by Patrick Hussey, Community Journalist
HARDWICK – More than a half century has passed since the Lady Wildcats at Hazen Union put together what was probably the greatest winning period in school history. So on February 2, an evening is planned to finally take a second look back on those historic title runs.
In a five-year span starting in 1972, the Lady Wildcats won two Class I State Runners-up basketball titles and four Class I State Championships in basketball and softball.
The pinnacle of those winning years arrived in the 1974-75 basketball season and 1975 softball season. Hazen Union never lost a game during that stretch, going 36-0. The Lady Wildcats won a basketball state title and followed that up by winning a state softball title.
Also during this dominating period, the Lady Wildcats had two notable firsts. The Lady Wildcats participated in the first-ever state tournament for girls basketball in 1972 and the first-ever state softball tournament in 1974.
They would settle for a runner-up title in the 1972 Class I basketball tournament against Oxbow, but they won the first state Class I title game for girls softball in 1974, defeating Windsor. Guiding the Lady Wildcats through those tremendous years were coaching greats Janet (Rowden) Howard and her longtime assistant coach Jean Hackett.
Lorrie Brochu Curtis, a 1975 Hazen graduate and athlete on many of those great teams, has been a busy person this year helping to set up what should be an eventful evening. She began last year with the simple idea of upgrading all those faded 1970s championship banners that hang in the Hazen Union gym. But that project morphed into also organizing a night to celebrate a period in Lady Wildcat sports history that will be tough to match.
Curtis has raised well over $3,000 to pay for the seven new banners with the help of local businesses and individuals. Others have stepped up to help Curtis prepare for the February 2 evening, and they are reaching out to many of the athletes from that era, encouraging all to attend. And Curtis has one more surprise up her sleeve for that night.
During those early title runs at Hazen, championship banners were handmade by the home economics classes. Rumor has it that Rose Campbell also helped make some. The banners were showing their age, so Curtis thought it was time to brighten them up. Included in that project will be a new 1980-81 boys Class I State Basketball Championship banner.
So in between the JV and varsity girls basketball game with Blue Mountain on February 2, a celebration will be held at center court for those 1970s Lady Wildcat athletes and their coaches. Curtis said T-shirts will be on sale to commemorate that era.
Hazen Union first opened its doors in the fall of 1970. The school got very lucky when principal Merle Fitzgerald hired a young Janet Benedict, fresh out of college from Johnson State. Benedict, now Jan Howard, spent her first professional year teaching in North Troy. She remembers telling her father she had accepted a job at a new school in Hardwick and him hinting to her that maybe that wasn’t a good decision. But it certainly worked out well for Hazen and Howard.
Howard, from Derby, grew up a sports fanatic. She said she always had a glove on her handlebars while bicycling around during the summers. She was always on the lookout for pickup baseball games. Howard wasn’t allowed to play little league back then, so she had to teach herself how to throw a ball. She remembers just simply throwing a baseball into the air to see how high she could heave it. Howard never got to play organized sports until she was a freshman in high school.
It didn’t take Jan Howard long to make an impact at Hazen. She coached all three sports at the school, introducing the sport of field hockey and also coaching basketball and softball. Howard said she was blessed at Hazen Union.
Her first bit of good luck came in the form of an invaluable longtime assistant coach, new math teacher Jean Hackett. Those two would join forces to develop some of the most powerful girls teams not only in Hazen history, but statewide.
“I had some pretty good teams handed to me,” reflected Howard, “and what an asset Jean was to me. Jean would always help me settle things down, and she was just so knowledgeable. And all my girls, look what I had. They came out, they were all willing to work, they had great skills and great attitudes. I was just lucky to have such a good bunch of girls come through the school.”
“You take someone like a Penny Libercent,” added Howard. “She had size and strength, she worked at her game every night, playing one-on-one with her brother Paul, who just pounded on her. I mean, just look what she did for us.”
It took just two years for Howard to start producing winners at Hazen. Many sportswriters at the time didn’t even know where Hazen was located. With Pat Libercent leading the way, the 1971-72 Hazen girls made it to the school’s first state title game in basketball.
The Hazen Union girls made it back to the basketball playoffs in 1973 and 1974, then in the spring of 1974, the winning seasons started stacking up for Howard, Hackett and the Lady Wildcats. That spring, Vermont held the first state softball tournament for girls. The Hazen girls, who didn’t even have uniforms, waltzed to the state title during a 12-1 season behind a battery that included Penny Libercent on the mound and Paula Hodgdon behind the plate. It was Hazen’s first state title in any sport.
The mid-70s were the height of the baby boomer years and that 1975 Hazen Union class was stuffed with exceptional athletes. They embarked on a series of wins that remains unmatched.
The Hazen Union girls produced back-to-back perfect seasons. The 1974-75 Lady Wildcats won the Class I basketball title by going 19-0 and, that spring, they repeated as state softball champions, going 17-0. Howard had the Cats rolling, they won every close game they were in, and there were plenty of them.
The winning continued the following basketball season, in 1975-76, as the Lady Wildcats repeated as State Class I Champions in a barnburner final game with Randolph. It was the last basketball game for Penny Libercent, who is arguably the finest female athlete to graduate from Hazen. She was the school’s first thousand-point scorer. Her basketball uniform was retired and hangs in the Hazen gym.
She willed the Wildcats to victory in that championship game, scoring 29 points in a two-point win. Libercent is one of the school’s most decorated athletes, leading Hazen to a pair of basketball state championships and two softball state championships.
The five-year title run for the Lady Wildcats ended with the 1976-77 basketball season. They once again met a powerful Randolph team in the state finals, but this time the Ghosts won. Still, it was yet another banner season for the Hazen girls and they were featured in a Vermont Life magazine article. Howard would also win a Coach of the Year award.
In the five years from 1972 to 1977, the Hazen girls played in six state championship games. It should be noted that in 1973, the Hazen softball team participated in the Essex Invitational softball tournament, the predecessor to the state softball tournament. They lost to eventual champion Bellows Falls.
Coaches Jan Howard and Jean Hackett, along with all those 1970s female athletes, helped Hazen raise six banners in that five-year stretch.
Those accomplishments deserve a look back and certainly one more pat on the back.