Title IX arrived at the perfect time for Kathy Allen, who coached Baker University’s volleyball team from 1998 to 2016.
Signed into law in 1972 as part of the Education Amendments, Title IX was created to provide equal opportunities for both men and women in sports and in the classroom. Allen was a sophomore at Lansing High School then and quickly became immersed in athletics and part of the original Lansing Lions to participate in volleyball, basketball, and track. Before then, she was limited to equestrian, cheerleading, and “other things girls were expected to participate in,” she said. “Once I was able to play, I fell in love with team sports, especially volleyball. I didn’t realize it then, but in hindsight being on the inaugural team ended up being a really big deal, and I’m so happy that I had the opportunity to play.”
“From the minute Title IX legislation was passed in 1972 to the present day, it has had an impact on my life from playing to coaching. None of it could’ve happened without the passage of that legislation. It was very, very important to girls and women. And certainly to me . . . opening doors previously closed, and I was delighted to nudge them open.”
Allen built Baker’s program into a perennial winner, compiling 385 victories. That total ranks No. 1 for coaches in all sports at Baker.
For her success and the impact she has made in women’s athletics, Allen was recently featured on WIBW-TV in Topeka as a Title IX at 50 Trailblazer. She founded the Topeka Junior Olympic Volleyball Club, coached high school volleyball and was a graduate assistant at Emporia State and interim head coach at Washburn University before taking over Baker’s program in the late 1990s.
“When WIBW contacted me for the Title IX at 50 Trailblazer feature, I was surprised and thrilled,” Allen said. “I got to join a group of women who in my mind were true legends. Several of them mentored me as a young coach, and all of them have made a profound impact on girls and women in athletics over the years. I consider the nomination to be included with this group of truly talented women to be one of the greatest honors in my life.”
Building Women’s Programs a Goal in 1990s
During the late 1990s, Baker Director of Athletics Dan Harris had a vision of building Baker’s women’s programs, Allen recalled.
“Dan Harris was on a mission to improve the standing of the women’s programs,” she said. “I loved Baker so much and was so excited and happy to be here. I imagine that made recruiting easier. My motto was ‘Bring ’em down; we’ll win them over.’ My assistants bought in and within two years, the program was on its way, and the players became our best recruiters. They loved Baker, the team, they wanted to win, they had fun, enjoyed each other, and the attitude was contagious.
“Over the years we brought in some tremendous talent who could easily have played at much larger schools but chose Baker. As our success improved, high school, club, and junior college pipelines became solidified, and many years we were done recruiting with a full roster before Christmas break. Then all we had to do was train them. . . . That was the easy part.”
On Sept. 23, Baker University will induct an all-female class into the Athletic Hall of Fame in honor of the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Allen is looking forward to the ceremony at Rice Auditorium and recognizes the significance of the all-female class. She will be joined by longtime golf coach Dr. Karen Hunt Exon; soccer players Chelsea (Dunn) Willis and Christine (Janssens) Morton; track athlete Ashlee (Miller) Valentin; and volleyball player Brooke (Pryor) Hiatt.
“Entering the Hall of Fame is one of the greatest honors of my life,” Allen said. “I’m proud to stand by my colleagues and great athletes and be included in the female legacy of my beloved university. I’m humbled and grateful to see the great work my teams did over the years being recognized. They’re the ones who did the work, and I couldn’t be prouder of them.”
Supporting Women’s Athletics Remains a Priority
Director of Athletics Susan Decker echoes Allen’s sentiments. Decker coached Baker’s basketball team from 2000 to 2011. In her previous role as Baker’s Senior Woman Administrator, she provided leadership and guidance in the area of Title IX and gender equity planning for both men’s and women’s sports.
“I’m extremely excited to be able to honor an all-female class in the year of the 50th anniversary of Title IX,” said Decker, who oversees 10 programs for women, 10 for men, and three coed programs at Baker. “I can’t think of a better way to recognize the impact that Title IX has had on Baker women’s athletics over the years.”
Decker has seen more support of women’s athletics at Baker in the past 20 years.
“Baker has supported our female coaches over the years by making it a priority to increase salaries, to support them in professional development opportunities, and to fund operational budgets to be more in line with their male counterparts,” she said. “Baker has supported our female athletes by increasing scholarship funding and providing them with opportunities to compete at the highest level of their sport.”Susan Decker, Director of Athletics
Decker is grateful for the opportunities athletics has provided her as a student-athlete, coach, and administrator.
“I was more fortunate than some because Title IX had already come into play when I started playing sports in high school, but I do remember prior to middle school we were able to play against other surrounding schools with a team we had put together,” she said. “Looking back now, it was probably the start of AAU competition for girls. As an administrator, I’ve seen women rise to the upper ranks of administration much more over the last 10 years or so at the NAIA level as well as the NCAA DI level. That is the biggest difference I’ve seen colleges and universities make in the hiring process.”
Dr. Karen Hunt Exon
Graduating a year before Title IX was formed, Karen Hunt Exon started the Baker women’s golf team in 1997 for a one-year trial and continued coaching through 2019.
“This award validates that my one-year trial period commitment in 1997 was the right choice for BU, for student-athletes, and for the game of golf,” she said.
“It is fair to say that Title IX forced me back into athletic coaching, and without that federal Title IX, I would never have been asked to coach collegiately,” Exon said. “Likewise, I would not have taken the steps to become such a student of the game, rules, and golf tournament administration.”
She served eight years as president of the Kansas Women’s Golf Association. Noticed by the USGA in 2015, she began serving as a committee-person and continues to serve in that capacity.
Her fondest memories at BU include coaching and mentoring the student-athletes she recruited and remaining in contact with them after they graduated. She guided five teams to the NAIA National Tournament, four NAIA women’s golf All-Americans, 37 Academic All-Americans, and four conference champions. She joined many golfers on community service projects.
“Rev. Ira DeSpain, ’70, and I partnered from the mid-1990s into the early 2010s to take golfers and BU students on a spring break trip to Gulf Shores, Alabama,” she recalled. “All of them did 20 hours of community service. The golfers had to engage in warm-weather practice while there too. Those weeks that golf traveled to Gulf Shores were so fun and such valuable team-building and character-building opportunities.”
Although she did not have the benefit of competing athletically in high school, Exon fortunately had a supportive father who did not associate gender with athleticism or any other of life’s pursuits.
“In our house, if it was round and we could bounce, throw, kick, or hit it, we played it,” she remembered of childhood days in Topeka. “We were outdoors playing constantly as a family. Our yard was where neighbor kids congregated. And because our neighbor kids were mostly boys and me, I played baseball, football, dodgeball, kickball, and tennis on an equal footing with the other kids.
“As for golf, my dad cut down an old wedge, mid-iron, and putter. I learned the basics of golf on the Washburn University sand-green nine-hole golf course that ran from 17th and Jewell along MacVicar and east along 21st Street back inward to about 17th and Jewell. So while I was infrequently jealous that I couldn’t have those school-related athletic outlets, life wasn’t all bad,” she said.
Chelsea (Dunn) Willis, ’11
A standout defender for Baker’s soccer team, Willis was honored as Baker’s Defensive Most Valuable Player for three seasons and the conference’s top defensive player in 2009. She was a key member of Baker’s first NAIA national semifinal team in 2010 that qualified for nationals for the first time with a 11-5-4 record after winning the conference tournament.
“This is a huge honor and truly the pinnacle of my athletic career,” Willis said the Hall of Fame recognition. “I remember attending one of the Athletic Hall of Fame ceremonies while I was a student. During the ceremony, I was very inspired by the former athletes and the people they had become. It was something I really looked up to, and I knew I wanted to be one of them one day. I am thrilled to now be in this very same position. I loved my time at Baker and feel so blessed.”
Willis fondly remembers long road trips and practices, where “the real work happens,” and of course the Wildcats’ deep run in the national tournament.
“We experienced all the highs and lows together throughout our careers,” she said. “We fought and loved like sisters. Everyone was essential on the team, and we all had the same dream. I’ll never forget the night we beat Graceland University to move on to the conference championship. We had never beat them before, and they had always seemed impossible to overcome. We all believed that night and the rest was history—literal history. We kept winning all the way to the semifinals. Baker women’s soccer had never done this before. The school had a watch party, and we could feel the love. When we came home, they had signs up all over campus cheering us on. We felt like heroes.”
Willis is honored to be inducted with the Hall of Fame class that will forever be tied to the 50th anniversary of Title IX.
“This means more to me than you know,” said Willis, a physician at Family Medicine of Tonganoxie and a medical director for vaccines for children. “My very own mother was not allowed to participate in sports. She was a natural athlete but never got to participate in athletics competitively. Watching me succeed in sports has been one of her greatest joys and proudest moments. I hope all women today recognize that it wasn’t always so easy for us. I feel very thankful for the women who fought for these rights not so long ago.”
Christine (Janssens) Morton, ’11
A three-time MVP of the soccer team in 2008-2010, Morton was honored three times as an NAIA Academic All-American and two-time NAIA All-American.
Shortly after graduating from Park Hill South High School, Morton was fortunate to travel to Germany and Austria in 2007 during the preseason of her freshman year. Their plane was delayed multiple times, and upon arrival the team had to take a bus straight to their first game after not eating much.
“That trip really built and solidified friendships on the team and began a strong bond that would last many years and carry us through many seasons.”
Like Willis, she will never forget playing in the national tournament her senior year.
“We had worked very hard to get there and were beating odds left and right,” Morton recalled. “I remember that our bench wasn’t very deep—meaning we were actually low on healthy players to even occupy a spot on the field. We had few subs, and the people who were on that team had so much grit and strength. I still am amazed we upset so many great teams. We survived on Quiznos—our team’s superstitious meal before every game—and the high from our last win. The senior class that year was strong, and we were so determined to continue to carry the team as far as our legs could takes us.”
And the return trip to Baldwin City was memorable, especially after the campus community caught the semifinal game on a livestream in Harter Union.
“The support and love we saw during that trip to Alabama was the most attention a female sport at Baker had received,” Morton said. “It was really surreal. I had never experienced such support in all my years as a female athlete. I was excited and humbled when we returned from nationals, and it’s a feeling I will cherish and always remember.”
Morton earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and was named one of Baker’s outstanding seniors in 2011. She is an oncology nurse.
Ashlee (Miller) Valentin, ’11
A three-time NAIA All-American in pentathlon, heptathlon, and long jump, Valentin was selected as Baker’s Track and Field Female Athlete of the Year in 2007. She was the 2009 Heart of America Athletic Conference Indoor Track and Field MVP before graduating in 2011 with a degree in exercise science.
“It is an honor and dream,” Valentin said of her selection. “All Baker athletes have seen the Sports Hall of Fame [in Collins Center] and read through the stories of the great athletes that have walked its halls. As a freshman, I recall thinking to myself, ‘I want to be up there. I want to do great things like all these people before me.’ To be nominated was truly a dream of mine. The honor comes from being allowed to tell my story, to perhaps inspire and make others dream as I did of the possibilities of what they could do.”
Valentin’s fondest memories revolve around training with her teammates on the Baldwin Golf Course during the preseason.
“I truly do believe we all had respect for each other,” she said. “We all put in the work and suffered together. It created a type of camaraderie that couldn’t be replicated anywhere else.”
Valentin values the opportunities Title IX created.
“I went to college and got a degree, participated in university sport, and continued on to get my doctorate in chiropractic while being pregnant—things that would have been impossible for a woman to do before Title IX. I am who I am because of Title IX,” she said.
“Title IX has allowed women to not only participate in sport but to also create a legacy,” Valentin said. “My daughter knows she is an athlete partly because of her mom, and I know I am an athlete partly because of my mom. Before my mother, however, no one really knows. To think of all the past generations of females who never became known as an athlete. To not do what they love because it wasn’t allowed or just not socially accepted. I am thankful for Title IX and how it has helped create this special connection with my mother, daughter, and future generation.”
Brooke (Pryor) Hiatt, ’11
A volleyball and basketball standout, Hiatt was the Conference Player of the Year in 2009 and became the first Wildcat to earn All-American status in volleyball. She ranked 10th nationally in total kills per set her senior year.
“Being inducted into the Hall of Fame is a huge honor,” she said. “I’m so proud to be joining a very talented and elite group of athletes and coaches.”
Hiatt, a physician assistant in orthopedics with Olathe Health, played her entire collegiate volleyball career under coach Kathy Allen, another member of the 2022 Hall of Fame class.
“I benefited tremendously from Title IX,” Hiatt said. “Athletics were a huge part of my life. I have loved sports since I was little and playing county tee ball. Being female and having the opportunity to go out for sports throughout my school years made a huge impact in who I am today. I learned amazing values through athletics. None of that would have been possible without Title IX and the females that paved the way like my coach, Kathy Allen. She was able to play volleyball only when Title IX went into legislation and from that point on she continued to promote females in athletics for so many years. Her coaching is a huge part of my success in athletics. Ultimately as athletes and coaches we all want to win, but Kathy understood that forming her athletes into amazing women was the biggest victory of all.”
Written by Steve Rottinghaus, ’14 MSM