By Jentry Holt
Tradition, loyalty, pride, success and family – these are just a few words surrounding the history of Seminole State College’s Belles. In 1971, the Blue Bell sewing plant donated $10,000 to start a women’s basketball program at then Seminole Junior College. This was one year before Title IX was mandated, ensuring young women the right to participate in collegiate athletics. This revolutionary act set in motion a program that would change lives for years to come.
The Belles were the first junior college program in Oklahoma to award basketball scholarships to female athletes. Previously, women attended junior colleges and took part in athletics, but not with scholarship money dedicated to their sport. Women could only participate if they were able to pay or qualified for work scholarships. The Belles provided young women the chance to obtain their education while playing the game. The Blue Bell company colors were Columbia blue and white. As the basketball team selected uniforms, it was only right they kept the mascot and colors of the organization that gave them their start. Wearing a Columbia blue and white uniform was a privilege. It soon became a symbol of honor and opportunity for the athletes who were chosen to wear it.
It did not take long for the program to earn a winning reputation. All-American player and Hall of Fame coach, Dixie Woodall, played a pivotal role in building the Belles’ legacy that lives on today. The name Woodall means “Wood Craftsman” and a craftsman she was. When
she arrived at Seminole there was no gym, no housing for her players and no way to feed them. Woodall worked diligently to find host families for her team until she was able to raise enough money to provide for them.
Even with limited resources, Woodall amassed a combined record of 390-97 in 14 seasons as the head coach at Seminole Junior College. She also captured a junior college national championship title at Seminole in 1976 with national runner-up finishes in both 1975 and 1977. To date, the Belles are the only team sport at Seminole to have brought home a national championship. Woodall, a true pioneer for women’s basketball, paved the way for female players and coaches across the nation.
“We changed it for everybody. It was a man’s world, and we broke into it,” said Woodall. Not only did Woodall garner remarkable accolades during her career but she also made an impact on women’s basketball at a personal, regional, and national level. “The best years of my life were in Seminole,” said Woodall. “Any gal with the chance to be a Belle would be lucky.”
Countless lives have been touched by the influence of this program. Former player and manager for the Belles, Sue Snodgrass, is one of many with fond memories of the team. Snodgrass played for the Belles during the season of 1970-71 and served as manager the following year. During the early 70s, they could not find a place that would house the team’s Native American, and African American players. Under Coach Woodall’s leadership, the team set to work on a rent house where all players could find solace. “Every Belle went to work, and we made them a very nice place to live,” said Snodgrass. “From then on we were tied together.”
Snodgrass exemplifies the true meaning of being a Belle as she has continued to give back long after her athletic career. Since her playing days, Snodgrass has provided countless resources for the team. As co-owner of TS&H Advertising Specialties, located in Seminole, Snodgrass supplies the team with customized gear and equipment. For this special year, her graphic team designed Columbia blue travel suits to commemorate the Belles’ 50th season. She has also contributed to the program by hosting 10 different Belles throughout the years.
Snodgrass responded, “This program changed lives. The Belles helped give me my family.” She has remained in touch with the young women she hosted and continues to be involved in their lives. Snodgrass said she now has a generation of “Grand-Belles” since her girls have grown up to have families and children of their own.
The Belles’ current head coach, Rita Story-Schell, also had special sentiments to share regarding the 50th year celebration. Story-Schell was a Belle herself and played for Woodall from 1982 to 1984. “Being recruited by Dixie was a surreal experience. I was overwhelmed and in awe that someone with her prestige would come to Bethel, Oklahoma, to recruit me,” said Story-Schell. She had other offers to play college basketball but suffered a knee injury her senior year of high school. Once word got out that Story-Schell had been hurt, many colleges halted their recruiting efforts. Dixie Woodall and the Belles did not. “Dixie has my ultimate respect because she did not stop pursuing me,” noted Story-Schell. This is a testament to the type of character and leadership that has comprised this program.
Story-Schell returned to her alma mater in the fall of 2000 to accept the position of head coach. “It is an honor and a privilege to coach here,” she said. “Like Dixie, I strive to love and care for my players both on and off the court.” For the last 21 years, Coach Story-Schell has done exactly that. She has demonstrated over and over what it means to be a strong female leader. Story-Schell recounted times when male coaches, from opposing teams, would not shake her hand after a Belle victory. She said she has encountered, “multiple forms of disrespect” but has never let that discourage her. Story-Schell has relentlessly pursued the development of her players and program while striving to break stereotypes surrounding female coaches. “It was a game-changer when women could play basketball. It gave us opportunities we would’ve never had,” said Story-Schell. “That’s why people should care about the Belles’ 50th year.”
Woodall, Snodgrass, and Story-Schell all reside in the Seminole State College Hall of Fame. An honor reserved for individuals whose personal and professional accomplishments have brought pride to the institution. These dynamic women embody the significance of being a Belle.
There are many other unnamed individuals connected to this program, who have made tremendous impacts. If you ask any one of them about their experience, you will likely get a similar response. Being a Belle is an opportunity of a lifetime.
Fifty years later, the 2020-21 squad is preparing to celebrate half a century of Belles’ basketball. In honor of the Belles’ original colors, the team will be wearing commemorative Columbia blue jerseys this season. Pandemic restrictions have caused some difficulty this year, but resilient, female athletes have overcome challenges many times before. Every chance the Belles get to take the floor this year, it will be, as Coach Story-Schell said, “An honor and a privilege.”