- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 19, 2011

PHILADELPHIA (AP) - Long before Tennessee and Connecticut, Immaculata College was the original women’s basketball dynasty.

And unlike Pat Summitt and Geno Auriemma’s teams, which have dominated the women’s basketball landscape in an age of growing fan interest and TV coverage, coach Cathy Rush and her Mighty Macs built title winners out of grit and determination alone.

The all-girls Catholic school just outside of Philadelphia had virtually no money. It didn’t even have a home court to practice on after the gym burned down before Rush’s first year in 1971. The Mighty Macs were forced to work out at local grade schools and play all their games on the road.

Now, 40 years after its incredible run started, Immaculata’s story has been made into a movie (“The Mighty Macs”) that will open nationally Friday. But no film can quite capture what an underdog that team was.

Katie Hayek, who stars in the movie portraying a character based on Immaculata star Theresa Shank Grentz, admitted with a sheepish smile that she didn’t know much about the story before taking the role.

“It’s insane what they did, winning three championships and having no money,” said Hayek, who grew up in nearby Lancaster, and was a star basketball player in the area before earning a scholarship to Miami. “They hate being called the pioneers of women’s basketball, so I like to call them catalysts. Without them I probably wouldn’t have had a chance to play.”

Things were so bad for Immaculata that it had precious few basketballs to practice with, so when the team went to other schools for games, the Mighty Macs would “exchange” one of their bad balls for a new one.

“We had a whole collection of basketballs emblazoned with other school’s names,” Grentz recalled, laughing.

Yet despite those and many other hardships, the 23-year-old Rush coached her team to a spot in the first-ever women’s national college tournament in 1972. The Mighty Macs, as a 15th-seed, upset three teams to reach the finals in Illinois.

Even then, the Mighty Macs had hurdles to overcome.

Immaculata couldn’t afford to send everyone _ despite fundraising with toothbrush sales and raffles, so three players were left behind. Even at less than full strength, Immaculata won the title, upsetting West Chester _ which had beaten the Mighty Macs by 32 points a week earlier.

“It was Camelot, I don’t know that it will ever happen again the way it happened,” said Grentz, who became a successful college coach at Rutgers and Illinois. “So many things have changed, per diems, strength coaches, academic advisers, your own jet for travel. We didn’t have any of that.”

Rush and her Mighty Macs paved the way for the great teams to follow, winning the next two titles and appearing in five of the first six championship games.

And then, in the blink of an eye, they vanished from the national scene _ a casualty of Title IX, which required colleges to offer women athletic scholarships. Once money played a major role in women’s sports, the champs of women’s basketball suddenly couldn’t compete.

“Immaculata is the only school adversely affected by Title IX,” Rush said laughing. “I said we needed to give scholarships and they said we don’t want to be a jock school.”

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