Before Oklahoma ruled the WCWS, Omaha wore softball's crown

The University of Nebraska at Omaha Maverettes overcame an 11-1 loss to Northern Iowa and celebrated the final out of a 6-4 win to clinch the 1975 Women's College World Series. Courtesy UNO Libraries

The Oklahoma Sooners are back in Oklahoma City this week for the Women's College World Series and a possible four-peat. Around 13,000 fans will pack Devon Park. Social media will be buzzing about Jayda Coleman's wall-crashing catches and coach Patty Gasso's dugout maneuvers. It wasn't always this way. In 1975, the year the Sooners' program was born, Oklahoma was eliminated after just two games in front of a smattering of observers at a place called Dill Field in Omaha. There was no NIL or tailgating; the '75 national champions celebrated at a local pizza parlor and drank beer afterward on their own dime. Five decades later, the WCWS has morphed into a nationally televised event that draws 2 million viewers for the finals and showcases some of the best women's athletes in the country. This is the story of coach Connie Claussen and the 1975 Women's College World Series champions, the University of Nebraska at Omaha Maverettes.

IN THE 1970s they made championship trophies obnoxiously big, which is why Connie Claussen looks as if she's levitating near a skyscraper as her players hoisted her on their shoulders. It was 1975, and the University of Nebraska at Omaha had just won its first and only Women's College World Series, and they did it just a few miles away from campus.

Claussen, a curly-haired young coach with horn-rimmed glasses, extracted herself from the celebration shortly after this black-and-white photo was snapped. She had to call in the score to the local newspaper and TV stations.

An un-bylined story in the Omaha World-Herald the next day carried a headline that said UNO won the "Gals' CWS" title.

Claussen had begged so hard for media coverage for the fledgling event. In a to-hell-with-it moment a year later, she took the advertising matter into her own hands, making orange and black bumper stickers with the address and dates of the event.

But back to 1975, and that photo that captures a monumental, devastating and unbelievable month for Claussen, and the city of Omaha, which hosted the event for most of its first two decades. In the days leading up to the WCWS, Claussen, one of the founders of the event, was on a landline calling coaches to tell them that their team motel wasn't available. It was no longer standing.

An EF4 tornado leveled the city a week before the WCWS, cutting a nine-mile path through the heart of Omaha. One of the final structures it hit was Dill Field, home of the 1975 championship, before lifting back into the clouds.

"We could only play on two diamonds," Claussen said, "because the bleachers were up in the trees."

But the games played on, and a city rebuilt.

PAT LINSON GREW UP in a tidy neighborhood in the shadows and olfactory zone of the Omaha stockyards. Locals called the odor "The smell of money," and it never stopped Linson from spending most of her summers outside playing sports.

Her mom, Kitty, was a hard-working secretary at the Wilson Packing House, and when her three girls were old enough, they sacked groceries at the Hinky Dinky grocery store. Pat Linson says her mom was "a looker," and that her dad was foolish for leaving her.

Pat Linson wanted to be a teacher and a coach, but college wasn't a natural route for single-parent south Omaha girls in the 1970s. That changed in May 1974, when a typed letter from Connie Claussen arrived in her mailbox.

"Dear Pat," it said. "The faculty of the Women's Physical Education Department at the University of Nebraska at Omaha is happy to award you our $100 scholarship. You were selected because of your many and varied activities, scholastic standing, recommendations and personal appearance."

For Linson, it was like a lottery ticket. UNO didn't have dorms at the time, so she could live at home, go to school and work at the grocery store. Best of all, she could play softball.

She didn't know a lot about Claussen, a city softball star who was born a decade and a half too early. Players described her as business-like, almost as if she was in the middle of something important and didn't want to get sidetracked. Soon, that mission became clear: If Connie Claussen couldn't play college softball, she'd make sure any girl who wanted to could.

Claussen was the chair of the university's women's physical education department in 1969 when the Omaha Softball Association asked her to help start the Women's College World Series. Omaha was called the softball capital of America back then, and it also hosted the baseball College World Series. Claussen said she was given a check totaling about $5,000 to put together the Women's College World Series.

UNO had no sanctioned women's sports, and Claussen figured if the WCWS was coming to Omaha, the city should probably have a team.

Those first few years of the softball championship were more like an invitational, comprised of local teams or any squad that could make the trip to Omaha. By 1975, three years after Title IX, the event had picked up steam. Arizona, Oklahoma and Michigan State were among the participants in Omaha for the '75 WCWS. UNO had to win state to qualify for the 18-team, double-elimination tournament.

The Maverettes were a hodgepodge of freshmen and grown women with real-life adult experience. Senior Julie Armetta-Wolfe, for example, was married and drove a brand-new Grand Prix. She was also the hardest-throwing pitcher on the team.

UNO went into the final day of the WCWS undefeated and faced the University of Northern Iowa -- and superstar pitcher Patty Stockman -- in the finals. Girls high school athletics in Iowa were a big thing before Stockman ever picked up a softball, and Stockman dominated. She pitched in every game of her high school career, going 83-15. She was only a freshman in 1975, but to the Maverettes, she seemed much older and much bigger.

"She was a badass," Linson said. "We knew her from summer softball. I mean, she frowned when she looked at you and stared you down. We're like 40 feet apart. The pitching mound was 40 feet, and now it's 43. She was fast ... She tried to intimidate you on the mound."

Stockman dominated UNO in an 11-1 victory in the finals on May 18, 1975. But UNI had already lost a game and needed to beat the Maverettes twice. Armetta-Wolfe, who logged many innings that week, including a 1-0 victory over UNI the previous game, took the loss. Claussen pulled her aside, asked her if she had enough left to throw again that day, and of course Armetta-Wolfe said yes.

Linson offered a different look, relying more on off-speed pitches, and Claussen decided to give the ball to the freshman.

"I thought, 'Whoa, bring it,'" Linson said. "Let's go."

WHEN THE SKY turned black and the tornado sirens went off late in the afternoon of May 6, 1975, most of the team was scattered in houses across town. Armetta-Wolfe was huddled in the basement of her in-laws.

Her husband, Bob, was at the Ak-Sar-Ben racetrack. She didn't have a way to get a hold of him.

"I was just a nervous wreck," she said. "I didn't know what was going to happen because we knew (the tornado) was going down that way. That was a very scary time."

The tornado killed three people, injured more than 130 and destroyed thousands of homes and businesses. It remains one of the costliest tornadoes in U.S. history. (More than $1 billion today).

Her husband was OK. The tornado narrowly missed Ak-Sar-Ben (Nebraska spelled backward).

Armetta-Wolfe played softball at UNO for three years from 1970 to 1973. She left to get married to Bob Wolfe, a lineman for the Nebraska Cornhuskers' national championship teams in 1970 and '71. In '75, she wanted to finish out her softball career and contemplated doing it in Lincoln, but she could not bring herself to play for UNO's rival. So she reunited with Claussen and the Maverettes. She was 23 years old. Before leaving their house on game days, Armetta-Wolfe put a record on the turntable, blasted it high and psyched herself up.

She initially said that her jam that year was Meat Loaf's "Bat Out of Hell," then corrected herself. That was her motivational song a few years later.

In that final game of her college career, when Claussen moved her from the pitching circle to third base, Armetta-Wolfe didn't balk. She knew it was the right call. There was no drama with the '75 team, she said, just a bunch of women who loved softball and couldn't believe they were getting this kind of opportunity to play.

Linson stymied UNI's bats in a 6-4 championship victory.

The team went out for pizza, and Armetta-Wolfe and a handful of other players didn't want the night to end. So they spent the night at a teammate's house, drinking beer under a light post.

"We were too psyched up to go home," she said.

A few days later, the Maverettes were instructed to turn in their uniforms. The volleyball team needed to wear them. Acknowledgment of UNO's first and only title came in the form of a block-letter sign in front of the library. The team paid for the sign, but UNO's Alumni Association ponied up to buy championship rings.

The college softball tournament was sanctioned by the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women back then, so their championship is not listed in NCAA records. But in the Wolfe household, that championship trophy sits in front of Bob's football awards.

CLAUSSEN USED TO ASK her coaches to show the players a video. It detailed the humble beginnings of UNO women's athletics. She wanted them to know how far they'd come, and the people who paved the way. She pulled out some of those thick-knitted old uniforms, and displayed them for the young student-athletes to see.

A year after UNO launched softball in 1969, she decided to field a basketball team. Armetta-Wolfe said Claussen asked her softball players if they'd help fill out the roster.

"We're all raising our hands," Armetta-Wolfe said. "'Hell, yeah. We'll play.' And I was terrible. So then after basketball season was over, she said, 'Well, I think we should play volleyball also. Does anybody wanna play volleyball?' We all raised our hands and said, 'Hell yeah.' So we put together the first volleyball team."

Their locker room, and the women's athletic office, was in a metal Quonset hut built as a temporary university facility about 30 years earlier. In a 1975 story published in the student newspaper, the UNO Gateway, the shower room was described as a "bare white enclosure with no provision for privacy between showers. The paint ... peels from walls and water pipes ... One of the two shower stalls has been converted to a makeshift lounge containing a broken-down couch and an old wooden desk." It was so bad that many of the players opted not to shower after workouts or games.

Former UNO sports information director Gary Anderson said Claussen never resented what the men had, and always tried to work in unison with the men. She was good friends with the late Don Leahy, the former athletic director.

Claussen became a tenacious fundraiser, starting a charity walk in 1986 that over the years has netted millions for UNO athletics. She later chaired the NCAA Division II champions committee and the Division II softball committee.

Through all of her jobs, she never forgot that championship team. They came together when cancer claimed Sue Stone-Mehaffey and Micky Gehringer, and when Linda Wierzbicki was murdered in 1986. Wierzbicki, the backup catcher in 1975, didn't play much, but the team could always hear her cheering loudly from the dugout.

Claussen retired from her job as associate athletic director in 1998, but still serves as an AD emeritus, mentoring the next generation of women leaders.

In 2021, the school opened a state-of-the-art softball facility, its first on-campus home since the inception of the program. It was named Connie Claussen Field at Maverick Park.

ON THE PATH to the softball stadium, there's a black-and-white bench that bears the names of three people lost from a long-ago 1975 championship team.

The first time Julie Armetta-Wolfe saw the bench, she didn't want to touch it because it felt too sacred. But now when Armetta-Wolf walks by, she stops. She waves to her girls.

Last year, members of that team spoke to the current players as part of a Title IX celebration. Pat Linson surveyed the large group of softball players and their expansive facility. She told them that they were lucky, and to never take it for granted. They told them Claussen fought for them to get here.

"We know," the team said in unison.

Claussen, who is 85 now and walks with a Louisville Slugger bat that has been retrofitted to a cane, has her own seat at the facility, near the Mavericks dugout. People close to Claussen say her health has been failing her at times lately, and she doesn't get to as many games as she'd like.

But when she comes down the walkway to the stadium, the Mavericks know she's there. They'll stop what they're doing in warmups and line up to high-five her.

"If she doesn't show up at a game," coach Mike Heard said, "it actually gets mentioned.

"She's in their minds enough where they're literally asking, 'Where's Connie? Is she doing OK?'"

Two weeks ago, the Mavericks played in a regional at No. 7 Missouri. They beat the Tigers, then knocked off powerhouse Washington. But they were eliminated in a 1-0 extra-inning loss to Missouri. After the game, Heard received a text from Claussen.

She congratulated him on a historic season.