The Community College of Rhode Island boasts some of the top women’s athletic programs in the country and offers sports in all three seasons each year.
It is common practice for junior colleges to offer such programs in 2023, but even when Title IX was established in 1972, it was anything but.
Back in 1976, CCRI, which at the time was Rhode Island Junior College, had yet to offer any women’s sports. That year, three East Providence grads would change that and become monumental pieces in the introduction of women’s sports at not only RIJC, but for the entire state.
Sisters Dona and Rita Damian, as well as Sandy Sullivan, were standout players for the East Providence volleyball team. The trio was headed to RIJC that fall and wished to continue their careers on the court. Once they arrived, they promptly marched to Athletic Director Vin Cullen’s office to express their interest in forming the first women’s team on campus.
“Women’s sports had not existed. One day, three girls came into my office from East Providence and asked if we had a women’s volleyball team. I said, ‘No,’ and they asked, ‘Why not?’ I told them, ‘Because no one has asked for one.’ They said, ‘Well, we’re asking,’” said Cullen of his first meeting with the girls.
After a few conversations and batches of homemade cookies provided by the girls, Cullen allowed them to begin recruiting players to get the ball rolling.
Dona began handing out flyers to just about anyone she encountered on campus, especially girls with height. There was only one requirement to join the team, and it was “the desire to play.” Dona was able to wrangle an eight-player roster. Check.
The next role to fill was the coaching position. Cullen and Dona knew exactly who they wanted.
“We needed a coach. I knew Gail Davis who coached at Toll Gate. I began bothering her, I’d go to Toll Gate, I would call her. She was not interested but I told her that the only way I’d leave her alone was if she coached the team. She agreed, part because I bothered the hell out of her,” said Dona.
“I knew nothing about volleyball, but I knew Toll Gate down the street was winning a lot. I figured I would go down there and talk to their coach Gail Davis about it and I found out that she was the best volleyball coach in the state. She impressed me greatly,” added Cullen.
The team was set and ready to go.
For the 1976 season, the team would be a club program. Although many of the players had high school experience, a few of them did not, which led to some interesting days in practice in the early going. Between the different skill levels, having to play in basketball jerseys and even use basketballs at practice some days due to the lack of equipment, there was some uncertainty if things were going to work out.
“It was such a motley crew, but the desire to play was so high. We were pretty extraordinary. I remember the look on Gail’s face, she would almost be rolling her eyes. She had so much patience with us and we ended up doing well. It was her patience, she did not do a lot of yelling, all she could do was shake her head, put down the paper and walk away. We practiced, though, we helped each other and showed each other what we had to do. She tried and she told us, ‘I think you can do this.’ She had great guidance and a great sense of humor,” said Dona.
Davis knew she had a special team in the early going and was excited to teach it from the ground up.
“They had to learn, they had to learn from the beginning. It was a lot like coaching high school so I was prepared. They had to learn how to pass the ball, how to set the ball. Those three girls from East Providence were exceptional and set us up. There were some other girls that came in from North Kingstown, Cranston. Our starting lineup was fantastic and the girls coming off the bench were helpful,” said Davis.
As the season approached, the pressure began to set in for the girls. As the first women’s team at the school, the players knew that the season in many ways was a test run for women’s athletics.
“Gail would remind us, ‘If you want to be a team, you have to show them. Right now, you are a club, so you have to show them that you are worthy. You can do this. If you want to be powerhouses, you have to show people. They aren’t just going to give it to you. You don’t represent just the school, you represent women,” said Dona.
“We were intimidated for a while, but we got over it quickly,” said Rita.
The club got off to a strong start, beating both the Brown and URI junior varsity teams. By years end, it had gone undefeated and it was clear that the group was capable of playing against college competition, which earned it the status of a true team for the 1977 season.
Just before the start of the season, Cullen presented the team with actual volleyball uniforms and that is when the girls knew that they had made it.
“Even from the first game, we played together and we clicked, we won. We shocked ourselves and we did it again, then we did it again. Then more people started watching. It was building up, this could happen. Then the day when Vinnie brought down the boxes with uniforms, knee pads. There were tears because we knew that this was a thing. This is now a team,” Dona said.
The good times continued to roll for the team in its inaugural season as it went on to win its region and qualify for nationals. It finished the year as the 13th best team in the country.
That season, local female student-athletes began to take notice and the buzz around women’s sports began to grow.
“We began winning and more people came out to watch us play. The sport was growing in Rhode Island. The kids were bringing the interest in and our coaching staff was trying to show the girls the importance of unity. There couldn’t be fighting, arguing. There were different responsibilities for them playing in a junior college setting,” Davis said.
From there, women’s sports were a thing at RIJC, and more teams began to form and the numbers skyrocketed in the ensuing years.
The East Providence trio graduated after 1978 and Davis coached two more seasons. The team won the region championship again in 1978.
Dona went on to be one of the top players to ever come out of CCRI. She was named the All-Tournament MVP in both 1977 and 1978, and was an All-American Honorable Mention. Sullivan was also named to the Tournament First Team in 1977, while Rita was named to the second team.
Cullen, Davis and Dona were eventually inducted to the CCRI Athletics Hall of Fame for their impact.
When looking back on that first team, Davis remembers the dedication of the players and the lessons learned both on and off the court.
“It was so important. Coaches wanted to come to (RIJC) because they knew these girls loved playing and they were responsible. Many of them had full-time jobs and other responsibilities. I had to plead to a few of the parents to let the girls play at nationals. This team was so important because that was where the girls became women. It helped tremendously,” Davis said.
Cullen actually knew Dona before their first meeting in his office. Prior to her arrival on campus, she wrote him a letter regarding her interest in creating a team in the fall. She explained that she and Rita had lost their mother in 1971 and volleyball was a big part in helping them cope.
“I still remember the letter Dona wrote to me a few months before arriving. It said that volleyball was a lifeline for her. There are players like that where sports are so important because it gives them purpose,” said Cullen.
Forty-six years later, Dona is proud of what she and her teammates accomplished during those years and the difference they made for decades to come.
“It wasn’t until the last few years that I began thinking about it. You start thinking about history, it’s been 46 years. It makes you think about the change that you made in people’s lives,” said Dona. “Thinking back, you think, I did. I sure as hell did.”