3 remarkable women who left their mark on girls’ high school sports in Alabama

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Noona Kennard
Alabama girls’ high school sports pioneer Noona Kennard. Photo via Noona Kennard for Bham Now

Trailblazer. Character builder. Champion. 

This month in honor of Women’s History Month, I interviewed three remarkable women, Noona Kennard, Yvonne Michelle Simmons and Cat Reddick-Whitehill. Each one made a lasting impact on girls’ high school sports in Alabama

Here are their inspiring stories.

Noona Kennard – Trailblazer

Noona Kennard
Alabama girls’ high school sports pioneer Noona Kennard. Screenshot from the Bradshaw High School 1975 annual

Calling documentary filmmaker Ken Burns! 

That was the thought going through my head while interviewing 93 year old Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) coaching pioneer and legend Noona Kennard.

Somehow, some way, there needs to be one of those epic Ken Burns PBS documentaries or perhaps a Netflix movie produced about Kennard’s life and the countless coaches and teachers in Alabama who struggled to get girls’ competitive sports recognized in the 1950s and 1960s.

In 1950, after playing basketball for Mississippi State College for Women, Coach Kennard came to Alabama to be a physical education teacher.  She soon discovered organized girls’ high school sports such as basketball and volleyball were non-existent in the state. 

“I came to Florence Alabama from Starkville Mississippi in 1950 and started teaching at Florence Junior High School,” said Kennard in a recent interview. “Coming from Mississippi, I played basketball and ran track. I just assumed we would do the same thing up here. I was soon told that girls cannot compete. That bothered me, so I called the State Department of Education about having a competitive girls’ basketball team. They told me it wasn’t legal in Alabama. They said it was too detrimental to the girls’ health. [Girls] couldn’t take the strain of it. I thought…”that is a bunch of hooey, because I played in Mississippi all my life, and I was pretty normal!” she chuckled.

Administrators gave her an alternative. Outside of school, girls could form independent sports teams if they could secure some playing time in the high school gyms.

Noona Kennard
Appleby Junior High Independent team in Florence, Alabama. Photo via Noona Kennard

Determined, Kennard did just that. For more than a decade, she organized independent teams. It wasn’t easy at first.   

“Alabama girls hadn’t played basketball in years and years, so they didn’t even know what a girls’ basketball team even looked like,” added Kennard. “I loaded them up, took them to Loretto Tennessee, (which is only 27 miles from Florence) to watch a game. They were just awed. Can we do all that? I told them sure you can do all that and more!”

Eventually, girls’ high school sports were accepted in Alabama. By the early 1960s, AHSAA held the first girls’ state swimming championships. 

Noona Kennard
Alabama girls’ high school sports pioneer Noona Kennard. Photo via Noona Kennard for Bham Now

And then, in 1971, twenty-one years after she had been told by the State Department of Education girls’ high school sports were illegal, Coach Noona Kennard led Bradshaw High School to the first AHSAA state volleyball championship and five of the first six state championships. She was inducted into the Alabama High School Sports Hall of Fame in 1993.

“Over the years, I was told that you can’t call yourself a coach, you just work with girls. I was called everything under the sun, but I knew what I was doing was right.”

Yvonne Michelle Simmons – Character Builder

Yvonne Simmons
Carver High School’s Hall of Fame basketball coach Yvonne Michelle Simmons. Photo via AHSAA

A 2020 Inductee into the Alabama High School Sports Hall of Fame, Coach Yvonne Michelle Simmons from Montgomery’s Carver High School loved sports even though it wasn’t offered in high school when she was growing up.

In the early 70s, there were few organized sports for girls. In fact, Simmons was never given the opportunity to play basketball in high school. But it didn’t keep her from playing, even out in the streets.

“Well, I guess in high school, I was always that kid that couldn’t wait to get out of school and get out there on the streets to play football with the guys,” Simmons proudly stated.  “I was always athletic. You know I played with some of those guys like Michael Washington who played for Alabama and went to the NFL and George Pugh, another Crimson Tide player who went on to become a college coach.” 

After high school, she attended Alabama State University (ASU) not on an athletic scholarship but a music scholarship. She was in the band. A physical education major, she played on the first two ASU women’s basketball teams the school ever had. She caught the coaching bug in college while working with the local parks and recreation as a coach for Loveless Junior High and Floyd Junior High School. She became the basketball and softball coach at Floyd right out of college, which would begin a 40 years-plus teaching and Hall of Fame coaching career.

In 1985, she became George W. Carver High School head basketball coach, a position she held for 29 years. Her accomplishments included:

  •  558-237 overall girls’ basketball won-loss record
  • 18 area championships including one string of 14 consecutive area titles from 1988-2001
  • Won the Class 6A state championship in 1993 and was runner-up three other times
  • Named athletic director at Carver, the first woman to hold such a position in the Montgomery County School System
Carver High School Montgomery
Carver High School’s Hall of Fame basketball coach Yvonne Michelle Simmons awarded the 1993 AHSAA Girls’ Basketball State Championship trophy. Photo via Yvonne Michelle Simmons

Despite all her accomplishments, when I talked to her about her more than 500 plus wins and the dynasty she created at Carver, she sounds more like Coach Pat Summitt, her idol or UCLA’s John Wooden. Building character is what matters most to her.

“[Winning] never mattered to me. What I was basically concerned with was getting those kids out there working hard and building character because it wasn’t about the wins, it was getting these kids to believe in themselves. I told them, as hard as we work you are going to see results.”

Cat Reddick-Whitehill – Champion

Cat Reddick
Cat Reddick USWNT. Photo by J. Brett Whitesell/isiphotos.com

Briarwood High School’s Cat Reddick-Whitehill wanted to be an Olympic soccer player.

“My goal was to play in the Olympics. It was in 1996 when they were held in Atlanta. I saw the U.S. Women’s Soccer team play for the first time. I said, I want to be there one day.” 

Like a storybook, eight years later, she was standing on a podium at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece, representing her country and receiving a Gold Medal with her American soccer teammates. Fifteen years later, she was inducted to the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in 2019. 

Girls’ high school sports in Alabama were instrumental in accomplishing her goal. In Reddick-Whitehill’s four years at Briarwood, she would win four state soccer championships with her classmates and finish her senior season holding the state record for most career goals.  Perhaps, just as important as her soccer titles, she played on two final four basketball championship teams. 

Briarwood High School
Briarwood High School Basketball team in 1990s. Cat Reddick is number 22. Photo via the Reddick family.

According to Reddick-Whitehill her high school basketball team helped shape her physically and mentally. 

“High school basketball really helped me with my agility, my quick feet and changing direction and hand eye coordination. It was extremely important just to have balance,” she said.

While she was winning state titles in high school, Reddick-Whitehill was also traveling across the U.S. representing her country on U-16 & U-18 national teams. She credits her high school back home in Birmingham for keeping her grounded. She got to win a championship with her older sister, play with friends, and see her friends who don’t play soccer games come and cheer her on and wear her school colors.

“It was such an honor to play for Briarwood.”

From that strong foundation in high school, Reddick-Whitehill went on to become one of the most accomplished and decorated athletes in Alabama sports history. Along with her Gold Medal, she won college soccer national championships at the University of North Carolina, the Hermann Trophy (college soccer’s Heisman Trophy equivalent), All American honors and earned 134 “caps” (soccer term for games played)  for the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team (USWNT). 

Legacy

These three women have left a long legacy with the AHSAA and women’s sports. Their inspiring stories of dedication and perseverance have forever changed girls’ sports in Alabama.

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  • Longtime conservationist. Former Executive Director at the Alabama Environmental Council and Wild South. Publisher of the Bama Environmental News for more than 18 years. Career highlights include playing an active role in the creation of Alabama's Forever Wild program, Little River Canyon National Preserve, Dugger Mountain Wilderness, preservation of special places throughout the East through the Wilderness Society and the strengthening (making more stringent) the state of Alabama's cancer risk and mercury standards.