Sports, Women's Sports

‘We were rock stars’: A history of Long Beach State women’s sports

The Beach has long been known for its excellence in women’s sports through the years.

Women’s basketball, volleyball and tennis all had noteworthy achievements: two NCAA Final Four appearances, five volleyball national championships and 13 Big West tennis championships.

“The women’s program was treated great by the school; it felt like we were rock stars,” said former CSULB women’s basketball player Penny Toler. “We had one of the best home-court advantages.”

The culture of women’s sports had its first major breakthrough in the mid-to-late 1980s, with basketball players like LaTaunya Pollard, Cynthia Brown and Toler leading the 49ers to some of its most glorious moments to date.

Pollard was the first major player to come out of CSULB after being best in the nation in 1983, winning the Wade award for most outstanding woman athlete. During her senior year, fans came in droves to watch her. Pollard-mania peaked after a 60-point explosion against San Jose State in February 1987.

The love for women’s basketball continued with the high-flying duo, Brown and Toler, who took the NCAA by storm. They led the team to back-to-back Final Fours during the 1987-88 season. Both players are now in the Long Beach State Athletic Hall of Fame.

Toler continued her basketball career into the pros, becoming the first player to ever score in the WNBA and heading the LA Sparks’ front office that won back-to-back championships in 2001 and 2002.

“I’m grateful to Joan [Bovicini] and her coaching staff,” Toler said. “My experience in Long Beach was great and I couldn’t ask for anything better.” 

Players like Toler, Brown and Pollard could easily have been successful in other programs, but what allowed them to thrive was the coaching staff, spearheaded by Bonvicini.

“[Bovicini] gave players a chance to excel and the kids rewarded that commitment,” said Jim McCormack, former editor for the Long Beach Press-Telegram. “[For Pollard and others] it created a family dynamic because you knew the coaches focused on your entire well being.”

Bonvicini took over the team in 1979 after being an assistant for two years. Soon after, she started laying the groundwork for a successful mid-major program.

“For the past five years CSULB has tended to be the doormat in all sports other than women’s basketball,” read a 1984 CSULB sports report.

The impact Bonvicini had on the school resulted in her becoming one of the top-paid coaches at CSULB. Her salary was similar to the football and basketball coaches at the time.

Bovicini led women’s basketball for 14 years, and by the time she left, there was already a new sport capturing headlines.

In 1989 and 1993 the women’s volleyball team won its first two national championships under head coach Brian Gimmillaro. In that time, Gimmillaro coached all-time greats like hitter Tara Cross and middle blocker Daniel Scott.

Cross filled the record books during her four-year tenure and claimed NCAA Player of the Year in 1988 and 1989 and became the first athlete in USA Volleyball history to be named to four Olympic teams

The 1998 team may be the most iconic due to its historic run to the title.

The year prior, the 49ers suffered a devastating loss to Stanford in the NCAA semifinals. 

Throughout the 1998 season fans packed the Pyramid to watch players like star setter Misty May dominate every game. That year, the team went undefeated.

“They have the nation’s top player and the nation’s top coach,” wrote Todd D. Milewski for the Los Angeles Times in 1998. “And now they have another national championship.”

Now, the torch has been passed on to the women’s tennis team.

Head coach Jenny Hilt-Costello has the ability to develop the team into champions. The 2018-19 season was an example of this; Hilt-Costello led a freshman heavy team to a Big West title and an NCAA tournament berth.

“It comes from everyone being on the same page,” said Hilt-Costello. “Working on the same goal…our goal is to always play and improve each day.”

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