Groundbreaking 1985 Bethpage girls lacrosse team honored: "We just didn't give up," team captain Patty O'Connor said about getting the school board to form it. NewsdayTV's Drew Scott reports. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

Patty O'Connor said she didn't think of herself as a crusader for women's rights in the 1980s, just a teenage student who wanted to start a girls lacrosse team at Bethpage High School.

When the school athletic director and school board shot down the idea, O'Connor, who would go on to work for the FBI, said she kept pushing in a campaign that lasted more than a year. She spoke at one-after-another school board meeting, enlisted players and gathered scores of signatures in support — and her dream came true.

On Saturday, that groundbreaking 1985 girls team will be inducted into the Bethpage High School Hall of Fame.

"They didn't take no for an answer. They were persistent. They had a goal of having equity with the boys and they got it," said Terrence Clark, a former district superintendent who coordinates the hall of fame.

Looking back 38 years to that time, O'Connor's accomplishment stands as a teenage equivalent of fighting city hall, and winning. Moreover, the battle became a defining moment for team members, one that shaped them as people and solidified their faith in fighting for what they believe in. 

"Initially, I thought this is a really fun sport I'd like to play. It became a cause for equality for the girls," she said. "We fought the old boys' club."

O'Connor, now 56, added, "That's why I became an FBI agent, to make sure everyone is treated fairly and justice is served."

O'Connor said she didn't feel part of the women's rights movement back then.

"I don't think I knew what that was," she recalled.

Her crusade began when she was a sophomore in gym class. The gym teacher handed out some battered wooden lacrosse sticks and let the girls toss around the hard rubber ball. O'Connor loved it and asked the teacher why there wasn't a girls team. The teacher passed her on to the school athletic director and school board, both of whom denied her request, talking about budget constraints and questioning whether there was enough interest, she said.

O'Connor was quickly joined in the cause by Michelle Stuzin, who played on the girls teams for softball, gymnastics, basketball and field hockey. 

"I said, 'I'm in. I'm doing it,' " said Stuzin, now 54 with the married name of Stuzin Katz.

The pair recalled their tenacity in wearing down the opposition by the school board, boldly speaking at meetings again and again. They pointed to the federal Title IX law passed in 1972, which protects people from discrimination based on sex, in education programs or activities that receive federal money. After months of hearing the girls' advocacy, the board agreed to form a team if they could obtain 100 signatures in support.

"We went nuts. Even girls who didn't want to play signed, just for support," said Stuzin Katz, who now lives in Westchester County.

The school board, presented with more than 100 signatures, said the girls — who had 25 others wanting to play — could start a girls lacrosse club but not a formal team. They had to find their own coach and uniforms. The school provided bus transportation, and lacrosse sticks that had been used in gym classes, they said.

They took the field for their first game in April of 1985 facing Syosset, O'Connor said. At the time, Long Island had more than 100 school districts but only a dozen or so girls high school lacrosse teams.

"I was so absolutely excited," O'Connor said. "None of us knew what we were doing. We just went out and played our hearts out."

Bethpage's girls lacrosse team lost most of their games that season. Stuzin Katz remembers the solidarity the team felt gathering signatures in the school hallways, and the camaraderie on the bus rides to games.

"We felt really good about ourselves," said Stuzin Katz, who went into advertising and coaching girls sports and now has a podcast.

Both O'Connor and Stuzin Katz still have their old lacrosse sticks; O'Connor even saved her uniform.

O'Connor went on to Fairfield University in Connecticut where she played on its newly formed women's lacrosse team. She obtained a law degree and joined the FBI, where she served 13 years specializing in white-collar crime. She said she encountered a little of that old boys' network there as well.

O'Connor provided her niece with her first lacrosse stick, and the young woman now plays on the Yale team, she said.

At Saturday's ceremony, the 1985 girls lacrosse team will be honored for their contribution to women's sports, Clark said. They paved the way for the current girls lacrosse program, which has varsity and junior varsity teams. They will join some 70 other inductees in the school's hall of fame, located on a wall in the high school lobby, he said.

O'Connor, who now lives in Florida, said 16 players from that team are expected to attend. They're reaching out to one another, sharing those times and catching up, she said.

"This, now, has rekindled all of us," O'Connor said. "I feel the bond from years ago. It has really brought us back together."

Patty O'Connor said she didn't think of herself as a crusader for women's rights in the 1980s, just a teenage student who wanted to start a girls lacrosse team at Bethpage High School.

When the school athletic director and school board shot down the idea, O'Connor, who would go on to work for the FBI, said she kept pushing in a campaign that lasted more than a year. She spoke at one-after-another school board meeting, enlisted players and gathered scores of signatures in support — and her dream came true.

On Saturday, that groundbreaking 1985 girls team will be inducted into the Bethpage High School Hall of Fame.

"They didn't take no for an answer. They were persistent. They had a goal of having equity with the boys and they got it," said Terrence Clark, a former district superintendent who coordinates the hall of fame.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • On Saturday, Bethpage High School's 1985 girls lacrosse team — the first girls lacrosse team there — will be inducted into the school's hall of fame.
  • Patty O'Connor, a student at the time, had to build support and overcome resistance from the school athletic director and school board to create the team.
  • A total of 16 players from that team are expected to attend Saturday's ceremony.

Looking back 38 years to that time, O'Connor's accomplishment stands as a teenage equivalent of fighting city hall, and winning. Moreover, the battle became a defining moment for team members, one that shaped them as people and solidified their faith in fighting for what they believe in. 

"Initially, I thought this is a really fun sport I'd like to play. It became a cause for equality for the girls," she said. "We fought the old boys' club."

O'Connor, now 56, added, "That's why I became an FBI agent, to make sure everyone is treated fairly and justice is served."

Wearing down early opposition

O'Connor said she didn't feel part of the women's rights movement back then.

"I don't think I knew what that was," she recalled.

Her crusade began when she was a sophomore in gym class. The gym teacher handed out some battered wooden lacrosse sticks and let the girls toss around the hard rubber ball. O'Connor loved it and asked the teacher why there wasn't a girls team. The teacher passed her on to the school athletic director and school board, both of whom denied her request, talking about budget constraints and questioning whether there was enough interest, she said.

Patty O'Connor. As a teenager, she fought to create the...

Patty O'Connor. As a teenager, she fought to create the team. Credit: O'Connor family

O'Connor was quickly joined in the cause by Michelle Stuzin, who played on the girls teams for softball, gymnastics, basketball and field hockey. 

"I said, 'I'm in. I'm doing it,' " said Stuzin, now 54 with the married name of Stuzin Katz.

The pair recalled their tenacity in wearing down the opposition by the school board, boldly speaking at meetings again and again. They pointed to the federal Title IX law passed in 1972, which protects people from discrimination based on sex, in education programs or activities that receive federal money. After months of hearing the girls' advocacy, the board agreed to form a team if they could obtain 100 signatures in support.

"We went nuts. Even girls who didn't want to play signed, just for support," said Stuzin Katz, who now lives in Westchester County.

The school board, presented with more than 100 signatures, said the girls — who had 25 others wanting to play — could start a girls lacrosse club but not a formal team. They had to find their own coach and uniforms. The school provided bus transportation, and lacrosse sticks that had been used in gym classes, they said.

They took the field for their first game in April of 1985 facing Syosset, O'Connor said. At the time, Long Island had more than 100 school districts but only a dozen or so girls high school lacrosse teams.

"I was so absolutely excited," O'Connor said. "None of us knew what we were doing. We just went out and played our hearts out."

Forging a lasting bond

Bethpage's girls lacrosse team lost most of their games that season. Stuzin Katz remembers the solidarity the team felt gathering signatures in the school hallways, and the camaraderie on the bus rides to games.

"We felt really good about ourselves," said Stuzin Katz, who went into advertising and coaching girls sports and now has a podcast.

Both O'Connor and Stuzin Katz still have their old lacrosse sticks; O'Connor even saved her uniform.

The 1985 team in its heyday.

The 1985 team in its heyday. Credit: O'Connor family

O'Connor went on to Fairfield University in Connecticut where she played on its newly formed women's lacrosse team. She obtained a law degree and joined the FBI, where she served 13 years specializing in white-collar crime. She said she encountered a little of that old boys' network there as well.

O'Connor provided her niece with her first lacrosse stick, and the young woman now plays on the Yale team, she said.

At Saturday's ceremony, the 1985 girls lacrosse team will be honored for their contribution to women's sports, Clark said. They paved the way for the current girls lacrosse program, which has varsity and junior varsity teams. They will join some 70 other inductees in the school's hall of fame, located on a wall in the high school lobby, he said.

O'Connor, who now lives in Florida, said 16 players from that team are expected to attend. They're reaching out to one another, sharing those times and catching up, she said.

"This, now, has rekindled all of us," O'Connor said. "I feel the bond from years ago. It has really brought us back together."

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