John Presnell was a teenage gymnast who knew nothing about volleyball. He had always been short, 5-3 as a freshman. His athletic prowess from him came on the pommel horse, vault and parallel bars.
But one day at the South Bend YMCA in the 1970s, a couple of guy volleyball players took Presnell out in the courtyard and asked him to pepper.
As they practiced bumping, spiking and setting, those guys told Presnell he had natural talent. I have started playing on men’s volleyball teams at the YMCA.
And I have started to grow.
As Presnell’s junior year at South Bend (Indiana) Adams High was set to begin, he was 5-10, strong and could jump. And it was then, as Presnell puts it nearly 50 years later, “kind of a weird scenario” played out.
It was a scenario that put Presnell on his high school girls’ volleyball team, pounding balls down so hard on the girls’ height net that they bounced up and hit the ceiling.
It was a scenario that came about because of a law that had passed three years before, Title IX.
NEVER MISS A MOMENT: Subscribe to our Sports newsletter to stay informed!
The law was intended to give girls and women equal treatment in educational and athletic programs that received federal funds. When it came to sports, girls were allowed to play on a boys team if the school didn’t offer a similar program for them.
But on the flipside of Title IX, some boys and men started using the law to do the same – to play on girls’ teams if a boys’ team wasn’t offered.
As the girls volleyball season approached South Bend Adams, Presnell was asked by Mel Goralski, “the godfather of male volleyball players in South Bend,” to try out for the girls high school team.
Goralski was on a mission to prove a point. He had petitioned South Bend’s school board in 1975 to begin a club boys volleyball program and had been turned down. One board member told him, “If boys want to play volleyball, they can go play with the girls.”
When Goralski asked Presnell to do just that, he remembers telling him, “Oh, I don’t know about that.”
“Mel said to me, ‘My son Brian is going to play at South Bend Clay,’ ” Presnell said, “‘so, you won’t be the only boy.’ “
Presnell tried out and made the team, along with two other boys, his junior and senior year. And in his senior season, South Bend Adams won the state championship against an all-girls Fort Wayne Concordia team.
Nearly 50 years later, Presnell is adamant. That team of girls would have won state without him on the court. And he is equally adamant: None if it was his idea of him.
“I was kind of a pawn.”
‘This wasn’t the true spirit of Title IX’
Presnell heard the boos, taunts and the terrible names. He was called those names, those politically incorrect, derogatory terms for women, by opposing fans.
People were outraged that a girls volleyball team was allowing boys to play. At one game, men and boys from the opposing team sat in the bleachers holding baseball bats, Presnell said.
In a game against Elkhart Central, Adams won 15-0, 15-0 when Elkhart chose to play “passively” in protest by not returning any serves.
On the court during his two seasons, Presnell said he focused on volleyball and drowned out the naysayers.
But when his team finished undefeated 21-0 and won the state championship 15-11, 15-9 against Fort Wayne Concordia in November 1976, it was hard to ignore what was happening.
Outside the Ben Davis gym, where the tournament was held, there were protests, the Indianapolis Star reported the next day. People were screaming, cars with South Bend license plates were vandalized and their gas tanks were filled with foreign substances.
Priscilla Dillow, who was director of Ben Davis girls sports and host tourney director, spoke after the championship game.
“I did say on the microphone, ‘I would like to say this is a happy occasion but it is not,’ ” Dillow wrote in an e-mail to IndyStar. “‘However, the IHSAA officials will now present the awards to the runner-up and state champion.’ “
South Bend Adams principal Bill Przybysz told the South Bend Tribune in 2016 that IHSAA officials refused to present the trophy to the team and, instead, left it sitting on the stage.
“It was our trophy, we earned it, I went and picked it up,” Przybysz said. “There were a lot of pointed comments.”
Presnell recalls the official passing out the state championship medals to the players.
“Before she did, she said, ‘As much as I hate to do it, the state champion Adams Eagles,’ ” Presnell said. “And she tossed me mine.”
Dillow disagrees, saying the championship trophy was not left for the team to pick up and that “the trophy and medals were presented appropriately as usual by IHSAA personnel.”
“This era was a very difficult time,” Dillow said, “and emotions ran high.”
Two days after the state tournament, the IHSAA amended its interpretation of Title IX to say that boys were not allowed to compete in girls sports.
A week after the state match, Concordia officials wrote to Przybysz, asking him to send them the championship trophy they felt they deserved.
That didn’t happen.
What did happen in 1976, an Indiana girls volleyball team with boys on the roster winning a state title, is not what Title IX was intended to accomplish, said Jay Berman, who was a chief aid to Sen. Birch Bayh, the author of Title IX, when it passed in 1972. .
“I don’t think it represents the true spirit of Title IX,” said Berman.
‘A sad ending’ not forgotten
The season before South Bend Adams won the state championship, South Bend Clay made it to the state finals with 6-2 middle blocker Brian Gorlaski on its girls team. Clay lost to Muncie North 15-6, 10-15, 15-13.
The loss by a team with a boy on the roster didn’t stop officials and girls volleyball players at Crispus Attucks from filing a lawsuit against the IHSAA saying boys shouldn’t be allowed on girls teams.
The court sided with the IHSAA saying its bylaws, according to Title IX, were constitutional.
But as Adams dominated the next season, with Presnell and teammates Rian Meyers and Paul Witherby, going undefeated leading up to the state tournament, people began speaking out again.
“That one team has three boys on it. That’s three out of six or 50% of the team that is boys,” Pat Roy, director of girls athletics for IHSAA told the Indianapolis Star days before the state tournament in 1976. “Many of the girls on the other teams are upset about it and so are some of the coaches.”
Roy said she expected an appeal might soon be filed to ban boys from girls teams in Indiana.
That didn’t happen before South Bend Adams won the state title. But shortly after, the IHSAA amended its rules to ban boys from competing in girls sports.
South Bend Adams coach Sue Ganser, who had welcomed Presnell and the other boys on her team, agreed with the IHSAA.
“It wasn’t our battle to fight. It was the IHSAA’s. I’m happy they’ve taken a stand,” she told the Indianapolis Star in 1976 “It’s something they should have done five years ago.”
The IHSAA ruling from 1976 still stands today.
“IHSAA by-laws do not allow boys to compete on girls teams in any sport,” said Jason Wille, IHSAA sports information director.
But that ruling from 1976, days after the girls volleyball state finals, never gave the Fort Wayne Concordia team the credit it was due, said Gary Davis. His wife Joyce Michael Davis played on the Concordia team.
“The damage was done,” he wrote in an email to IndyStar. “Adams was named state champ. Concordia was named runner-up. Volleyball fans, Concordia fans and Fort Wayne folks have not forgotten about this sad ending.”
‘Kicked Title IX in the butt’
Davis contends that the Concordia team from 1976 should be recognized in some way by the IHSAA.
“The IHSAA could have declared co-winners: Concordia the official girls champ and Adams the co-ed champ,” he said. “The IHSAA chose not to do so, sticking with a single winner.”
When asked if that had ever been considered, the IHSAA’s Wille said he wasn’t aware of any discussion since that time to recognize Concordia.
Presnell says the girls on his team “were really good.” And, he says, they would have won the state championship without him.
While there were three boys on the team, Presnell was the only boy starter. And “all the girls were better than the other boys,” he said.
“We had, without a doubt, the best setter around in Luie Dragovich,” he said. “I really think they would have gotten to state and the Concordia match would have been a great one.”
Presnell said the male presence on the Adams team pushed the girls.
“At practice they wanted to beat up on us, hit like us,” he said. “And, unknowingly, our presence in volleyball really kind of kicked Title IX in the butt. It did have a big effect and a big positive effect on the girls.”
Dragovich was the first girl from Indiana to get a full ride to play volleyball at a Division I school, Ohio State.
“A lot of girls got scholarships who wouldn’t have gotten noticed if not for coaches going up to see the novelty of boys playing in South Bend,” Presnell said.
And the Concordia girls were gracious in their loss, he said.
“After the match was over, they came up, shook my hand, and said, ‘All we wanted to do was get here to play against you,'” Presnell said. “I thought that was great.”
While Concordia’s 1976 girls volleyball team never got statewide recognition, it was inducted into its school’s hall of fame in 2021 as the first team in history to play in a state championship.
Davis said Fort Wayne is proud of that and of the team, but his question lingers.
“Will the IHSAA ever do the right thing,” he said, “and amend the historical record of girls sports in Indiana?”
Follow IndyStar sports reporter Dana Benbow on Twitter: @DanaBenbow.