graduate, swept 400-meter titles in every indoor and outdoor Meet of Champions and went on to star at Stanford University.

In a recent interview with the News-Record, Joetta Clark spoke about the impact of Title IX. “It provided me the opportunity to have an even playing field and … an opportunity to compete in sports and in the sports industry. In the past, we weren’t able to have the same amount of sports as men.”

Joetta Clark, recently featured on the cover of a Sports Illustrated issue about Title IX, said that, when she was at Columbia, there were several girls sports. However, unlike the boys, she had to pay for her own college recruiting trips.

Title IX is about making the playing field level, she said. “It’s not about taking from one group and giving it to another. It’s about having the opportunity to have everyone have the same opportunities and to have the benefits and be successful.”

In soccer, Kristen Bowsher, a 1983 CHS graduate, was named the Star-Ledger girls soccer player of the 20th century. Columbia started a girls soccer program in 1980. Bowsher became an All-American at the University of Massachusetts. 

In fencing, Nicole Mustilli, Class of 1995; her sister, Marissa Mustilli, Class of 1998; Monica Conley, Class of 1999; and Ibtihaj Muhammad, Class of 2003, who competed in the 2016 Olympics, were among the many CHS standouts for arguably one of the best girls programs in the state.

The late Gene Chyzowych, the legendary CHS boys soccer head coach who compiled 575 victories over 50 years, was also the girls volleyball head coach at CHS. From 1977 to 1984, he guided the CHS girls volleyball program to an astounding 247-match winning streak.

Title IX has helped open the door for female sports, but more needs to be done, said Johanna Wright.

“Title IX has afforded women opportunities to play, but it’s nowhere near where it should be, if you look at pay, look at equipment,” she said. “Whatever sports men had, women had to have as well. That’s how they wanted to begin leveling the field, but while they gave women those sports, they didn’t give them the things that they needed, in terms of money and facilities to make it viable and respectable.”

In CHS girls basketball’s glorious 2000-01 season, Johanna Wright recalled that the girls basketball Essex County Tournament semifinals and championship game were originally going to be played at East Orange, while the boys ECT games were to be played at the more prestigious Essex County College. Wright fought to have the girls’ games at Essex County College too.

At the time, Wright told the Star-Ledger that the decision deprived the girls of their dream to play those games at Essex County College. “These kids have worked hard and deserve better,” she said.

Wright successfully won her case to hold the games at ECC, and her team beat Orange in the semifinal and Shabazz in the championship. 

Title IX also helped girls who were not necessarily athletes but were involved in sports. For instance, Johanna Wright’s student managers received college scholarships.

“For me, it was a means to an end for our girls, whether they did it academically or athletically,” said Wright. “You were afforded that opportunity. I’ve had young ladies get full scholarships for managing my team, and nobody talks about that. Laura Golding was my first manager; she was at Boston College. And then there was Anita Levy, who was at Rutgers under Vivian Stringer who had a full scholarship. These girls got these scholarships because they knew exactly what to do to set up a program and to practice and run it, because they learned, and it paid off. So we had girls who vied to be managers, and guys, too. But in terms of Title IX, that was huge for me, and I was so excited for them, because they worked very, very hard. They just wanted to be around basketball. 

“Anita tried out for basketball and she said, ‘This is not for me, but I love the sport.’ So I said, ‘Why don’t you manage? I could use managers, and you can stay around it,’ and she ended up getting an internship at Madison Square Garden with the New York Liberty.”

In addition to her daughter, Johanna Wright coached other great girls basketball players at CHS, such as Mobolaji Akiode and Jessica Simmons. Akiode, a former Nigerian national player, started a nonprofit foundation called Hope 4 Girls Africa, designed to increase young African women’s participation in sports.

Photos Courtesy of Johanna Wright and Joetta Clark.