1837-2019: A look at Mount Holyoke Athletics through the years

Photo courtesy of Archives and Special Collections The 1987-1988 Mount Holyoke Water Polo Club poses for a group photo. The club, which existed from 1984-1996 and met in the fall and the spring, was dedicated to teaching members the rules of the game and perfecting skills and techniques for matchups against other colleges.

Photo courtesy of Archives and Special Collections
The 1987-1988 Mount Holyoke Water Polo Club poses for a group photo. The club, which existed from 1984-1996 and met in the fall and the spring, was dedicated to teaching members the rules of the game and perfecting skills and techniques for matchups against other colleges.


Mount Holyoke Female Seminary was founded in 1837 by Mary Lyon, who believed in exercise of both the mind and the body. From its inception, students were required to walk one mile after breakfast in addition to their academic studies and were taught calisthenics — a form of exercise focused on gross motor movements — by instructors. In order to keep costs low, Lyon mandated students assist with daily domes- tic work, like carrying wood and coal, and washing floors and windows, which also served to maintain levels of physical fitness.

In the following decades, activities like croquet, ice skating and archery were introduced to Mount Holyoke, opening up new methods for students to participate in physical activity. At the turn of the century, students established the Athletic Association, which formalized the organization of sports and allowed for intramural competition. Blanchard Hall, which was to become the College’s physical education facility, was built in 1899. In 1908, history was made at a basketball game against Radcliffe College, which became Mount Holyoke’s first-ever intercollegiate sports competition.

With the passage of Title IX in 1972, known then as the “Sport Law,” opportunities continued to grow for women in sports. In a report submitted to the office of the president in 1978, the physical education department wrote, “Until the 1970s, women’s colleges offered much more in the way of instruction and competition in sports for women than coeducational institutions.” According to the burgeoning law, athletic programs between men and women must be equal. “While other programs must grow, we are not threatened because of Title IX,” said the department. Instead, they argued that the College must become competitive with coed schools and appeal to women by improving facilities, adding staff members, and editing the physical education curriculum.

Students also began to petition Mount Holyoke for improvement in athletics and physical education. In 1976, the Student Conference Committee (SCC) appealed to the Board of Trustees in a letter, requesting additional financial support for intercollegiate athletes. They outlined three necessary plans of action: first, they sought funding to update workout equipment, which they said must be separate from the materials used by physical education classes. Second, they asked that student-athletes who pay board be fed at the College’s expense (as they were forced to finance their own meals when competition extended past 6 p.m.). And finally, the SCC also pressed for paid transportation to and from events, provided by Mount Holyoke, and asked that athletes representing the College in tournaments receive financial support.

Requests for improved facilities continued to build in the early ’80s, from students as well as faculty and staff. On March 4, 1980, the physical education department submitted a 19-page proposal to the College that detailed the current state of Mount Holyoke Athletics. After having expanded the number of varsity sports teams from five to 12 in the past eight years, it was difficult to accommodate all of them in the College’s limited facilities. Not to mention that at the time, the gymnasium in Kendall Hall did not have a regulation size basketball court and the pool was not deep enough to meet minimum safety requirements for div- ing.

Due to these limitations, other schools refused to compete at the College. Additionally, the physical edu- cation department claimed that Mount Holyoke athletes were unable to be trained at the proper level and prospective students would elect to go to institutions with better facilities. “It is essential for us to continue to make improvements if we are going to provide an athletic program for our students that is on par with programs at similar institutions,” stated the proposal.

The campaigns for improved facilities undertaken by members of the Mount Holyoke community paid off. On March 4, 1983, the Board of Trustees voted to undergo a nine million dollar renovation project to Kendall Hall. “On the day of the announcement, student reaction was jubilant,” stated a Dec. 1984 publication called “Mount Holyoke in Motion,” which was dedicated to the new complex. Renovations called for an extra 100,000 square feet to be added to Kendall — more the double the facility’s size at the time — and included features like a fieldhouse, outdoor track, natatorium and performance dance studio as well as competitive basketball and volleyball courts.

Ellen Perrella, Head Athletic Trainer, has worked at Mount Holyoke since 1984. Her arrival at Mount Holyoke coincided with the completion of the new project — the fully renovated Kendall Sports and Dance Complex, which opened in the fall of 1984. “[When I started], they were just finishing the fieldhouse,” said Perrella. “It was exciting to have that addition to Kendall, now it is hard to imagine Kendall without it.”

A Sept. 17, 1998 article from the Mount Holyoke News titled, “The Power of Perrella,” discusses the changes Perrella brought to campus athletics during the first ten years of her residency at Mount Holyoke. “All fall teams on campus are warming up with seemingly peculiar movements,” wrote the author. The movements, like high knee thrusts and rapid leg swings, were part of Perrella’s program of static

stretching and conditioning designed to improve the long-term fitness of student-athletes.

“Twenty years ago, most folks were doing a lot of isolated, machine-based, one-dimensional exercises,” she said. “I was on the forefront of promoting a three- dimensional, integrated functional approach to both stretching and strengthening, which is now widely accepted and routinely used by most teams.” The changes Perrella implemented were modern, turning away from the traditionally isolated focus of strength training without regard for flexibility or conditioning. Today, Perrella believes “the importance of weight training and its role in injury prevention and performance enhancement is more broadly appreciated” in the athletics world, and especially at Mount Holyoke.

In recent years, Perrella has noticed that there seems to be more pressure placed on athletic programs, both at Mount Holyoke and at other institutions. “I think the expectations are higher all around — on the coaches, athletes and support services,” she said. With this, Perrella has also observed greater prevalence of mental health issues. “Health Services, as well as our athletic department, has worked to meet this demand and help student-athletes that are struggling,” she said. “One positive change I see is there is less of a stigma associated with mental health and in seeking counseling and therapy.”

She also added, “Two very current and hot topics now are concussions and mental health. The importance of recognition, care and understanding of the long-term implications of multiple concussions have changed dramatically in recent years.”

Head Field Hockey Coach Andy Whitcomb began at Mount Holyoke in 1998 and oversaw two varsity teams, softball and field hockey. There were significant challenges ahead; in field hockey, Whitcomb was taking over a team that had won about five games in five years, whereas in softball, the team was treated by the community as “more of an afterthought in the spring.”

“Baseball and softball have it tough in this part of the country because you’re really beholden to the weather,” said Whitcomb. “We were often playing double and triple headers to make up for games.” Long winters and poor weather prevented the softball team from getting in proper practice and gameplay. Additionally, coaching two teams simultaneously was tough and the College chose not to split the position. For these reasons, among others, the softball team was disbanded after its 2004 spring season. “I think it was a very difficult decision for the Athletic Director at the time, but I do think it was the right decision,” said Whitcomb.

Meanwhile, the field hockey team Whitcomb had entered was accustomed to losing by six to eight points, but in subsequent years, under Whitcomb’s tutelage, the field hockey team progressed, experiencing periods of highs and lows, while Kendall underwent several more renovations. Still, there is room for improvement. Whitcomb identified the need for a dedicated strength and conditioning coach, full-time assistant coaches and improved amenities — particularly updated locker rooms, which have remained the same since she arrived on campus, and a bigger area to watch film as a team. “These are all those things [that should be improved upon] if Mount Holyoke wants to be on that upper echelon,” said Whitcomb. “Field hockey has been the anomaly. For some reason, we’ve been able to do it without those things. But I do think it’s going to catch up to us.”

“We [at Mount Holyoke] were always trying to keep up with the Joneses. And the Smiths — no pun intended,” said Whitcomb. “What I will say about Mount Holyoke is a lot of times they drag their feet for these big changes, as in turf, the dining hall, Kendade. But then you look at the dining hall, you look at Kendade — it’s top shelf.”

Looking at the upcoming season, Whitcomb has two main goals in mind. “We lost four out of five games in overtime last year,” she said. “I think turning those four games around is going to be huge.” Additionally, she thinks it’s essential to find a definitive starter for goalkeeper. “Our challenge right now is our goaltending position and trying to get that sealed down,” said Whitcomb.

In the past season, field hockey introduced 10 first-years to the team. “That was huge, and they’re just great kids,” said Whitcomb of the newest members of the team. “Already, so many of them have improved from fall to spring so I’m excited to see what they’re going to bring.”

Throughout all of these changes, one thing has always been consistent: what it means to be a Mount Holyoke athlete. “The M.O. on the Mount Holyoke College athlete has stayed the same, which is a good thing. They work hard,” Whitcomb emphasized. “Mount Holyoke kids never give up. In the course of 21 years, the mantra has always stayed the same — down and dirty, hardworking and will often outwork other teams.”

In the words of Ellen Perrella: “It was, is, and always will be great to be a Lyon.”