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'We were pioneers'

A women's college basketball team regularly packing gyms,

getting media coverage and making trips to Madison Square Garden. If you're

thinking of the women's teams from the universities of Connecticut or Tennessee

- who are in the Final Four tonight in New Orleans - you're wrong.

The school was Queens College, and the years were 1968- 1980. During this

period, the Lady Knights ruled New York and became the first women's team from

the city to compete in a national tournament. They were ranked in the top 10

nationwide from 1972-1978 - finishing second in 1973 - and in 1975 became the

first women's team to play at the Garden.

Lucille Kyvallos, now 69 and living in Brooklyn, coached the Lady Knights

from 1968 to 1980. She later was an assistant professor in the department of

family, nutrition and exercise sciences at Queens College until 1996, when she

retired.

"There wasn't much for women competitively until 1969. Then, they started

having invitational tournaments," explained the Astoria native, who led the

Lady Knights to their first national tournament in North Carolina in 1971. "It

was a big to-do. We were a little city school," Kyvallos said.

Queens College hosted the AIAW Nationals in 1973, losing 59-52 in the

finals to Immaculata (Pa.) University. The Lady Knights, who finished 22-5

overall, averaged 62 points a game to 39 for their opponents. The AIAW was

replaced by the NCAA in 1982.

A little bit of fame

"There was media coverage, and we had a lot of fans, women and men. We were

pioneers," said Kyvallos, who was inducted into the New York City Hall of Fame

in 2000.

"It was thrilling. The whole experience was very exciting. We started to

get a lot more attention and people on campus knew who we were," former player

Barbara Riccardi, 50, of Manhattan said. Riccardi was a Queens forward from

1970-74; she was called up from the junior varsity in 1971 to play off the

bench. By the next season, she was a starter and was co-captain in her junior

and senior years.

Gail Marquis, 49, of Jersey City, N.J., who played power forward for the

Lady Knights from 1972-1976, was a freshman during the magical '72-'73 season,

and like many of her fellow teammates, didn't grasp the milestone they were

making. "I wasn't aware until the end of the first year," the St. Albans native

said.

It was assistant coach Connie Van Housen who put things into perspective

for Marquis at the nationals. "I thought it was just another game, but she came

in to say thank you for what we were doing."

Debbie Mason, point guard from 1971-75 who was recruited by Kyvallos from

the Woodside projects and now lives in Maryland, said of the dynasty, "I don't

think we saw it in that respect. We were just trying to win. It started slowly.

We just kept winning and winning, and [Kyvallos] kept pushing us, and it just

took off. It took us by surprise. Sometimes, we were in awe [of ourselves]."

Mason, who wouldn't give her current age or occupation, went on to play for

the New York Stars of the Women's Basketball League with Marquis and Althea

Gwynn. Mason also played for the New Jersey Gems, Minnesota Phillies and

Nebraska Wranglers. "It was exciting," she said, "and it was great for other

young women who would come after us."

Guard Maggie Hilgenberg, 53, of Larchmont, who transferred from Bronx

Community College and played for the Lady Knights 1972-74, explained her

feelings about the team this way. "In the back of your head, you knew it [was

special]. But you really didn't know until the end of the year." Hilgenberg now

is manager of academic systems at LaGuardia Community College.

What made the 1972-73 team even more impressive was that it won despite

losing players. During the season, it lost starter Hilgenberg and Nancy Rullo,

a forward, to mononucleosis. Rullo, now 49, is director of cardiac

rehabilitation at Mercy Medical Centre in Rockville Centre. She lives in

Whitestone.

Moment of crisis

"We were fearful of the whole team catching it [mononucleosis] since we all

used to drink off the same water bottle," said Riccardi, who missed several

games herself with a severe eye injury and a sprained ankle. The Lady Knights

also lost Maureen Steurerer near the end of the season for personal reasons.

Donna Ward, now 45, living in Brooklyn and a UPS sales manager, was a

6-foot-1 center for the Lady Knights in 1977-79 and 1980-81. "My parents wanted

me to attend an Ivy League school," Ward said, "but I wanted to play

basketball for Lucille Kyvallos. She was a legend." In her last year, Ward led

the team in scoring and rebounding, and wanted to turn pro, but the WBL folded.

"There was no league to be drafted to," Ward said. Instead, she played for

the Stockport Thoro-Glaze in Manchester, England, in 1981-82, before returning

home to live and work.

On Jan. 17, Queens College hosted a reunion to acknowledge the

trailblazers. "It was great. I hadn't seen some of these people in over 30

years," said Riccardi, who worked on the reunion for about a year.

Now managing director of Olshan Realty in Manhattan, Riccardi was drafted

by the Stars, but turned the opportunity down to teach. "The [WBL] was poorly

run, and I didn't know how long it would last."

Hilgenberg also turned down a chance to play professionally. "I needed to

get a full-time job with health benefits," she said of the league that gave

players $5 per diem and had them travel by train rather than plane.

Marquis did, however, go pro, but not before stopping in Montreal, where

she played in the first women's Olympic basketball competition in 1976.

After a grueling final tryout for the U.S. Olympic squad in Missouri,

Marquis assumed she didn't make the cut. "I was actually packing when Far

Rockaway High School player Nancy Lieberman came in and told me I made the

team. I didn't believe her and kept packing," she said with a laugh.

By the time Carol Blazejowski (now general manager of the WNBA's New York

Liberty) told her, Marquis stopped packing and called Kyvallos at about 1 a.m.

to share the news.

After getting past the qualifying rounds, the U.S. team topped

Czechoslovakia to secure the silver medal, finishing with a 3-2 record behind

the Soviet Union (5-0), which took the gold. After that, it was on to Antibes,

France, where Marquis played for three years. She also attended the University

of Nice to study French.

In 1979, she joined the WBL, and played for the New Jersey Gems and the

Stars. Unfortunately, the league's financial problems made it difficult to make

ends meet. "The [salary] was barely comparable to a teacher," Marquis said. "I

was in the $15,000 range."

To make matters worse, the players didn't receive all of the salary they

were supposed to. "They stopped paying one month short of the end of the

season," said Marquis, who won a championship with the Stars in 1979-80 under

coach Dean Meminger - right before the team folded. "The Gems and the Stars

still owe me money," she said.

Marquis went on to finish her remaining 15 credits at Queens and graduated

in 1980. In 1981, she embarked on a successful 24-year career in finance and

banking. Now, she is a consultant working to bring the 2012 Olympics to New

York City and is lobbying to have the 1972-73 Queens team inducted into the New

York City Hall of Fame.

"I personally would like to be in the NYC Hall of Fame, but more than that,

I want my team in there," Marquis said. "I want my team to be recognized and

inducted. I can't see going in personally above my team."

Kyvallos agreed. "The 1973 team was outstanding. We think that team

deserves consideration for the honor."

The glory years of the Lady Knights

Lucille Kyvallos coached the Queens College women's basketball team from

1968-80. Season records from 1968-69, 1969-70 and 1978-79 were not available.

Here are other records provided by the school:

1970-71 23-4

1971-72 27-2

1972-73 22-5

1973-74 22-4

1974-75 19-8

1975-76 20-5

1976-77 18-13

1977-78 30-3

1979-80 24-8

SOURCE: Queens College Athletic Department

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