the Greats II
by Theresa Sumner
Click on photos
for larger views ...
Caryn McKinney & Molly O'Brien
O'Brien & Shannon Wright
McKinney, Faulkenberry, Bailey, Adams, Galloway,Wright, Fenton,
MacKenzie. Photos: Shannon Wright.
The only event of its kind ever to take place
in the history of the sport, the Gathering of the Greatest II succeeded —
again — in reuniting some of the world's greatest female racquetball
professionals for a weekend of intense play. Lighting up the courts of Nautilus
Fitness and Racquet Club in Erie, Pennsylvania, fifteen of the finest female
pros of the 70's, 80's, and 90's gathered to raise scholarship money for the
John Tramontano, Jr. Education Foundation.
Thanks to extremely generous local and
equipment sponsorship; enthusiastic support from the Pros, and a well-crafted
schedule of events by tournament director, Julee Nicolia, the event proved to
be everything that any "gathering of the greatest" should be. The
Pros were a class act, both on and off the courts. Players and spectators alike
reveled in the charged atmosphere and superb hospitality, which included gift
packages for each entrant and a food tent boasting everything from bagels and
coffee to catered Italian dishes and even a pig roast. It was the right
combination of great racquetball and serious fun as attendees raised thousands
of dollars for the designated charity.
Guests of honor included Lynn Adams, Malia
Bailey, Fran Davis, Chris Evon, Laura Fenton, Lorraine Galloway, Kaye Kuhfeld,
Mary Lyons, Joy MacKenzie, Janell Marriott, Caryn McKinney, Molly O'Brien,
Susan Pfahler, Jean Sauser, and Shannon Wright. Upon arrival at her
complimentary Clarion Hotel room, each pro found a welcome package containing a
commemorative sweater, wall clock, wine, chocolate, and more. As has become
tradition, the Pros also enjoyed a private, poolside dinner on Friday night.
Beginning with the Friday Pro-Am event and
ending with the Amateur Doubles finals on Sunday afternoon, play filled all
eight courts. In between, double elimination pro Doubles and Amateur Doubles
events kicked off on Saturday with 56 amateur teams placed into seven
divisions. To the delight of the crowd, seven pro teams rotated on two pristine
glass courts. A roster of thirteen Pros was rounded out at the last minute by
the addition of one-time Erie local Karin Sobotta, and the Pro Doubles
tournament captivated fans throughout.
Sunday morning brought the much-anticipated
finals, featuring McKinney and Fenton against Bailey and MacKenzie. The match
was complete with news cameras, a photographer, and sideline commentary by
Sobotta. Spectators stood on chairs, sat on the floor, and lined the balcony to
watch the competition, and even the well-traveled food tent was forgotten in
the playoff excitement.
Combining tight teamwork with a tenacious
drive to succeed, Bailey and MacKenzie took the first game, 15-8. Replying with
sound serves and smart play, McKinney and Fenton pulled together to force a
tiebreaker after taking the second game, 15-12. The fluid play, poise, and
tempo control employed by Bailey and MacKenzie, however, became most evident
during the tiebreaker. Mackenzie, three months pregnant at the time, managed to
twist into three half-dives to keep the ball in play and once took a shot from
under Bailey's feet when Malia jumped over a ball off the back wall. Bailey and
MacKenzie went on to take the match with a decisive 11-4 tiebreaker win.
Fundraising began Friday evening, successfully
raising $3420 by the evening's end. Amateurs opened bidding to team-up with a
Pro, with the first auction donation setting the tone by topping out at $600.
Each top bidder then selected a pro partner through a blind draw and no one was
disappointed, as McKinney took every diving opportunity and Adams entertained
opponents and spectators alike. Many pros graciously offered playing tips and
strategic advice during their one-on-one court time with their partners. In the
finals, McKinney and her partner, Joe Garbarino, defeated Molly O'Brien and Bob
The big bash took place Saturday night at the
Party with the Pros gala in the Clarion Hotel banquet room. A long table lined
with bouquets, wine, and pictures of the Pros focused everyone's attention on
the guests of honor. Nicolia, in her ongoing efforts to recognize these
renowned athletes, enlisted the talents of local artist Deb Peffer to provide a
little ambiance for the gala. Peffer did so by sketching 5-foot tall
caricatures of every pro, each portraying the athlete with a little
General Manager of Nautilus Fitness and
Racquet Club, Mike Davis, opened the evening by recognizing the attendees,
while Lynn Adams played emcee, auctioneer and comic relief. Between them, they
assisted in raising thousands more dollars as many of the 250 guests bid on
such donated items as racquets signed by a few top touring Pros, racquet bags,
golf clubs, a softball bat, and various other athletic equipment.
In a surprise appearance, U.S. Air Force
Colonel Barb Faulkenberry showed up for the banquet, after flying directly from
the Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia. She had planned on playing in both
of the Gathering of the Greatest tournaments but had, up until this point, been
unable to depart from her tour of duty in the Middle East.
Events such as the Gathering of the Greatest
hold multi-tiered significance for our communities, charities, and athletes,
and more specifically, for the sport. For many fans, this was not just an
opportunity to watch great racquetball; it was a chance to witness, firsthand,
the outcome of years of dedication by a few female athletes focused on a common
goal. Thanks go out to all who so graciously donated time, money, and talent
for the benefit of so many.
As happens with any great show, repeat
performances are in high demand. For your chance to take part, look for
a Gathering of the Greatest III. [Read the print coverage in RACQUETBALL,