Portland grew women’s game locally

Sometimes the passing of time enhances our appreciation of people and the good they have done.

Such is the case of Penn State longtime women’s basketball coach Rene Portland.

I’ll not let the controversy that plagued her last few seasons diminish the contributions she made to female sports in general and women’s basketball in particular.

Her arrival at Penn State coincided with the explosion of high school girls basketball popularity and success here in Blair and Cambria counties.

Portland contributed more to that growth than most fans realize. This didn’t happen just because the basketball was exciting and successful. It happened because Portland didn’t lock herself in her office. She became part of the central Pennsylvania community.

She hosted an annual coaches’ clinic each fall and always managed to talk several highly respected colleagues from the most successful women’s programs in this part of the country to speak at the event.

In her early years, she actually visited area high schools to host mini-camps for high school players as well. A few years before I became the head coach at Bishop Guilfoyle, she approached then-head coach Dave Adams and offered to bring several of her staff and players to the Pleasant Valley Gym to talk with our players and introduce them to some of the fundamental drills they used in their own practices.

While her program had not yet reached the notoriety it would later enjoy, our players already understood that this was the big time and were thrilled to have the chance to meet the coach and several players from the Division I program down the road.

Even as a coach, I was appreciative of this gesture and recognized she believed that the sport could not grow without outreach efforts like this one.

And grow they did. She would take her teams to the NCAA tournament 21 times. One of the three years she missed the Big Dance during that stretch, the Lady Lions won the Women’s NIT.

Needless to say, it was exciting basketball. Her teams were unselfish, fundamentally sound and never backed down from the toughest competition. Nationally ranked teams were frequent visitors to Rec Hall and then the Bryce Jordan Center, and the Lady Lions won more than their share of those marquee games.

This excitement was not lost on the fans of central Pennsylvania.

My family members became acquainted with Portland while doing fundraising work at Bishop Guilfoyle during the years Portland’s son Steve attended the high school. Before Steve could drive, Rene would make the trek from State College as often as her schedule would permit.

Just as I had recognized her commitment to the sport she loved several decades before, my mom was impressed by a similar commitment to her family many years later.

Though Rene’s early arrival to the pearly gates is a great loss for many of us, I suspect my mom and mother-in-law have used the opportunity to once again reminisce about those golden days of Lady Lion Basketball.

We were all blessed to be part of those incredible times.

In addition to John Frederick’s biweekly Earth Matters column, he also periodically contributes historic stories to the sports pages. Visit his website at www.johnjfrederick.com.