Sept. 18, 2012
Michigan State will induct six new members into its Athletics Hall of Fame on Thursday, Sept. 20. In the second of a six-part series this week on msuspartans.com, online columnist Steve Grinczel profiles former three-sport standout Diane Spoelstra, who played volleyball, basketball and softball.
As legacies go, Diane Spoelstra's is hard to beat.
"I didn't know losing very much," she said in what may be the greatest understatement in Michigan State University sports history.
Spoelstra not only won a lot, she won big. And, she won big from 1975-78 in three sports: softball, basketball and volleyball.
In 252 games as a starter beginning with the golden days of fall, transitioning through the cold winter nights and ending with the warmth of spring, Spoelstra posted a 194-58 record for a winning percentage of .770.
The only thing that stopped Spoelstra from padding the Spartan record book was summer vacation.
"I just always liked to play sports and was just very natural in any sport I took up," Spoelstra said. "So, I just went for the gusto, as they'd say, because we could do that at that time. I feel fortunate that I could play all three sports because you can't do that now. You'd have to make a choice."
Blessed with a versatile skill-set and immunity to burnout, Spoelstra blissfully moved from one sport to the next without missing a beat.
"You only knew what you knew and I'd just go from one sport to the next," she said. "I never felt it was difficult at all. I just had a passion for all those three sports."
Spoelstra was a first-generation daughter of Title IX, which was enacted in 1972 to provide girls and women with equal access to athletic and educational opportunities. As a student-athlete at East Kentwood High School, Spoelstra picked up the ball, both figuratively and literally, and ran with it to the full extent possible.
Shirley Cook, who competed in field hockey, basketball and track and field from 1955-58, is the only other woman to play three different sports at MSU.
"I was a junior in high school when Title IX happened and we were just starting to play other teams in girls' sports and actually have a league," she said. "And the teammates I had at Michigan State in volleyball, basketball and softball were just really skilled athletes at that time.
"We went to the national tournaments in every sport."
If Spoelstra was forced to choose only one, it would have been tough but she would have gone with basketball even though the highlight of her career came on the softball diamond.
Spoelstra began her hardcourt career at Michigan State in 1976 with former two-sport standout Kathy DeBoer under first-year head coach Karen Langeland. DeBoer currently is the executive director of the American Volleyball Coaches Association and Langeland, who coached the Spartans for 24 years, recently retired as an Associate MSU Athletic Director.
"I had played AAU softball with Karen," said Spoelstra, an operations production manager at Kellogg's in Grand Rapids. "She was always someone I admired and looked up to and was just a good role model to follow.
"And Kathy was an excellent basketball and volleyball player. She brought out the best in me and I'm sure I brought out the best in her. We all came from the Grand Rapids area and played a lot of sports together. In that respect, I'd say those two were the most influential people in my life at that time."
Her two biggest fans were her late parents, Henry and Evelyn, who nearly caught on with the Grand Rapids Chicks of the All-American Girls Baseball League during World War II.
"They traveled with me and watched as many of my games as they could," Spoelstra said. "Actually, my mother was quite an athlete at the time and quite a well-known softball player. There are articles about her pitching no-hitters. She almost got picked up for the Chicks, but she was only 16 and her parents wouldn't let her do that."
With no such restrictions standing in Spoelstra's way, the MSU volleyball team compiled an 82-13 record in her two seasons as a starter, won back-to-back Big Ten Tournament championships, and made two appearances in the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women national tourney.
The 5-foot-10 Spoelstra started 45 of 51 games for the Spartan basketball team and averaged 9.8 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game during her two-year career. As a junior, Spoelstra led MSU to a Midwest AIAW championship and scored a career-high 28 points in the Big Ten Tournament.
The Spartan softball team had three consecutive 20-win seasons with Spoelstra at third base. As a sophomore in 1976, Spoelstra batted .467 in the AIAW College World Series in Omaha, Neb., which culminated in MSU's only national championship. She went 4-for-4, including a triple, and scored a run in the 6-4 victory against Kansas in Game 2.
The events before, during and after MSU's 3-0 victory over Omaha in the title game still resonate in Spoelstra's mind.
Rain-soaked conditions caused organizers to move the final to a local football stadium equipped with artificial grass "so they laid out a diamond on the AstroTurf and it was pretty nerve-wracking," Spoelstra said. "We couldn't wear our cleats so we wore tennis shoe, which was pretty strange.
"Then, coming back on the bus, a couple of the girls played the trumpet and when one got tired playing the Michigan State Fight Song, the other would start. We didn't have one quiet moment the whole time."
What's certain is that playing three sports increased Spoelstra's odds of accomplishing something relatively few college athletes ever experience.
"It's just the thrill of that one moment when you were the best team in the United States," she said. "It's exciting to have everybody playing their best at that point and winning with your teammates. I never thought being a national champion would follow my life the way it has.
"I still have people say they heard I played softball and was a national champion, and I will say, yes I was. But the sweetest part wasn't that we won a national championship, it's that we won it for Michigan State University. There's a lot of pride in that."