Setting the Standard: The 1976 Williamston Girls Track Team’s Legacy Still Remains Strong
The team, in the wake of Title IX, won the first girls state title in school history. They also set records and left a standard that stands unchallenged.
WILLIAMSTON, Mich. -- They were the girls who beat the boys. They put Williamston track on the map. And now, they’ll be forever remembered in local sports history, with their induction into the Greater Lansing Sports Hall of Fame this past summer.
The 1976 Williamston H.S. girls track team earned the school’s first state title in nearly 40 years. Before then, the last Hornets state title dated back to World War II - in any sport.
“[It was] a culmination of our girls all doing their best,” said sprinter Linda Merrifield. “My Dad always told me, ‘Do your best,’ and that’s all I tried to do when I was out there.”
Merrifield was the star of the 1976 team, winning two individual sprinting titles at the state meet and anchoring the winning 440-yard relay. Her four total state titles led to a scholarship at Michigan State, where she continued her sprinting career at the collegiate level.
The Williamston team also represented a big leap forward for girls sports, as their title win came only four years after the introduction of Title IX. Head coach Deb Bell and her team represented what could be, with the Hornets’ state title validating the role of girls’ sports in the Lansing area.
Still, their experience seems from another era, where female athletes were not yet treated with equality.
“In 1976, there was no girls’ locker room,” said Paul Nilsson, who was an assistant coach for the 1976 team. “There was a mile-long walk to the track and nowhere to store book bags, which was a problem in March and April with all the rain and snow.”
Nilsson also gave the introduction speech for the 1976 team at the induction ceremony in July. The majority of the team attended the ceremony, remembering their achievement and discussing today’s sports scene for girls.
“You come to Williamston now, and all the facilities are amazing,” Nilsson said. “For both boys and girls. That doesn’t happen without that state title.”
The driving force behind the Hall of Fame enshrinement campaign was Tom Monette, the father of 1976 team member Kelly Monette. He strongly felt the team should be recognized, alongside previous star inductees such as Hall of Famers John Smoltz and Earvin “Magic” Johnson.
“They were dominant,” Monette said. “They only lost one meet all season - and it was only because the seniors were on their class trip.”
Time to be recognized
Williamston track’s Hall of Fame nomination application was well received, with the committee immediately realizing their credentials.
“Some of us remembered, but to actually have all the information in front of us, it made us say ‘Wow’,” said selection committee member Jack Ebling, who also is a local sports media veteran and 2006 inductee. “You see what some of those people have done afterward, as you look back on girls’ track teams in the area, they’d be one of the first teams to come to mind.”
Ebling added, “We have so many worthy individuals and teams. We’re trying to get through the backlog we have, but their time came. It was an easy choice, really. It was great to see them all come back, you could tell how much it meant to them.”
The legend of Williamston’s performance at the 1976 state track meet, held at St. Louis High School, remains stunning, decades later. Every athlete Williamston took to the state meet scored points, and the Hornets placed in the discus, shot put, the 440-yard dash and the mile relay.
They finished with 63 points, taking the MHSAA Class C title with an easy, double-digit margin of victory. The team’s success was not shocking, as Williamston placed fourth in the 1975 state meet.
Williamston’s impact is still felt, more than 40 years later. the impact of that team can still be felt pretty heavily. Three school records still stand from that June day, as Merrifield’s time in the 220-yard dash of 24.9 seconds and 100-yard sprint of 11 seconds is still stands as a record despite the sport’s change to 100 meters. Merrifield’s anchor leg in the 4 x 100, clocked at 49.7 seconds, also remains a Williamston record.
“There was a buzz even after they were gone,” Ebling said. “Everyone will be compared to them, almost as ‘Your team is good. But are they as good as Williamston?’”