College coach dies in balloon tragedy
RICHMOND, Va. -- One was the constant in Richmond women’s basketball, the beloved assistant coach who had been on staff for 15 seasons, remaining through two coaching changes. The other was hardly out of college, always cheerful and willing to help and with a demeanor that led others to expect great things.
As the University of Richmond on Sunday grieved the losses of associate head coach Ginny Doyle and director of basketball operations Natalie Lewis in a fiery hot-air balloon accident, friends and colleagues praised them as shining faces of the program and whose expertise and cheer will be difficult to replace.
"There’s not a person in this business that doesn’t see Ginny as just a light," Joanne Boyle, now the coach at Virginia, said of Doyle, who was on her staff with the Spiders from 2002-05. "She was just a light for other people, and when you talk about this business and the genuineness and caring about the kids and what’s best for the student-athletes, she epitomized that, and I know people would line up to say that about her."
Doyle and Lewis died Friday night when their balloon drifted into a power line, burst into flames and fell into a heavily wooded area about 25 miles north of Richmond. They were there for a special preview of a festival set to open Saturday.
Doyle, 44, was hired by Bob Foley at Richmond in 1999. When Boyle got her first head coaching job, replacing Foley at Richmond, Doyle "just rose to the top" in an interview and Boyle decided to keep her on staff.
She also tried to get Doyle to come along when she left for California, but with no luck. Instead, Doyle stayed on again when Michael Shafer took over, and rose three years ago to associate head coach.
"She would talk about Richmond and the school as though she had started the university," Boyle said Saturday. "That’s how entrenched she was in that community. ... She gave her heart to that school, and that being said, she did the same with her family. ... Her life was about serving other people."
The same was true for Lewis, a four-year letter-winner in swimming who just completed her second season with the basketball program. Her job required great organization skills as she made travel, hotel and bus arrangements for the team, planned for meals and handled day-to-day basketball business.
In the grind of a season, broadcaster Matt Smith said, she was a shining light, too.
"Sometimes when you work in sports, coaches can be so high strung and so focused on the next game or what’s going on that you feel almost uncomfortable when you go into the office, but her being the first one that you would see, she always had a smile on her face," Smith said. "She was destined to really be good at whatever she choose to do professionally because of her attitude and the way she treated people."
Smith was far more familiar with Doyle, whom he met as a junior in the 1990-91 season, her first with the Spiders after transferring from George Washington. It also was his first calling the women’s games on radio, and Doyle became a star of a team coming off a Colonial Athletic Association title and NCAA bid.
She later figured in one of the most revered moments in the program’s history. As a senior, she set an NCAA record -- for men or women -- by making 66 consecutive free throws, an accomplishment that earned her dubious recognition from CBS college basketball analyst Billy Packer.
Packer, an 81.9 percent free-throw shooter at Wake Forest in his playing days, scoffed at the record on air and noted that women use a slightly smaller ball, which in his mind made it less impressive.
Hearing that Packer was going to be in Richmond on another matter, the school invited him to come shoot against Doyle, and about 1,200 fans watched the duel at the Robins Center on Feb. 2, 1992.
It was no contest: Doyle, using a men’s ball, overcame her nervousness by making 20 of 20, with only two of them touching the rim. Packer, to the delight of the crowd, missed eight of his 20 attempts.
Her record has since been broken, but years later her foul shooting, as well as her love of the game and her players, remained on display, according to Robert Fish, a Richmond alum who also has called women’s games on radio.
"When I would go to practice to do an interview with (Shafer), Ginny would be in there playing one-on-one with somebody, or challenging somebody to a free throw shooting contest," Fish said.
"The kids loved her."
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