For Athletic Director Ms. Janis Qualizza, the past 45 years have been dedicated to supporting and leading MHS athletics. While a lot of her job consists of scheduling and planning, Ms. Qualizza has gone far beyond the straight-forward duties of her career and has built the Athletics Department into one of the most successful in the state.
Ms. Qualizza has also taken on roles outside of MHS, including being the first female to be voted onto the Indiana High School Athletic Association Board of Directors and a member of the IHSAA board for 20 years, the longest term ever held.
Her efforts have not gone unnoticed. Thanks to her hard work and commitment, Ms. Qualizza was inducted into the Indiana Sports Hall of Fame, making her not only first athletic director to be inducted, but also the first female athletic director inducted in the state.
“I was wowed,” she said. “I was the first Athletic Director and female Athletic Director inducted in the state of Indiana. I feel humble. Proud. Just kind of like ‘Why me?’ because when you look through this book of who was inducted- Larry Bird, Bobby Knight, Payton Manning, Drew Brees – the names are phenomenal.
“It was quite an experience…I have been awarded Indiana Athletic Director of the Year, and that’s voted on by your peers, but this – and I don’t even know how they pick people or what their committee was or anything – I would say this is the highest honor I’ve received in my career. I’m a humble person, I’m lowkey, not a ‘look at me!’ kind of person…I do my job, I do what’s best for kids and coaches, and go about my business. I am honored.”
Ms. Qualizza began her career journey back at her roots. She graduated from Gary Lew Wallace High School, and circled back later in life as a coach and educator. After working in the Gary Public School System for seven years, she was given the opportunity for a promotion here at MHS.
“I was approached by the athletic director at Lew Wallace whose son was the AD here at MHS,” Ms. Qualizza said. “They had an opening here for an assistant AD, and there was a female in that position before so they wanted another female to fill the spot. I knew Tom Herbert [the AD from Lew Wallace] from high school, so he called me and said ‘Would you like to apply for our assistant AD job?’ Quite honestly, in going through college and starting teaching and coaching, athletic administration never really crossed my mind. I thought I was going to just coach and teach and have my summers off, be free as a bird, but I came for an interview and in the summer of 1978 I was offered the position.”
From 1978 to 1982 Ms. Qualizza took on a variety of roles throughout the school on top of her position as assistant athletic director, including teaching two classes during the school day and coaching volleyball after school. After working as the assistant for four years, the head AD position at MHS opened up, and Ms. Qualizza decided to shoot her shot.
“In 1982 the AD became the Assistant Principal here and so I thought ‘Well, why not apply?’… I was only 32 years old, and it was pretty much unheard of that a female would be an Athletic Director,” Ms. Qualizza said. “I would go to conferences and I’d be one of the only women amongst like 300 men. I got the job – there were six male coaches that applied and myself- and it was kind of me being at the right place at the right time. Having been the AD I knew the workings of the office, the coaching staff… I kind of had a heads-up on the others that applied, so they took a chance on me and 45 years later, here I still am as the now Co-Athletic Director.”
Over the course of her career, Ms. Qualizza has seen great progress made towards women’s equality in sports, which is something she is passionate about and advocates for strongly.
“It was a process… when I first started coaching at Lew Wallace, the boys practiced in the Main Gym and the girls practiced in what they called the Little Gym… it took awhile for us to truly get the equality that Title IX was meant for,” she said. “Here at Merrillville we have 10 girls sports and 10 boys sports, and as far as Title IX today and the equality at MHS, I feel comfortable that it’s equal across the board.
“While football has big numbers because it’s that kind of sport, we have every sport that the state offers for girls, every one of those programs, and not every school has that. I was here when we started soccer, when we started softball, so I feel like our girls have gotten every opportunity that we can possibly afford them.”
Throughout her day, Ms. Qualizza and the rest of the Athletic Department staff take on many roles to ensure the smooth running and success of our programs. One of her greatest involvements, she says, came from the renovation and additions made to MHS back in 1988.
“It was a four-year project and I was extremely involved in that in regards to athletics,” she said. “The new stadium, the track, the tennis courts, the second pool we put in, the gymnastics room, the wrestling room, the field house… that for four years was like having two jobs. These things are now 30-years-old, and we still have some of the finest facilities in the state of Indiana. I’m very proud to have been a part of that and being able to put my two cents in what I thought our kids deserve.”
Ms. Qualizza has left a lasting impression on MHS Athletics, and her influence trickles down through our coaches and athletes.
“I bleed purple and white,” she said. “This has been my life; I never got married, never had kids…I pretty much married my job. But I always tell people that as long as I’ve been here I’ve never felt like I had a job…it’s never been work to me, it’s always been pleasure. And I don’t think very many people in the world can say that.
“I was fortunate to find my niche in life and just try to help kids, help coaches, help the school with this program and put my Merrillville on the map as far as what we have accomplished through our athletic programs.”