One of the things UNO Athletic Director Trev Alberts said he was looking the most forward to about the school’s new softball and baseball fields was getting the chance to officially recognize Connie Claussen.
The recent announcement of the new facilities came shortly after the Mavericks celebrated 50 years of softball at the school. Claussen started the program — thus launching women’s athletics at UNO — in 1969.
“I think there’s a fairly reasoned chance that it’ll be Connie Claussen Field for softball,” Alberts said. “It’ll be an opportunity to honor Connie for all she’s done to support the department for all of these years.”
Claussen called the new facility “a dream come true.” She was 30 years old and the chair of the women’s physical education department — which was housed in a Quonset hut — when Omaha Softball Association Commissioner Carl Kelley asked if UNO would be a co-host for a national college softball championship.
“I thought, if we were a host, we probably should have a team,” she said. “Several years later, someone asked, ‘Who gave you permission to do that?’ I realized that I never ever asked anybody. We just did it.
“There wasn’t anything at the collegiate level for sports for women. Since I start that first one, I thought we might as well continue. And I think it was two years later that I started volleyball and basketball.”
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Initially, Claussen didn’t have any money to run those programs. It was all volunteer work. Eventually, Dean of Education Paul Kennedy said she could use money from the women’s recreation association.
“Our softball uniforms for the first year were borrowed from my summer softball coach,” she said. “Then it was sweatshirts and shorts that we bought, and dyed, from the bookstore. We got electrician’s tape when we bought some white tops for basketball and put numbers on them with electrician’s tape.
“The (university) alumni association bought us our first set of uniforms. And we used those for softball, volleyball and basketball. We never had to worry about a person coming with the wrong uniform.”
The alumni association also bought rings for the softball team when Claussen’s crew won the national championship in 1975. That event took place in Omaha shortly after a tornado had devastated the city.
Claussen had to inform the tournament’s participating teams before their arrival that one of the hotels that could potentially house them was no longer standing. Only two of the diamonds at Dill Field could be used for the event, she said, because the bleachers for the third had gotten wrapped around a tree.
The Women’s College World Series, overseen by the Division for Girls’ and Women’s Sports (DGWS) then the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW), remained in Omaha through 1979. The event then moved to Norman, Oklahoma, before the NCAA added softball to its championship program.
Claussen was the one who had gotten permission for the women’s tournament to use “College World Series.” The men’s CWS in Omaha even gave $5,000 for the women to use to help run their tournament.
The Women’s CWS, held annually at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City, is now a major event. Claussen still makes time to watch the event, televised nationally, that she helped begin back in 1969.
“It’s exciting. It’s wonderful,” she said. “It’s great — what the Women’s College World Series is doing.”
Claussen built her first team with women that she knew played softball. It had two practices and lost its two games at the inaugural Women’s College World Series, but it got women’s athletics rolling at UNO.
Fifty years later, the Maverick women compete at the NCAA Division I level in all of their sports and the softball team is about to join soccer, volleyball and basketball with an on-campus facility to call home.
Claussen, who has remained in an advisory role as the department’s athletic director emerita since retiring, has nurtured UNO’s women’s athletics from their inception. She said one thing that has been constant from the beginning is the support from the community. She’s excited for what’s still to come.
“I think it’s wonderful, and I think it’s just the beginning,” she said. “Every sport is very important and is very well done. The future is just looking so bright and everything is just going to continue to get better.”