2003 (Fall) Hall of Honor: Fox Valley Lassies

Fox Valley Lassies

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It was inevitable that the Fox Valley/St. Charles Lassies women’s softball team would be honored by the Illinois USSSA Hall of Fame. After all, nearly half their starting lineup is already in the Hall: Helen Biddle, Deb Keller, Mary Stark and Jo Suave (as of November 2003). Any team would have been blessed to have just one of those players. Together in one lineup, the four women made the Lassies a powerhouse.

Writing this August 2003 in the Daily Herald, columnist Dave Heun wrote of Lassie players Biddle, Mary Stark, Nancy Stark, Deb Jurca, Marlyss Runestad, Val Seldon and Marcia Ford, “it was hard to imagine any team topping those grand lassies. And not many did.”

Heun could have also mentioned Sue Pope, Cindy Martin, Laura Bieniak, Colleen Douglas, Re Matalonis, Jackie Crecio, and coaches Walt Owens, Tom Burton and Mike Anderson. All of them had a hand in making the Lassies one of the top women’s slow pitch teams in the country from the late-70s to the mid-80s.

“Just being a part of such a wonderful, successful organization was exciting,” Suave recalled.

The team left an impression on all who played on it.

“They were the greatest bunch of people I’ve ever been around,” Keller said. “We lived and breathed softball.”

So did the Lassies’ fans, who often followed them around to tournaments in a bus.

“We had a bus load of fans who traveled with us,” Suave said.

At times, the Lassies found themselves playing in front of as many as four and five thousand people.

After winning the ASA Major National Title in 1977 behind the MVP play and .680 hitting of tournament batting champ Marlyss Runestad, the Lassies switched to USSSA ball. In 1979, Suave was named MVP of the St. Charles USSSA tournament, MVP of the St. Charles League, All-State and helped lead the Lassies to second place at the USSSA World Tournament behind Little Ceasar’s of Southfield, Michigan.

The team went on to finish fourth at the 125-team USSSA World Tournament in Kingston, North Carolina in 1980 with a 7-2 record, as Keller and battery mate Jo Suave were named to the All-World team. In 1981, with Suave coaching due to a serious leg injury, the Lassies went 6-0 to sweep the winner’s bracket at World, only to lose twice to the Virginia Belles and settle for National runners-up.

This group of women that I played ball with for so many years were the best people that you could ever know; we were like family.
— Deb Keller

Over the next six seasons, the Lassies qualified for World play four more times, as well as won numerous league, State and Open Invitational titles, before finally breaking up after the 1987 season.

Keller, from Aurora, pitched for 26 years with the Fox Valley Lassies, which later became Stroh’s, Lombard’s Big Blue and the Playmates from Elgin, compiling 22 no hitters and 40 one-hit games.

Hall of Fame inductee Helen Biddle introduced her friend and former teammate Keller at her induction in March 2003 saying, “She had one of the meanest knuckleballs that you have ever seen.” She added, “Her never-give-up attitude helped her.”

In accepting her award, Keller said, “This group of women that I played ball with for so many years were the best people that you could ever know; we were like family.”

That family lost Deb August 2, 2003 when she passed away. Perhaps this honor, with several of her Lassies teammates here in attendance, may serve as a fitting farewell for a woman who, with those friends and teammates, wrote a special chapter in the Illinois USSSA’s history book.