Where did it all begin? Just ask Immaculata's Mighty Macs

O God of Players, hear our prayer
To play this game, and play it fair,
To conquer, win, but if to lose
Not to revile, nor to abuse
But with understanding, start again,
Give us strength, O Lord, Amen.

-- Immaculata College pregame prayer

IMMACULATA, Pa. -- Through a forced smile, Patty Canterino, ablaze in a yellow Vineyard Vines sweater, runs down the long list of injuries.

Her best player, junior forward Dominique Murray, tore an anterior cruciate ligament in the third game. By the end, four of five starters had been sidelined. Canterino's Immaculata University women's basketball team finished the 2007-08 season with a 6-19 record.

But in this serenely beautiful setting, the story isn't about this season's few wins and many losses. Today's record can never take away from the school's magnificent yesterday, a basketball past that penetrates to every corner of this campus northwest of Philadelphia.

"Our girls weren't born yet, but we teach them the history when they come here," Canterino, Immaculata Class of 1992, says, sitting in her corner office at Alumnae Hall. "What happened here was unbelievably special."

When the University of Connecticut won the 2000 NCAA women's championship in Philadelphia, the Immaculata players handed out T-shirts to fans and participating teams with "Immaculata College" on the front and "It all began here" on the back.
In a very real sense, it did.

The 2008 NCAA women's tournament, which concludes at the St. Pete Times Forum in Florida on April 6-8, will once again be a large-scale celebration of how far the women's game has come. The speed, power and athleticism of the players is astonishing compared to even a decade ago. The games are televised nationally and played in front of huge crowds.

It hasn't always been that way.

The spark for the growth came, improbably, from here, tiny Immaculata College, which former star player Theresa Grentz (née Shank) proudly calls "this glorious, noble hill." It is an unlikely story of faith, fervor and fortuitousness. It began in 1972, the same year that Title IX guaranteed women an equal footing with men in collegiate athletics.

Drawing from an undergraduate enrollment of 400 female students, without scholarships or even a physical education major, the Mighty Macs of Immaculata won the first three national championships (1972-74) under the banner of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW), which was founded in 1971 and governed women's intercollegiate sports until they were absorbed by the NCAA in the early '80s.

"It was possible for a small school like Immaculata to compete on a national level because everybody competed in the same pool of teams," says Marianne Stanley (née Crawford), who played on the second and third title teams and is currently an assistant coach at Rutgers. "There wasn't a separation of divisions by small school versus large school.

"I think Immaculata being an all-women's college provided an incubator for women to pursue any opportunity that they thought was possible. And they were encouraged to believe that anything was possible."

Miracle workers
In 1920, the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, founded Villa Maria College on 198 wooded acres in Chester County. The campus' architecture, including the imposing green dome of the administration building, is in the style of the Italian Renaissance. Nine years later, the name was changed to Immaculata College. Priests and nuns were the primary teachers.

The campus sustained a lively interest in basketball over the years, but nothing that approached the passion that came shortly after the arrival of Cathy Rush, the new coach, in 1970. The field house burned down in 1968; and when the 22-year-old Rush met with the school's Mother Superior two years later, the team was practicing in a small gym across the street in the Villa Maria House of Studies.

Immaculata offered Rush $450 a year, and she took it. When she arrived home after the first practice, buoyant, she told her husband Ed, who was a longtime NBA referee, "I have some players."

Ed, according to Cathy, smiled and said, "Oh, yes, dear. Of course you do."

In the 1960s and '70s, the girls' Philadelphia Catholic League consistently produced terrific high school players. Many of them matriculated to West Chester State, the regional power; but in the early 1970s, some of that talent began to find its way to Immaculata. There was no recruiting, however; the players came to get an education, focusing on majors such as French, biology and mathematics.

"Obviously, it wasn't basketball," says Judy Martelli (née Marra), an Immaculata player in the early '70s who is now the wife of St. Joseph's University men's basketball coach Phil Martelli. "There was never any talk about 'Our goals are to get a national championship,' because we didn't even know there was one."

Theresa Shank, an athletic 6-foot center who arrived with Rush for the 1970-71 season, was the foundation. She led a dashing squad that played up-tempo, rim-to-rim basketball. Just like the guys. Immaculata, playing every game on the road that first season, started 8-0, and then, when Shank broke her collarbone in a car accident on the way to a game, split its last four games.

The emblem of Immaculata's old-school innocence was the uniform. It was a blue wool tunic with box pleats and bloomers, which looked incongruous with long, sometimes striped white tube socks. The women supplied their own white blouses and bought their warm-ups, along with Chuck Taylor Converse sneakers.

"We were moving out of the days of 'Young ladies shouldn't sweat; women shouldn't be involved in sports,' to 'Hey, this is not only OK, it's healthy; it's a good thing; it can give you confidence and all of the great benefits and intangibles that come with playing team sports,'" says Stanley. "The change in the uniforms is symbolic of all that change."

The Mighty Macs wore their tunics through the 1973 season, then switched to skirts for 1974 and 1975. The evolution was complete in 1976, when Immaculata's women took the court in shorts.

Marianne Crawford and Rene Muth (now Portland) came to Immaculata in 1972 and the Mighty Macs didn't lose during the regular season, going 24-0. And then they ran into West Chester, the basketball power with so much depth that it could send a number of different teams to its games. In fact, West Chester used its third- or fourth-string players against Immaculata during the regular season that year, and the Mighty Macs crushed them. In the AIAW regional, West Chester rolled out its A team. It wasn't close; Immaculata lost 70-38 at Towson State.

But the team's season wasn't over.

The national tournament that year included 16 teams (previously, it had been an invitational), and Immaculata was one of the six lucky early-round losers to punch a ticket to the championships at Illinois State University in Normal, Ill.
The Mighty Macs, seeded No. 15, had one problem, though: getting to the game site.

Today, most Division I women's basketball teams enjoy all the amenities: full athletic scholarships, full-time academic support, a training staff, a corps of assistant coaches and managers -- plus all the sneakers they can fit in their lockers. Teams travel on the road in style, with large entourages.

Back then?

"There was no budget," Rush remembers. "I don't remember ever asking what the budget was or spending any money."

Says Grentz: "I can remember being in games, honestly, and thinking, 'I thumbed up to school three times this week to come here. I am not losing this game.'"

Because Illinois was too far from Philadelphia to drive and there was no money in the athletic budget, the team hastily put together a fund-raising effort. They came up with $2,500 -- only enough to pay for nine airfares, and that was flying standby. So Rush and eight players made the trip, while three players stayed home. They slept two to a bed and four to a room, and lived on $7 a day for meals.

Enormous underdogs, Immaculata opened the tournament on a Thursday, and beat South Dakota State 60-47. On Friday, the Mighty Macs beat Indiana State 49-47. Later that day, they defeated top seed and defending champion Mississippi State College for Women, 46-43, to reach the Saturday final. The opponent in the championship game? West Chester again. They had lost by 32 points only days earlier, but this time the Mighty Macs prevailed, 52-48.

They hugged and kissed and celebrated, of course. But with only a handful of witnesses (all of five fans made the trip west), the magnitude of their accomplishment escaped them . . . until they stepped off the plane back home and were greeted by hundreds of fans at the airport.

"The reception was something that I will never, ever forget in my whole life," Rush said. "When we got off the plane and saw family, friends, all the Immaculata family, we all cried. At that point, it became bigger than it had [been] after the game."

A certain mystique
Rene Muth's dad, Lou, owned a hardware store; and one night, he brought a half-dozen aluminum buckets to a game.

"We didn't have an organized pep band in the beginning, so we had to do our own thing as far as making noise was concerned," says Sister Marian Monahan. "One of the things we found that could really make noise was buckets, empty buckets."

Hitting them with wooden dowels raised a racket, and the Bucket Brigade was born. Soon, dozens of banging buckets greeted opponents coming to Alumnae Hall.

"The nuns had buckets; the parents had buckets," Rush says. "It was crazy."

And, just maybe, the Might Macs had more than the noise working in their favor.

"The nuns embraced what we were doing," Stanley says. "I often wondered what it would be like for a Catholic, coming into the gym at Immaculata and, as you walk in, seeing three rows of nuns, all in their full garb. And with their rosary beads, working the beads. That's got to be really intimidating if you're a Catholic, because you can appreciate all these nuns are praying against you and for us.

"I think there was a mystique and a power that was unmistakable, that people recognized. They may have not understood what it was, but they knew there was something at work greater than everybody, and it was on our side. That's a heck of a sixth man."
Perhaps the most powerful prayers came from inside Camilla Hall, the nuns' infirmary and retirement home.

"That was main contribution of the sisters in Camilla, because they really couldn't come to the games," says Sister Marie Albert Kunberger. "They were there praying, and the students knew they were being prayed for."

They were tough, too. While the "O God of Players" prayer was a staple for Immaculata, the team didn't always ascribe to its suggestions of genteel play and other-cheek-turning. And because they won so many games, they were rarely tested as sore losers.

"In retrospect," Rush says, "we were arrogant. We'd run up the score and blow people out. That's just how we were."

The next time Immaculata played West Chester following their championship matchup, 4,200 fans flocked to the game. The Mighty Macs' following eventually grew so large they moved some of their games to nearby Cardinal O'Hara High School and the Villanova field house. They repeated as AIAW national champions in 1973 (with Grentz averaging 24 points and 18 rebounds in the tournament's four games) and 1974. The Macs also reached the Final Four the next three years.

In the process, Immaculata recorded a remarkable string of firsts:

• Immaculata was the first college women's team to play outside of the United States, traveling to Australia in 1974.

• In January 1975, Immaculata versus Maryland was the first women's game to appear on national television.

• One month later, Immaculata and Queen's College were the first women's teams to play at Madison Square Garden.

• In 1978, when the first women's collegiate doubleheader was played at Philadelphia's Spectrum, all four coaches were Immaculata graduates -- Vicki Harrington, Class of 1967 (Immaculata); Marianne Crawford Stanley, Class of 1976 (Old Dominion); Theresa Shank
Grentz, Class of 1974 (Rutgers); and Rene Muth Portland, Class of 1975 (St. Joseph's).

"To look at the circumstances of Theresa, Marianne Stanley, Rene Portland, all the other wonderful players, myself, all to arrive at this place at that time, you have to think there was some divine intervention," Rush says. "And all of us believed that the faith that these nuns had in us and the power of prayer helped us do everything we did."

Sea change
Bach, soaring and somber notes from an ancient organ, spills out of the chapel under the green dome on a gray March day at Immaculata.

In some ways, the place hasn't changed at all since the early '70s. The elegant Green Room, where the school's women socialized properly with their male guests, is still there, although there is a hint of mustiness in the air. The rotunda, featuring a wooden cross bearing a purple sash, remains a moving place, particularly when the sun shines through the windows on the upper floors.

But in 2005, the chemistry here changed forever. In a move based on self-preservation, the school invited men to attend what is now known as Immaculata University. Today, there are about 860 undergraduate students, and 30 percent of them are male. This year, in only the third season of its existence, the men's basketball team went 18-9 and qualified for the NCAA Division III playoffs.

Ironically, Title IX spelled the end of the Mighty Macs' terrific run. As large state universities with well-funded men's teams were compelled to offer women similar opportunities, Immaculata could not -- would not -- spend the money to stay competitive.

Rush saw it coming in 1976, when she graduated a half-dozen seniors and was left with little talent. The good players were accepting scholarships from the larger schools.

"I went to the administration and I said, 'We need scholarships,'" Rush says. "They said 'no.' I thought they were wrong, but they were right, because Immaculata would not have survived. The small all-girls institution against Maryland, Tennessee -- we couldn't have competed with the facilities that they had, and we couldn't have continued.

"So they were absolutely right. I was absolutely wrong, and Immaculata was going to drop off the national stage."

Rush coached Immaculata to a 27-5 record in 1976-77, but the Mighty Macs failed to reach the Final Four for the first time in seven years. Her oldest son was about to start kindergarten, and Rush decided to spend more time at home and start a summer basketball camp. Her record in seven seasons was 149-15, good for a winning percentage of .908.

Today, she oversees her thriving basketball camp empire and is a finalist for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Class of 2008. The inductees will be announced in San Antonio during the men's Final Four on Monday, April 7.

Over the past 30 years, whenever Rush has recounted the triumphs of the Mighty Macs, people tell her it sounds almost too good to be true, like a movie. And, in fact, the whole, exhilarating story might soon play out on the big screen.

Tim Chambers, a producer on "Miracle," the tale of the 1980 United States Olympic hockey team, graduated from Cardinal O'Hara High School, which also produced Theresa Shank Grentz. Chambers wrote a script based on Immaculata's 1972 season, and "Our Lady of Victory," featuring actress Carla Gugino as Cathy Rush, David Boreanaz as Ed Rush and Ellen Burstyn as the Mother Superior, was shot on the campus for six weeks last spring. Chambers is presently trying to arrange for the movie's distribution. Some of the current players were cast as nuns, as was Marianne Stanley.

The women who created the Mighty Mac phenomenon cherish their place in history.

"It was like watching Tennessee and Connecticut. And Rutgers and Baylor and Stanford," says Stanley, who won three national titles while coaching at Old Dominion. "The best of the best -- that's what we were.

"The young ladies who play today are the beneficiaries of a lot of hard work and forethought about the opportunities that ought to exist for everyone, including women. We were just beginning to change the landscape during that time. And I'd like to think that on our shoulders, they stand."

Theresa Shank Grentz was a three-time All-American. In 1976, Rutgers made her the first full-time women's basketball coach in the country. Six years later, she led Rutgers to the AIAW national title. In 1992, she served as the Olympic head coach.

Today, 34 years after she graduated from Immaculata, she finds herself back at home on this glorious, noble hill. Her title is assistant to the vice president for student affairs.

One of her goals is to upgrade the basketball program. Grentz envisions, among other things, endowed basketball scholarships. To achieve this, she intends to put the squeeze on the many successful people spawned by Immaculata's achievements.

Talking with an accent thicker than the cheese on a Philly steak, Grentz's love for her school -- and the Mighty Macs' ground-breaking success -- is evident.

"Sister Kathleen Mary once told me, she said, 'Theresa, this is your Camelot,'" Grentz says. "And she was so true. It was my Camelot. It was a magnificent time and space. It was something that we had. I'm extremely grateful that we did."

Although the women's program has struggled in recent years, it is still connected to its roots. The "O, God of Players" prayer that Rush's teams recited as a group before each game is still part of the routine here for Canterino's players; she learned it playing under former Immaculata All-American Mary Scharff.

"We usually say it before every other game, alternating with the Hail Mary," Canterino says. "It's the tradition. It's what they did, so it's what we do, too. It stays with you forever."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.