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Day Tripping

In 1865 newspaper editor Horace Greeley penned the now famous words “Go west young man.” 117 years later, although not a young man and for an entirely different reason, South Williamsport High School graduate Denise Day headed in that westerly direction and in the process carved a legendary athletic career that was again recognized with her enshrinement in the University of Nebraska athletic Hall of Fame last month.

Before Nebraska was ever in the picture, Day unknowingly was a pioneer for women’s sports in our area. It all began in the Little Mountaineer Little League in the mid-1970s where she excelled on the baseball diamond.

Colleague Mike Fogarty vividly recalls watching a Little League All-Star game the South Williamsport team was playing at Old Lycoming. As the teams were being introduced in pre-game ceremonies, the public address announcer paused when it came to introducing Day. Instead of introducing her as Denise Day, he said Dennis Day, incorrectly assuming the player had to be a boy. Undaunted, in her first plate appearance, Denise Day slammed one off the top of the outfield fence for a double. The legend was born.

At the time, South Williamsport’s High School softball team played slow-pitch, where Day starred. During the summers, she often competed on men’s fast-pitch teams including playing games in the City Softball League. As college neared, as he had done with so many South Williamsport students, the late Bill Byham assisted Day in fulfilling her dream of playing college softball.

Byham shared a conversation with me one day on what he was doing to assist Day. Day had expressed interest in Penn State, but Happy Valley showed little interest in return. Byham intervened and was able to get the PSU softball coach to give Day a tryout. Upon their return home, Bill called me and was incredulous with what had taken place.

While I don’t recall the exact words, he told me how well he thought Denise had performed. He said she had hit well and in the field handed groundballs flawlessly. He even said that on one occasion, Denise had fielded a ground ball and threw it across the diamond with such velocity that it took off the glove of the first baseman. Despite this apparent success, the Penn State coach suggested Denise apply to a Junior College program or a school with a JV program.

Day credits Byham with his help in fulfilling her dream.

“If it wasn’t for him, I may have never had the opportunity to attend college. He took an interest in me and saw my athletic abilities as a way to get an education. My family was blue collar, and without a scholarship, I was probably staying home. He put together a package of sports clippings, grades, and letters of recommendations and sent the bundle to 10 universities that had scholarship money available for women’s athletics. We also used a scholarship guide from a women’s sports magazine to aid in the search.”

Nebraska softball coach Nancy Plantz was the first to contact Day and ask her to fly to Lincoln for a tryout, a permissible invitation in that era. Denise’s dad said no because the family couldn’t afford a plane ticket. The next morning he changed his mind stating “he’d make it happen so Denise could never say he didn’t give her the opportunity to see if she had what it takes.” The rest is happy history.

At Nebraska Day became the University’s first All-American softball player and first two-time Academic All-American before earning the definitive capstone — the Honda Award — recognizing the NCAA’s most prestigious individual award. Her team played for the 1985 NCCC Championship falling short in a 3-2 extra-inning loss to UCLA. Her #10 jersey is one of four retired Nebraska softball jerseys.

Following her college graduation, Denise went to California and played competitive softball and earned a spot on the US National Team. She played in the 1990 World Games against teams from 22 countries that won the Gold Medal and also played on the 1991 PanAm team. She was on track to play in the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, but softball was eliminated as an exhibition sport.

Day returned to the area and served a stint as the director of the Jersey Shore YMCA before moving through the YMCA ranks. She now is the CEO of the Greater Brandywine YMCA, the fourth largest YMCA in Pennsylvania.

Webster defines a pioneer as “one who goes before, preparing the way for others.” Her time came well after Horace Greeley’s advice but Denise Day was a trailblazer in bringing attention to the abilities of young female athletes in our area. The Nebraska Hall of Fame is richer for her inclusion.

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