Gateway: Sports

O’Dell, member of 1979 Peninsula High state basketball champions, has No. 32 jersey retired

Mary Ann O’Dell has no shortage of memories at Peninsula High School. She attended the school in the late 1970s and starred as a three-sport athlete for the Seahawks, playing volleyball, basketball and track.

She won the Class 2A state championship with the basketball team in 1979, guiding the team to a 27-0 record that season.

After playing basketball at the University of Oregon, O’Dell came back to Peninsula, where she has been a teacher for the past 35 years. She coached the girls basketball team her first 11 years at the school.

And now, she’ll have another accolade.

Before the Peninsula girls game against Central Kitsap on Jan. 25, O’Dell (formerly Stoican) had her No. 32 jersey retired by the school.

Despite still working at the school and generally hearing rumblings of what’s going on around her, O’Dell had no idea her jersey was going to be retired on Friday night. She was just happy to be at the game with some former teammates, celebrating the 40th anniversary of the 1979 state championship, the program’s lone state title.

“I thought it was just a celebration with the team,” O’Dell said. “I was totally shocked and surprised. It was such an honor to share that with everyone.”

Paul Berg, the coach of the 1979 team, who taught 23 years in the Peninsula School District and coached at both Peninsula and Gig Harbor, was also in attendance. Retiring O’Dell’s number has actually been a project of Berg’s over the last decade or so.

“I’ve been working on that through three principals,” Berg said. “Upwards of eight to 10 years, I’ve been bugging them to do something about it. (Current principal) Dave Goodwin was a student of mine at Gig Harbor High.”

And current vice principal Melissa McNeish played basketball at Peninsula High. Goodwin and McNeish, along with athletic director Ross Filkins, were all on board with making the jersey retirement happen.

“I don’t know how we ever kept it from (O’Dell),” Berg said. “Somehow, it never got back to her.”

Girls sports were still in the building stages in 1979. Peninsula’s state championship win came on the heels of Title IX, federal legislation passed in 1972, guaranteeing equity in athletics. As with any civil rights movement, Title IX was met with various forms of pushback.

“The politics of it was very tough,” Berg said.

Berg recalls going to the coach of the boys basketball team, at the time, and inquiring about gym time for the girls team. The freshman boys practiced at 6:30 a.m. that year.

“He said, ‘I suppose you could turn out at 5:30 in the morning,’” Berg said.

That wasn’t going to happen on Berg’s watch.

“We had to put pressure on various people to get us gym time,” Berg said. “Once we got that, some folks on the boys’ program didn’t quite like that. They thought it was their gym.”

Berg, along with others, staunchly advocated for equity in women’s sports.

“It’s a cool time for girls,” O’Dell said. “It hasn’t always been that way. Paul fought for equity for us, and I know it didn’t always make everyone happy around him.”

Peninsula won four games in the Class 2A state tournament in 1979, beating R.A. Long, Mount Vernon and North Kitsap, before defeating Hanford, 52-46, in the championship game at Bellevue Community College on March 3.

“You never forget those moments, sharing those moments with your teammates,” O’Dell said. “All the hard work and conditioning that goes into that.”

What Berg remembers most about the 1979 team was how easy the group of girls was to coach.

“They were a group of girls that loved to play basketball,” he said. “They never had disputes with each other. They always got along. … All the girls wanted to do is play. They enjoyed winning.”

The 1979 team had plenty of talent, including 5-foot-11 center Kim Larsen, who went on to a golf career at Washington State University, guards Sara Eason, Janelle Rice and others.

“We just had a really good group of girls who believed in what we were doing and worked hard,” O’Dell said.

But the team’s focal point was O’Dell.

“She could shoot from the outside, shoot from the inside, rebound the ball,” Berg said. “She was special. But the nice thing about that team is that they didn’t care who scored. They all played together. They were unselfish.”

After the game, some players from the current Peninsula girls basketball team came to take pictures with members of the 1979 team. Maybe this year’s team can win a state title, 40 years after the last one. O’Dell, for her part, doesn’t see why not.

“They’re good enough when they play hard,” she said. “They’re playing really well right now.”