For a few bright minutes they mingled on the court, separated by more than 40 years but matching in heart, all Bisons women's volleyball champions in their day.

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For a few bright minutes they mingled on the court, separated by more than 40 years but matching in heart, all Bisons women's volleyball champions in their day.

At the centre of it all were three emissaries from the 1970-71 team that made Canadian history.

Donna Dawson (from left in foreground), Joan Chaput and Sharon Martin were teammates on the trail-blazing 1970-71 national champions.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Donna Dawson (from left in foreground), Joan Chaput and Sharon Martin were teammates on the trail-blazing 1970-71 national champions.

They were the first, you see. The first of seven Bisons women's volleyball teams to win nationals, the first University of Manitoba women's team in any sport to accomplish such a feat. And on a brisk Saturday in early March, 1971, that spunky young squad claimed the country's first official national women's volleyball crown.

On Wednesday, three alumnae from that ground-breaking team gathered at Investors Group Athletic Centre to meet this season's reigning CIS champions. It was the middle of a key practice for the Bisons as they prepared to host the daunting Alberta Golden Bears this weekend. But when Joan Chaput, Sharon Martin and Donna Dawson walked in to take some photos, the young athletes paused to meet the women who had walked their path before.

Some things never change. This year's Bisons are smaller than some of their lanky rivals, and that 1971 squad was much the same.

"We were the tallest ones on our team," laughed Martin, who stands about 5-9, and the current Bisons grinned -- not much different, they said.

In other ways, the Bisons women's program has come a long way in 44 years. Back then, there was no recruitment and no scholarships either. The women played only for the love of the game. Today, the athletes hit the weight room relentlessly, building powerful legs.

"Most of this team is kicking everyone's butt in the weight room," laughed star hitter Rachel Cockrell, who boasts a daunting squat. "Guys or girls."

But there wasn't much of a fitness plan for the "Bisonettes" in 1971. There were stairs in the drafty old fieldhouse where they played, so that's how they trained. That old fieldhouse was later demolished and a parkade and nursing classrooms went up in its place. But Sharon Martin can still picture those stairs.

University of Manitoba Bisonette volleyball team,1970/1971. See sidebar for list of names.

University of Manitoba Bisonette volleyball team,1970/1971. See sidebar for list of names.

"We ran the stairs, up and down," Martin recalled, chatting over coffee a few days after Christmas. "Jumped them. There wasn't a program set up for you, to do on your own. It was basically, you showed up for practice, and that's where you did everything."

They were a young team in the winter of 1970-71, many of them phys-ed students freshly moved up from the Bisonettes' junior squad. A slew of older players graduated at the end of the previous season, so there were holes to be filled. But what they lacked in experience they made up in hustle, Martin and Dawson agreed, and a stout defence. They worked hard on that during their Monday night games, building lots of motion into the back court.

Eventually, that work took them all the way to that first official Canadian title.

In 1969-70, Canadian universities had organized an unofficial women's championship, which the Calgary Dinnies won. The Dinnies were a fearsome squad and nobody expected the Manitobans to beat them in the Western championship. So before that final, setter Donna Dawson and some of her teammates schlepped out to a department store in Calgary in search of a secret weapon.

"We needed some kind of psychological lift," Dawson said. "These shorts that we wore were pale gold, and see-through, and you always had to wear white under. So we went, and we bought the loudest printed, paisley, geometric, polka-dot and striped underwear we could find, and we wore them underneath. So every time we bent over, you could see. And that really did it, that gave us the extra kind of... it inspired us."

The pick-me-up worked. The Bisonettes toppled the Dinnies in the final and with it earned a chance to compete for the first official Canadian Women's Intercollegiate Athletic Union championship. They played their hearts out in Calgary then, rolled all the way to the final, where they surged past a tall and veteran University of Toronto team in four confident sets: 15-7, 16-18, 15-9 and 15-3.

It's strange how time and memory works, how the impressions that last are often the ones made off the court. The games mingle together, Dawson and Martin nodded, but moments spent with teammates stretch forever. Dawson remembers how the team would throw on their coats during the championship tournament and spill out of the Calgary gym into the brisk March air. Martin remembers how they rested in the hallway between matches, feet pressed against the wall.

But of the championship tilt, they remember very little, not much at all -- except that they had to catch their flight home as soon as it was won.

"It probably wasn't much of a celebration, other than being really excited," Dawson mused. "We celebrated, but we had to get on a plane and get moving. There was just the excitement of winning, and being the underdogs, and beating Toronto."

Their win was "a Cinderella story," the Calgary Herald reported, though it passed with little notice. The Free Press didn't cover their win. And it took a persistent team manager to convince the city to award commemorative rings, the way they did for champion football teams -- and Chaput didn't even get one of those. "Volleyball within the province was just in its infancy and it was a women's sport," Martin said. "That's probably the number one."

No matter. By winning the first national title, those Bisonettes helped dig the foundation for all that has come since.

"For women's sport at the university level, that was almost ground zero, I would say," said Bisons head coach Ken Bentley Tuesday afternoon. "It has to be fairly close to it."

A month earlier, Bentley discovered a roster of the 1970-71 team in an old computer folder. It was an exciting find. At 52, the head coach now sees the gaps in CIS history looming larger in his mind. There were few staff to keep track of things in the early days and even the Bisonettes coaches were only part-time -- professors in the university's young physical education program, mostly.

"Just having a view now with some history behind it, I appreciate more now the people that had been there previous," Bentley said. "Going back to the very first one is pretty cool. The tragedy is that we really don't know much about it. I don't think we've done a great job of documenting our history. I think that Canadian sport in general has not done nearly the same job, if we compare to what the U.S. has done with their history. We're a bit slower to the party."

Of course, Bentley has the "now" to worry about. Last weekend, the Bisons opened the second half of their season with a two-match sweep of Mount Royal. They had to shake off a little holiday rust: Their reaction time was a little slow, Cockrell thought, and their timing was a bit off. But libero Caleigh Dobie was a rock on defence and in Saturday's four-set win she put up 30 digs -- just one shy of a Manitoba single-match record.

They needed those wins, badly. Before the break, the team was 6-8, and Canada West is a tough conference. Now, at 8-8, they're ready to try and fight their way into one of Canada West's seven playoff spots. It's gonna be tough.

"This second term is, wow, we have to win," Bentley said. "This month will tell the tale."

The battle up the standings, the gotta-win matches, these are songs that have been sung by every athlete that's come before. It's a thread of competition that runs straight from the 1970-71 Bisons, to the athletes who will suit up to face the University of Alberta today.

In the meantime, the world has changed.

"How many choices did we have? A nurse, a teacher, a secretary," Dawson said. "Those were sort of the three choices. One night I remember waking up and going, 'I'm going to be a phys-ed teacher,' and that was still very new."

History was written by the women who showed up, pulled on flimsy gold shorts and just played the game.

"It's crazy to think, how times have changed so much," Cockrell said. "I had the opportunity to have Ken come to my house and recruit me... it makes me feel very fortunate to be able to play volleyball. Now you can do so many different things and it is normal for women."

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin
Reporter-at-large

Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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