A Profile Of Gail Ramsay, Princeton Squash Coach   
By Rob Dinerman
May 4, 2007
- Capping off her richly deserved standing as a significant presence on all levels of U. S. women’s squash for more than 35 years, Gail Ramsay added yet another major chapter to her long, multi-front legacy just this past spring when she coached the Princeton Tigers to the Howe Cup title, emblematic of the women’s intercollegiate national championship. It was the third Princeton Howe Cup win (also ’98 and ’99) in Ramsay’s 13-year tenure at Jadwin Gymnasium following a six-year stint as squash and tennis coach (from 1988-94) at Williams College that was preceded by the eight years she spent coaching at various New York City clubs following her graduation in 1980 from Penn State.

   As a collegian, Ramsay won all four Intercollegiate Individual championships (1977-80) in which she competed, the only person ever to accomplish this feat until Yasser el-Halaby did so in the men’s division from 2003-06. It was during her 1979-80 senior season that she reached the first of her three U. S. Nationals finals (also ’82 and ’85). There likely would have been more such Nationals final-round appearances, and possibly several final-round victories as well, in both this and other 1980’s women’s tourneys (like the Weymuller Invitational, the Chivas Regal, the Loew’s Cup, the U. S. Open, the Boston Open and Southport) as well, had it not been Ramsay’s fate to have her prime years directly overlap with the playing careers of Hall Of Famers Barbara Maltby (who won the first of her two Nationals in 1980 after being runner-up from 1976-79), Alicia McConnell (who won the first of her record seven consecutive Nationals in 1982) and Demer Holleran, who won the Nationals from 1989-94 after being a finalist in 1987 and 1988.

  Although she was almost never able to break though against these three superstars (the one exception being when she saved a fourth-game match-ball en route to a five-game victory over McConnell in Greenwich in ’85), Ramsay parlayed her soft hands, match experience (she had been ranked in the women’s top-seven since the age of 13) and competitive ardor into an extremely solid singles career in which she rarely absorbed a loss to a player ranked below her, played No. 1 on several New York teams that won the senior Howe Cup (in which many regional five-player teams from all across America participate) and on several occasions pushed the Maltby/McConnell/Holleran troika to the very brink.

   The last of these near-misses occurred in the 1987 Weymuller event at the Heights Casino club in Brooklyn, where Ramsay had been the pro during three early-1980’s years and whose final round she had reached five years earlier via a straight-game semifinal win over her contemporary and two-time Intercollegiates final-round victim Nancy Gengler. This time, inspired by the vocal support of her former squash protégés, Ramsay battled McConnell to 17-all in the fifth, simultaneous match-point, in a pulsating semi, before the latter was able to nudge a shallow backhand rail barely above the tin. Though no one could have known this at the time, that was to prove the last point of Ramsay’s singles career, as a shoulder injury that surfaced just a few weeks later sidelined her for the remainder of that 1987-88 season, after which she relocated to Williamstown to begin her 19-year (and counting) career as a college coach and confined her competitive play to women’s and mixed doubles.

   By that time, Ramsay had already won the ’83 National Women’s Doubles with Mary O’Toole and the U. S. Mixed Doubles five of the previous six years (in ’82, ’83, ’86 and ’87 with her younger brother Billy and in ’85 with Neal Vohr). Two more early-1990’s titles in each of these disciplines would follow (the ’90 and ’91 Mixed with Billy and the ’91 and ’92 Women’s with Julie Harris), as Ramsay’s lobbing skill, canny short game and court-positioning expertise, complemented by the noteworthy family chemistry she and her sibling attained (one frequent Mixed rival recently noted that “they played not only WITH each other but FOR each other”), made her the finest right-wall women’s player of that era and a record-holder in U. S. National Mixed competition until Holleran and Keen Butcher eclipsed Ramsay’s seven titles with the eight they captured in the 1990’s and early 2000’s.

   In addition to her exploits in women’s/mixed doubles and hardball singles, Ramsay also earned a spot on U. S. squads that competed in the World Team Championships in Australia in ’83 and Ireland in ’85, which latter feat, supplemented by her Mixed title, National singles finalist status and Greenwich win over McConnell, earned her post-season recognition by the New York squash association, which selected Ramsay for its most prestigious award, the Edwin Bigelow Cup “for excellence in play” after the 1984-85 season. She later also became a first-ballot inductee into the CSA (college squash association) Hall Of Fame in 1995 in acknowledgement of the four Intercollegiate titles that she won at Penn State, in deference to which the Intercollegiate Individual tournament was re-named the Gail Ramsay Cup in 2002.

   When Ramsay assumed the coaching reins at Princeton in September ’94, she was re-united with her childhood friend and neighbor Bob Callahan, whom she had first met during the mid-1960’s where they used to play tennis at the Cynwyd Club in suburban Philadelphia, just walking distance from their respective homes, and who has been the head squash coach at Princeton since 1981. They instantly formed an extremely harmonious working relationship (not always the case with two coaches who have to divvy up court space), including co-directing the Princeton Squash Training Center (a series of weeklong summer sessions for aspiring juniors which recently marked 25 years of its existence), and highlighted in the fall of 2001, when they collaborated beautifully in a “Celebration Of 100 Years Of Princeton Squash” (the men’s varsity debuted in 1932, the women’s in 1972, hence 100 COMBINED years of Princeton Squash) that turned into a smashing success and drew hundreds of former letter-winning squash alumni from every corner of the world to Jadwin Gymnasium to commemorate the occasion.

  At that juncture, the Princeton women were contemplating a lean next few years in the wake of the graduation the prior spring of both three-time (1999-2001) Intercollegiate Individual champion Julia Beaver and her classmate Meredeth Quick, who subsequently has reached three National singles finals (’02, ’04 and ’05) while winning the ’06 U. S. Mixed with her brother Preston (joining the Ramsays as the only siblings to win this crown) and the ’07 U. S. Women’s Doubles with Fiona Geaves.

   But in the fall of ’03 a freshman class featuring Claire Rein-Weston, Gen Lessard, Ali Pearson, Marilla Hiltz and Anina Nolan would hit campus and gradually build a legacy that culminated late this past winter at the Howe Cup, where, bolstered by several talented underclassmen, the Tigers first  destroyed three-time defending champion Yale on its “home” New Haven turf 7-2  in the semis and then compellingly out-played a strong Harvard squad 6-3 in the finals, evincing the depth that had carried them to a 10-0 regular-season and Ivy League title by sweeping the Nos. 5 through 9 positions against their Crimson opponents.

   This return to glory, occurring just weeks before Ramsay’s milestone 50th birthday, glowingly confirmed her successful recovery from the knee operation she underwent last summer and put an exclamation point on a college-coaching tenure in which she held the women’s CSA presidency for four terms and currently serves on the Executive Board. With five members of the starting nine (including the Nos. 2 and 3, freshmen Neha Kumar and Amanda Siebert) returning next season, it seems likely that Ramsay is well positioned and highly motivated to continue to add well into the foreseeable future to the impressive decades-long resume she has already constructed as player, administrator and coach.

This first appeared on squashtalk.com

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