Mazzolini's Impact Felt Across Generations

July 14, 2016

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

A lifetime in competitive athletics has provided piles of memories for retiring MHSAA assistant director Gina Mazzolini.

Four decades as an athlete, coach and association administrator also left her with plenty of souvenirs to sort through as she finishes her final days in the East Lansing office.

There’s a letter dated 1976 – and passed on to Mazzolini in 2004 – from the MHSAA to tennis coaches warning against stacking their lineups, an issue she’s worked to resolve over the last 20+ years.

Autographs from famous coaches John Wooden and Tom Landry made a 1991 National Federation Hall of Fame program worth saving. Just as significant was a thank-you from legendary Battle Creek St. Philip volleyball coach Sheila Guerra – who led teams to nine MHSAA titles from 1983-97 – sent in 2005 after Guerra’s daughter Vicky Groat led the Tigers to the first of what has become 10 Class D championships over the last 12 seasons.

In a number of high school sports circles, Mazzolini’s contributions are considered similarly legendary. She’s frequently been referred to as a “pioneer” – one of the first star female high school athletes from the Lansing area who went on to star at Central Michigan University and then lend her expertise to growing girls sports in this state and beyond.

“I didn’t do it because I was a woman and wanted to be the first,” Mazzolini said. “That’s just what I wanted to do, and after Title IX those jobs just opened up. And because I had some experience in coaching, officiating and playing, they took a chance on me, or they recruited me because they needed someone to run girls programs.

"I will miss people and relationships, watching things start, grow and get better.”

Mazzolini recently was recognized with a Citation from the National Federation of State High School Associations after a career that began in 1981 with Texas’ University Interscholastic League and ends after the last 23 years as an assistant director in her home state – and a mere 20 miles south of where she took the first steps toward a career that covered nearly the whole of female high school and college sports in Michigan, as a first-generation athlete and the builder of games for generations of girls and women to come.

Pioneer, indeed

Mazzolini’s senior year at St. Johns High School, 1973-74, was the first for girls basketball playoffs sponsored by the MHSAA, and Mazzolini led the Redwings to a District title that fall. She went on to star in both basketball and volleyball at CMU – still ranking among the Chippewas’ all-time hoops statistical leaders – and then to coach volleyball at Ovid-Elsie High School, Michigan State and the University of Texas.

All of that set Mazzolini up to provide a key voice and insight to rules-making bodies at the state and national levels. She’s retiring as MHSAA administrator for girls volleyball, swimming & diving, alpine skiing and tennis, and also has handled the sanctioning of out-of-state competitions and foreign exchange and international student issues. Nationally, she’s served multiple times on rules committees for soccer, swimming & diving and volleyball.

“Having worked in athletics for 46 years, I know few, if any, administrators who have a passion for excellence as does Gina Mazzolini in everything she undertakes,” wrote Marcy Weston, a retired executive associate director of athletics at CMU. “Ethics, integrity, creativity, loyalty and fortitude are just a few words that describe Gina’s work persona. And compassion, kind and supportive are words that siblings and friends access when they describe Gina.”

Weston coached Mazzolini on the CMU volleyball team for four seasons and women’s basketball team for two. At that time, with those programs and women’s college athletics as a whole in their early stages, Mazzolini and her teammates wore the same uniforms for both sports for two years.

Obviously, much has changed. And she’s played a large part.

Mazzolini first got involved as more than an athlete after taking Weston’s officiating class at CMU. Mazzolini registered as an MHSAA official – but all she knew of the MHSAA was that was where she paid her registration fee.

She still didn’t know much about state association work when offered a job at the UIL by then-executive director Bailey Marshall, who was familiar with Mazzolini because his wife Becky was the trainer for the University of Texas volleyball team when Mazzolini was an assistant coach.

“He said we’ve got to add women’s sports – they had them but not as many,” Mazzolini said. “I applied for the job and got it, and I’m still not sure what I’m going to do.”

What she lacked in initial knowledge, she made up for in passion.

Texas’ high school association at that time was adding girls tennis and soccer, beefing up some of its other offerings and reworking other sports to put females on a level playing field.

Her work there led to her first of many contributions to national rules-making committees. Early on, Mazzolini brought the perspective of someone who had played to groups that often included many who had not. She eventually chaired the volleyball committee from 2004-08 and worked with notable contributors to amateur sports including the first NCAA national coordinator of officials, Joan Powell.

“A number of people have made comments that when Gina was appointed to a national committee, the National Federation staff would breathe a sigh of relief because she would bring her patience and perspective to the table when they were forming national rules,” said MHSAA Executive Director Jack Roberts, who has served in his position since 1986.

“It’s clear to me that not just in Michigan, but across the country, there are several people who have affection for Gina as a person.”

Leaving a legacy

In addition to her recent Citation, Mazzolini is a member of the CMU Athletic Hall of Fame and received the MHSAA’s Women in Sports Leadership Award in 2010. This winter, she became the first woman to receive the MHSAA’s Charles E. Forsythe Award for her contributions to interscholastic sports.

It didn’t take long for Michigan coaches to realize she would make an impact.

Among accomplishments she’s most proud of from her time at the MHSAA are improved relationships with the tennis and swimming communities, developed by increased communication and with the help of longtime veterans like Gary Ellis and Tiger Teusink in tennis and Denny Hill in the pool.

She was once told by a coach she was brave to show up at a regular-season event because of the grumbles toward the MHSAA in that sport – but soon another coach told her, “I wanted to hate you, but I like you.”

Mazzolini may choose to stick around athletics as an official, but only at the middle school level. She’ll definitely have no problems continuing to attend some of her favorite events in the sports she’s helped form over the years.

And it seems just a little coincidental that she’s stepping away from a community she’s affected so greatly at the end of the same school year that saw one of her nieces, St Johns senior Brooke Mazzolini, help the Redwings to their first MHSAA Girls Basketball Semifinal in nearly 20 years – the latest step on a path her aunt began to blaze 40 years ago, even as Gina doesn’t see herself as the “pioneer” she’s frequently made out to be.

“I played because I loved to play. I got that from my dad, and we were in an athletic neighborhood. I got into officiating and that was fun,” Mazzolini said. “And then (athletic director) Bob Forebeck at Ovid-Elsie called and said, ‘Hey I need a volleyball coach; what do you think?’ And that was a blast.

“And then I got into state associations, and I’ve really enjoyed that. There were rough patches – like when you tell people ‘no’ – but everything I’ve done, I’ve loved it. It’s hard to consider it a job, because you look forward to doing most of it.”

PHOTOS: (Top) Gina Mazzolini poses briefly while directing an MHSAA Final in skiing. (Middle) Mazzolini starred for the Central Michigan University women's basketball team. (Below) Mazzolini stands with her St. Johns high school basketball coach Beth Swears after receiving the MHSAA Women in Sports Leadership Award in 2010.

2023 Forsythe Award Celebrates Leinaar's 40 Years Dedicated to School Sports

By Geoff Kimmerly senior editor

March 8, 2023

Few people in Michigan have had a longer-lasting influence on the rules and policies of educational athletics than Frankfort’s Karen Leinaar, who has served in several roles locally, statewide and nationally over more than 40 years contributing to the school sports community.

Thank you, Bill Baker.

The longtime teacher, coach, principal and superintendent during a career that stretched across multiple schools – including Leinaar’s growing up, Delton Kellogg – made an impression on the standout multi-sport athlete before she graduated from high school in 1977. Baker’s philosophy and work led Leinaar to study education at Michigan State University and then brought her back as Delton’s athletic director to begin four decades of making the same impact on children in her hometown and eventually in hometowns all over Michigan and beyond.

Baker died in 2009, but not before continuing to mentor Leinaar through many good times and tough ones.

“The man had two daughters that I grew up with, his wife was a teacher, and he demonstrated to all of us – he never missed an event – that we were important to him. That even though we weren’t his kids, we were his kids and athletics was a way to help kids become better people – and for some kids it was the only thing that they had positive in their life,” Leinaar said. “And he made it known just to that individual kid how important their participation was and their involvement, and how that helped them become the person that they were.

“That to me was such an example of how to help people be good people, that I just took that role on.”

It’s a role in which she continues to serve. Leinaar began her career as an athletic administrator in 1982, and as the interim athletic director currently at Frankfort High School is serving her fifth district in that position. Since June 2019, she also has served as executive director of the Michigan Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (MIAAA), the professional organization for school sports administrators in the state with a membership of nearly 700.

Leinaar accepts the MHSAA's Women In Sports Leadership Award in 1998. To recognize that longtime and continuing impact, Leinaar has been named the 2023 honoree for the Michigan High School Athletic Association’s Charles E. Forsythe Award.

The annual award is in its 46th year and named after former MHSAA Executive Director Charles E. Forsythe, the Association's first full-time and longest-serving chief executive. Forsythe Award recipients are selected each year by the MHSAA Representative Council, based on an individual's outstanding contributions to the interscholastic athletics community.

Leinaar also served 22 years on the MHSAA’s Representative Council and a four-year term from 2009-13 on the Board of Directors for the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), and just last week was named to the 2023 class of the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (NIAAA) Hall of Fame.

“It is impossible even to estimate the number of students, coaches, administrators and others who have been affected by the work Karen Leinaar has done to make school sports the best they can be – not only in her communities, but across Michigan and throughout the country,” MHSAA Executive Director Mark Uyl said. “There are few who have equaled her dedication and her support and promotion of the ideals of school-based sports. She has always placed an emphasis on being in the room, on the field or at the arena, actively participating in her leadership roles, and our programs are better for it.”

Leinaar first served as athletic director at Delton Kellogg for nearly 17 years, from March 1982 through October 1998. She spent three years at Gaylord, then 8½ at Benzie Central before taking over at Bear Lake in November 2010 and spending the next decade organizing athletic programs for students in grades 5-12 before retiring in January 2021. She came out of retirement to return to the athletic director’s chair this past fall as interim AD at Frankfort. She has completed nearly four years as MIAAA executive director, moving into that position after previously serving nine years as an assistant to the executive.

Leinaar began her service on the Representative Council in Fall 1999 and completed her last term as a statewide at-large representative at the Fall 2021 meeting.

She has been honored several times for her contributions. She received the MHSAA’s Women In Sports Leadership Award in 1998, a Citation from the NFHS in 2000, and she was named MIAAA Athletic Director of the Year in 2001. She received an MHSAA’s Allen W. Bush Award in 2014 – recognition given for work done generally behind the scenes and with little attention.

“This is the top of the mountain, per se. This one does mean so much,” Leinaar said of the Forsythe Award. “The names that are associated with this over the years, I never thought I’d be put in that group.”

Leinaar remains a continuous source of support at a multitude of MHSAA championship events, and during her time on Council was one of the most frequent representatives handing out trophies and medals to champions and runners-up at Finals events. She began while athletic director at Delton Kellogg hosting the MHSAA Volleyball Finals in Class B and Class C and continues to assist with those championships now played at Kellogg Arena in Battle Creek.

She also hosted Competitive Cheer Finals at Delton Kellogg in 1996 and 1997, Ski Finals while at Gaylord, and many more championship events across the Lower Peninsula. She continues to assist at the MHSAA’s Lower Peninsula Cross Country and Track & Field Finals.

After attending Delton Kellogg High School, Leinaar earned a bachelor’s degree in physical education, health and recreation, with a minor in driver education, from MSU in 1982. She completed a master’s in athletic administration from Western Michigan University in 1994.

Leinaar has been a member for 40 years of both the MIAAA and NIAAA, and has served as chairperson of the MIAAA Annual Conference and awards chairperson for both the state and national bodies. She’s also served as chairperson of the MIAAA’s Exemplary Athletic Program.

Past recipients of the Charles E. Forsythe Award 

1978 - Brick Fowler, Port Huron; Paul Smarks, Warren 
1979 - Earl Messner, Reed City; Howard Beatty, Saginaw 
1980 - Max Carey, Freesoil 
1981 - Steven Sluka, Grand Haven; Samuel Madden, Detroit
1982 - Ernest Buckholz, Mt. Clemens; T. Arthur Treloar, Petoskey
1983 - Leroy Dues, Detroit; Richard Maher, Sturgis 
1984 - William Hart, Marquette; Donald Stamats, Caro
1985 - John Cotton, Farmington; Robert James, Warren 
1986 - William Robinson, Detroit; Irving Soderland, Norway 
1987 - Jack Streidl, Plainwell; Wayne Hellenga, Decatur 
1988 - Jack Johnson, Dearborn; Alan Williams, North Adams
1989 - Walter Bazylewicz, Berkley; Dennis Kiley, Jackson 
1990 - Webster Morrison, Pickford; Herbert Quade, Benton Harbor 
1991 - Clifford Buckmaster, Petoskey; Donald Domke, Northville 
1992 - William Maskill, Kalamazoo; Thomas G. McShannock, Muskegon 
1993 - Roy A. Allen Jr., Detroit; John Duncan, Cedarville 
1994 - Kermit Ambrose, Royal Oak 
1995 - Bob Perry, Lowell 
1996 - Charles H. Jones, Royal Oak 
1997 - Michael A. Foster, Richland; Robert G. Grimes, Battle Creek 
1998 - Lofton C. Greene, River Rouge; Joseph J. Todey, Essexville 
1999 - Bernie Larson, Battle Creek 
2000 - Blake Hagman, Kalamazoo; Jerry Cvengros, Escanaba 
2001 - Norm Johnson, Bangor; George Lovich, Canton 
2002 - John Fundukian, Novi 
2003 - Ken Semelsberger, Port Huron
2004 - Marco Marcet, Frankenmuth
2005 - Jim Feldkamp, Troy
2006 - Dan McShannock, Midland; Dail Prucka, Monroe
2007 - Keith Eldred, Williamston; Tom Hickman, Spring Lake
2008 - Jamie Gent, Haslett; William Newkirk, Sanford Meridian
2009 - Paul Ellinger, Cheboygan
2010 - Rudy Godefroidt, Hemlock; Mike Boyd, Waterford
2011 - Eric C. Federico, Trenton
2012 - Bill Mick, Midland
2013 - Jim Gilmore, Tecumseh; Dave Hutton, Grandville
2014 - Dan Flynn, Escanaba

2015 - Hugh Matson, Saginaw
2016 - Gary Hice, Petoskey; Gina Mazzolini, Lansing
2017 - Chuck Nurek, Rochester Hills
2018 - Gary Ellis, Allegan
2019 - Jim Derocher, Negaunee; Fredrick J. Smith, Stevensville
2020 - Michael Garvey, Lawton
2021 - Leroy Hackley Jr., Byron Center; Patti Tibaldi, Traverse City
2022 - Bruce Horsch, Houghton

PHOTOS (Top) Karen Leinaar, left, awards the 2022 Division 4 volleyball finalist trophy to Indian River Inland Lakes coach Nicole Moore. (Middle) Leinaar accepts the MHSAA's Women In Sports Leadership Award in 1998.