A Publication of WTVP

Going where women hadn’t gone before

by Nick Vlahos | Photos by Ron Johnson |
Lorene_Ramsey_Legends_Coach _0094

Legendary Coach Lorene Ramsey’s teams won many a national title, but the relationships beat the trophies

Given the length of her coaching career and her accomplishments, it’s hard to determine where to begin to tell the story of Lorene Ramsey.

Perhaps it’s best to begin at the beginning.

Before she became a four-sport standout athlete at Illinois State University, before she became a star on the Pekin Lettes fast-pitch softball team, and before she coached more than 1,700 basketball and softball victories at Illinois Central College (ICC), Ramsey was a small-town girl who just wanted to play.

But around Ramsey’s hometown of Washington, Missouri, there weren’t enough other local girls so inclined. Not enough to form teams, at least. And Ramsey had no siblings. She would play catch with her father, George, in their backyard when she wasn’t attending local men’s softball games.

There, she paid particular attention to one of the pitchers.

“I was imitating him and I found out, ‘Wow, I can throw this ball hard,’” said Ramsey, whose 87th birthday is July 10. “My dad said, ‘Would you like to play on a team? I’ll see if I can get you a tryout.’ I was 14.”

‘I’m better, I’m faster’

That tryout came with a women’s softball organization in St. Louis, about 50 miles from home. Reluctantly, the coach allowed Ramsey to join, with no guarantee of playing time. The team already had two established pitchers.

“We’re going home and my dad says, ‘How do you think you pitch compares?’ I said, ‘I’m better. I’m faster. I know I am,’” a smiling Ramsey said some 73 years later. “But I’m not going to get a chance.”

Ramsey got that chance much quicker than she might have anticipated. Not long after she joined the team, another pitcher cited illness in leaving a game early. That pressed a barely teenaged Ramsey into service against the defending league champion.

“She (the coach) looked at me and said, ‘Can you warm up fast?’” Ramsey recalled. “I had no idea in the world how long it took to warm up, but I wanted on the field. And I shut them out for six innings. … I had a string of 67 innings before they scored a run.”

That experience might summarize Ramsey’s professional career, which ended in 2003 when she retired from East Peoria-based ICC. It featured plenty of persistence, timing, confidence and success.

‘It’s central Illinois against the entire U.S.’

Hired at ICC in 1968 as a physical education teacher, Ramsey coached basketball there from 1969 until 2003, and softball from 1970 until 1998. Her career records are 887-197 in basketball and 840-309 in softball, with a total of seven junior-college national championships. The ICC gymnasium bears Ramsey’s name.

“She was the queen,” longtime Peoria-area high school girls basketball coach John Gross said.

In her tidy Washington residence, there’s copious evidence of Ramsey’s 34-year ICC reign. Included are framed newspaper stories and photographs of Ramsey and her players and assistant coaches.

Among the prominently displayed plaques is one that commemorates the ICC team Ramsey coached to a national title in 1982. The 1-0 championship victory over Central Arizona was a first for Ramsey as coach, and she still considers that ICC team her favorite.

“When I eat breakfast in the morning, if I’m not picked up for the day, I just look over” at the plaque, she said. “(Central Arizona) had players from six different states and full scholarships. We didn’t have a penny.

“We started four girls from Washington, three from Richwoods, one from Pekin, one from Roanoke-Benson and one from what now is Notre Dame. I told them, ‘It’s central Illinois against the entire United States.’ … People told me you’ll never win with all local kids.”

Players recruited from area high schools were the foundations for Ramsey’s ICC teams. Those included the 1998 softball national champions, as well as women’s basketball titlists in 1992, 1993, 1998, 1999 and 2003.

‘My first inspiration’

Among the local athletes who shined for Ramsey was Tonya Gilles Koch, a 1978 graduate of old Bergan High School in Peoria. She played softball at ICC in 1979 and ’80, was an all-America selection and later played at ISU and for the Lettes. She also appeared as a pitcher in the 1992 movie A League of Their Own.

‘Coach Ramsey was a pioneer of her time, advocating for women’s sports’ — ICC President Sheila Quirk-Bailey

Well before that, Koch fell under Ramsey’s winning spell. When Koch was 10, her father, area bat-and-ball legend Tom Gilles, took her to watch Ramsey pitch for the Lettes. From 1955 until 1972, Ramsey compiled a 401-90 record on the mound.

“I was just starting to be interested in pitching,” Koch said. “I saw her pitch and she was so powerful and so good that I wanted to be just like her. She was my first inspiration.”

Uncle Sam provides a boost

Inspiration merged with legislation in the early 1970s to help boost Ramsey’s nascent ICC programs. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 banned discrimination based on sex in education programs and activities that receive federal money.

Title IX represented a massive change, but ICC was ahead of the curve.

“Coach Ramsey was a pioneer of her time, advocating for women’s sports years before Title IX legislation existed,” current ICC President Sheila Quirk-Bailey stated. “Without her, Illinois Central College would not have the successful women’s athletic program it does today.”

Lorene Ramsey, third from the right, was a star softball pitcher with the Pekin Lettes. She is pictured here with some of her teammates and coaches
Lorene Ramsey, third from the right, was a star softball pitcher with the Pekin Lettes. She is pictured here with some of her teammates and coaches

Ramsey was quick to share credit. She cited Richard Bales, the ICC administrator who initially supervised her. Only eight women tried out for Ramsey’s first basketball squad, prompting her to tell Bales that “probably we shouldn’t have women’s basketball this year.

“He said, ‘Oh, we’ll have women’s basketball,’” Ramsey recalled. “‘Whatever you need, get it.’ This was my second year at ICC, and I saw their attitude toward women was very good.”

‘She wanted to offer girls opportunities that they normally wouldn’t have’ — Tonya Gilles Koch

That was part of the  reason Ramsey never left ICC, although Bradley and Illinois were among the four-year colleges that offered her basketball coaching jobs. But Ramsey would have to give up softball, which for her was a non-starter.

Not only that, but the Peoria area had become home, as had ICC.

“I liked the kids I was getting. I had a lot of friends,” Ramsey said. “There really wasn’t any reason I felt I wanted to move. I thoroughly enjoyed my career at ICC. I mean this when I say it: I think we have the best community college in the United States. The facilities are terrific.”

Said Koch: “We were her family. I feel like she probably would have made a lot more money going somewhere else, and she had a lot of offers. But she did not want to leave this area and the support and the recognition that the girls got.”

The honors flow

Ramsey received a lot of recognition on national and international levels, too. Working from East Peoria did not prove a hindrance in that regard.

“Throughout her time coaching for ICC, Lorene inspired hundreds of female athletes and put ICC on the national map for athletic excellence,” Quirk-Bailey stated.

Ramsey was an assistant coach on the U.S. softball team that won gold in the 1979 Pan-American Games in Puerto Rico. Two years later, she was an assistant coach on the U.S. women’s basketball team that was runner-up at the World University Games in Romania.

At least 10 halls of fame include Ramsey as a member. She was the Greater Peoria Sports Hall of Fame’s first female inductee. She also was among the first members of the national Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.

“I think that she was the best all-around coach and the best-respected coach at her level, not just in Illinois but the whole nation at that time,” said now-Princeville High coach Gross, whose résumé includes a state title at Richwoods and runner-up finish at Limestone.

“She had a heck of a run,” Gross said. “She’s just a great lady.”

Transcending sports

Athletics alone don’t define Ramsey, although they’re what brought her to prominence. Ramsey said she’s active in an investment club and at Washington Christian Church, among other pursuits.

“People think she’s all sports driven, but she also loves different things,” Koch said. “She loves movies. She loves going to plays. She loves experiencing different things, and she’s a Christian.

“When she retired, I think a lot of people were worried that she would miss it, and she does. But she keeps in touch with all the girls. And that’s why she coached. It was the relationships with the student-athletes that she cherished the most.”

All in all, not at all bad for a rural Missouri kid who at one time might not have aspired to be more than a decent softball pitcher.

Ramsey said she hasn’t given her legacy much thought. But it appears Koch has.

“I think her legacy is just like Title IX: She wanted to offer girls opportunities that they normally would not have,” Koch said. “I feel like she’s still doing that. Her legacy is living on through the girls she has coached.”

Nick Vlahos

Nick Vlahos

is a longtime Peoria print journalist and a regular contributor to Peoria Magazine.