Diocese Celebrates 50 Years of Girls’ Sports

The Girls’ Catholic High School Athletic Association (GCHSAA) has turned 50!

For the past half century, the GCHSAA has afforded local Catholic young women the opportunity to advance their athletic skills while creating lasting memories in the process. These student-athletes have lived out the organization’s mission of equality for all.

From its humble beginnings of just basketball, the GCHSAA has expanded over the past 50 years to include multiple sports offerings for young women across all three seasons. (File photo)

The girls’ Catholic League was founded in September 1971. Prior to that, basketball and cheerleading were the only sports for girls in high school. Some schools had swimming teams, though they were not organized into a sanctioned league.

Basketball games had to be arranged by invitation, and the coaches themselves were responsible for finding – and paying – referees. There were no standings, playoffs, tournaments or awards among the high schools. That all changed though once the GCHSAA was formed.

Initially, school principals served as the legislative body of the league. However, a defined structure of leadership was instituted, creating a cabinet. Sister Mary Febronia, C.S.J., was the GCHSAA’s first president. A graduate of The Mary Louis Academy, Jamaica Estates, Sister Mary also coached basketball and softball at Fontbonne Hall Academy, Bay Ridge, and was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame in 2010.

Some of the other charter members of the GCHSAA included Helen Graham, Helen Lombardi, Sister Jane Bannon, C.S.J., Jane Modry and Jill Dalton, as well as several others. As the years went by, more sports became available to young women, starting with volleyball, tennis, softball and swimming on both the varsity and junior varsity levels.

Thanks to Title IX, young women also were in the position for college scholarships, which played a role in increasing participation across the board. Soon, three seasons of track-and-field, soccer and golf came into the diocesan sports scene. Summer sports camps for girls gave these student-athletes a chance to keep their skills sharp all year.

In 2003, Denise Hillig took over as GCHSAA president. The longtime basketball coach at St. John’s Prep, Astoria, is a member of the GCHSAA Hall of Fame and is also the current president of the state GCHSAA.

In Hillig’s time as president, she has overseen an increased participation in girls’ sports throughout the diocese. Intersectional competition with the Archdiocese of New York has become the norm, and new sports – like lacrosse, badminton, STEP and even the possibility of flag football this spring – continue to pop up. Hillig also oversaw the recent creation of girls’ All-League teams, similar to what the boys’ league has done for many years.

“It’s all about the promotion of women,” Hillig said. “It’s about women taking their equal place in society. They’re just as capable of competing as their male counterpart. We give the girls the opportunity to do that.”

As part of the 50th anniversary celebration, the GCHSAA is planning a special “Pink Day” weekend in February in which former varsity and junior varsity girls’ basketball players will be welcomed back to their alma maters to speak between games. In April, the GCHSAA will induct its 2020 Hall of Fame class after the ceremony was postponed last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

High school sports are so important in the development of young women into well-rounded people. Since its humble beginnings of just offering basketball, the GCHSAA now fosters this development across multiple sports during all three seasons.

“It gives them invaluable team-building skills, teamwork, leadership qualities and time management,” Hillig said. “All those things come into play to form the young women they become and how that translates into their college life and work career.”

New this year, the GCHSAA has a new and improved website and has partnered with Hometown Ticketing to make collecting admissions to sporting events much easier. Spectators can purchase tickets beforehand and show the receipt directly on their mobile phones. New social media accounts also keep fans and family members in the know when it comes to their favorite local teams.

In learning from the past 50 years, Hillig knows the recipe for success to keep the GCHSAA flourishing for another 50 years and beyond: “We just need to keep doing what we’re doing – increase participation and sports as the need arises and keep producing outstanding women.”

Stay tuned to “Good Sports” throughout the next year for coverage of the GCHSAA’s full celebration of its 50th anniversary.

Contact Jim Mancari via email at