Eleventh-year Our Lady of Good Counsel High School softball coach Paula Obal often marvels at the zeal with which most athletes enter her program as freshmen.
When she was a freshman at the now defunct Academy of the Holy Names High School in Silver Spring in 1966-67 she didn't even have a varsity team to play on, let alone a college scholarship to pursue.
Obal, who grew up in a family of elite-level baseball players, was introduced to the “girl's version” of that sport — softball — in fourth grade with a Catholic Youth Organization recreational team. After eighth grade she didn't play competitive softball until she graduated from Frostburg State University in 1974 and joined the national-caliber Washington Metros in the Guy Mason Fastpitch League in Washington, D.C.
“It was just different back then,” said Obal, who in 1975 became one of Montgomery County's first female police officers. “It's just how it was; you didn't really think about it. You see these girls [now] and they have bigger goals and they're set so early. They're coming in so much more confident. They've been training, they get into the school weight rooms. They know what they have to do to be successful.”
Obal ventured to the Frostburg weight room a few times, but that garnered strange looks. Girls lifting weights, she said, was taboo.
A lot has changed for female athletes since Obal's youth thanks to Title IX becoming law in 1972. While most associate the federal law with sports, it is a gender equity rule that requires equality for boys and girls in every educational program that receives federal funding. Athletic budgets must be equal for both boys and girls sports at high schools and men's and women's programs at colleges.
These days young girls are encouraged to pursue physical activity if for no other reason than the health benefits that come with exercise.
In 1971-72 only 7 percent of the nation's total 3,960,932 student-athletes were girls, according to the National Federation of State High School Association's yearly participation survey. In 2010-11 there were 3,173,549 girls in high school athletics, 41 percent of the overall number.
Facilities and equipment for girls sports have vastly improved, said softball coach Pat Flanagan, who has been coaching in Montgomery County for 36 years, the past 16 at Sherwood High School. Boys and girls programs now have comparable scheduling, and the overall attitude toward female athletes has changed, she added.
But the biggest impact the law has had, Walter Johnson Athletic Director Sue Amos said, has been the opportunity for girls to acquire college scholarships.
Amos played field hockey, basketball, volleyball and softball at Perry High School in Aspen Hill from 1966-69. She also enjoyed tennis, but the school didn't have a program.
There were few opportunities to play sports before high school, Obal, Amos and Flanagan agreed, and whatever was offered was recreational.
“You go to these high school games and you see these little girls on the sidelines emulating what the bigger girls do, they've already started playing on some of these travel teams. That wasn't around when I was a kid,” Flanagan said. “Girls aren't coming into high school to play a varsity sport who need a lot of skill development anymore.”
Change didn't happen overnight, Flanagan said. Women still faced an uphill battle against stereotypes and ridicule.
But the more opportunities they took advantage of, she said, the more confident and willing to fight for their new rights they became.
“It's terrific how many opportunities girls have now,” Flanagan said. “There are no limitations, they are only limited by themselves and how hard they're willing to work. What percent of them are going to be professional athletes? Probably 99.9 percent won't be. But hopefully [their participation in sports] has given them a sense of what it's like to be in society, gives them the self confidence, the leadership skills, all the things that make them better in whatever they do.”