Sigma-Mu is one of the oldest school traditions beloved by generations of Saint Mary’s students dating back to 1900 when girls sports were coming to the forefront at our school.
In 1900, English teacher Imogen Stone taught Saint Mary’s students the new game of basketball, invented by James Naismith in 1891. Miss Stone had played and enjoyed the game in her student days at Cornell University. Under her leadership, two intramural basketball teams were formed at Saint Mary’s, the Mu team with its blue and white team colors and the Sigma team with the red and white colors. In the early years, basketball was the most popular team sport. An athletic association was organized. The goal of the association was to foster the students’ considerable interest in sports. Seven decades before Title IX opened the door for athletic opportunities for girls and women in the 1970s, Saint Mary’s was building a thriving athletics program for girls. The Athletic Association and the basketball teams of 1900 planted the seed for the Sigma-Mu intramural program that formed the nucleus of athletics at Saint Mary’s for 77 years in the 20th century from 1900-1977.
Traditionally, all students were divided into the two teams named for the Greek letter initials of the school (Sigma and Mu) and tapped for membership during rowdy and festive sorting ceremonies. For almost eight decades, the Sigmas and Mus battled it out in a heated rivalry for the championship banners (1900-1924), shields (1925-present), silver cup, and bragging rights (1900-present).
From 1900 through 1977, the Sigmas and Mus competed in a variety of intramural sports including badminton, basketball, bowling, darts, cheerleading, field hockey, kickball, powder puff football, speedball, tennis, track and field, softball, swimming, volleyball, and more. There were also tournaments in golf, bridge, ping-pong, Spades, and billiards. Athletes vied for the coveted membership in the Letter Club honorary athletic society by making All-Star teams and accumulating points for participating and wins. The Letter Club held its banquet each spring to celebrate the year in Sigma-Mu athletics.
Due to a reported decline in participation in Sigma-Mu, a new intramural system replaced it in the fall of 1977 featuring competition between dorms. The new program featured a dozen sports and activities from team sports to the Spades card game. Although dorm competitions have remained popular through the years, the new intramural program faded away, and Sigma-Mu remained dormant for many years. An attempt by the student life office to renew Sigma-Mu in 1990 proved unsuccessful, as it simply did not catch on with the students.
In the winter of 2002, longtime alumnae staff member Mary Virginia Swain ’77C, who was active in Sigma-Mu as a student, sensed the time might be right for another try. She told a small group of girls in the classes of 2002 and 2003 about the old Sigma-Mu tradition. That conversation led those girls and that staff advisor to relaunch Sigma-Mu in an innovative way for 21st century Saint Mary’s girls. With homemade t-shirts and hand painted banners hanging from the balconies of Cruikshank Hall, a renaissance of Sigma-Mu was underway. It was immediately embraced by the students in 2002 and 2003 and was on its way to once again becoming one of the favorite traditions on campus. Instead of traditional team sports, which were widely available on the interscholastic level, the new Sigma-Mu featured field days with funny games and relays; games after study hall in ping-pong, billiards, capture-the-flag, dodgeball, water polo; and charitable drives and community service competitions.
For many years from 2003 to 2019, the Sigma-Mu Day sorting ceremony and opening hype session was held in Pittman Auditorium before the students stormed the Quad for the outdoor games. The noise level in Pittman was ear-splitting as the captains led the crowd in cheers and the new girls were called one by one to run down the center aisle for their T-shirt and induction. The ceremony was moved to the Quad during the COVID-19 recovery year and has remained outdoors due to the amount of body/face paint and glitter involved.
In the 2020s, new girls continue to be tapped for membership for one of the teams in a raucous sorting ceremony held on the Hannah Smith ’12 Quad to kick off Sigma-Mu Field Day each August at the end of the first week of school. Everyone, including faculty and staff, hears their name called for one of the teams and receives a team t-shirt in a ceremony that resembles a sorority bid-day. When the inductions are finished, the games begin in the year-long competition for the championship. Modern games include three-legged races, egg tosses, fun relays, dance offs, and more. The seniors go to great lengths during the week ahead to decorate their t-shirts with beaded fringe and glitter and paint their faces with team colors for their final opening Sigma-Mu Day.
The two teams compete throughout the year in a variety of activities, and the winning team is announced at Honors Convocation in the spring.
Suffice it to say, Duke versus North Carolina, N.C. State versus North Carolina, Army versus Navy, Harvard versus Yale, or Woodberry versus Episcopal, have nothing on the fever-pitch rivalry of Sigma versus Mu at Saint Mary’s for more than a century.
Mary Virginia Swain '77C
Historian, Author in Residence
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