Aileen Steelman shaped many athletes and lives, all for the better
Published 6:16 am Tuesday, March 21, 2023
By Brian Pitts
Aileen Steelman, who started Davie softball from scratch in 1975 and enjoyed a glorious run for 12 years, passed away on March 6 at age 78.
Steelman built one of Davie’s greatest dynasties. During her reign in slow-pitch softball, the War Eagles won 81 percent of the time and finished first or second in the conference 11 times. She had an empire that was envied by many, including the winningest coach in state history – the late Mike Lambros.
Over 69 years, Davie teams have had many compelling rivalries, but few of those rivalries compare with Davie-North Davidson softball in the 1970s and 1980s. Their battles almost always determined first place. From 1976-86, neither team finished lower than third. Davie captured the North Piedmont 3-A Conference or the Central Piedmont 4-A Conference six times; North five times. Davie’s conference record during that span was 113-23; North’s was 111-29. Between 1976-86, there were five seasons in which neither team lost more than two games, and there were five seasons in which Davie or North won the title by outlasting the other by a single game. From 1981-85, Davie was 53-9 in conference play; North was 55-7.
It was a classic rivalry because of the two coaches. Lambros was just as driven as the fiercely competitive Steelman. And it was that rivalry that defined Steelman’s coaching genius and sparked Lambros’ fire. Lambros’ eyes lit up as images of those blockbuster matchups flowed into the mind’s eye.
“Whenever Aileen would come over, she said the championship belonged on her side of the (Yadkin) River,” Lambros said in 2004. His career record wound up 878-110. “She said the championship deserved to be on the Mocksville side, and she meant it. When we were finally able to get it back across to our side, then it was an ongoing thing as the Yadkin River Rivalry. When I first got into coaching, Davie was the deal. My first season, we went to Davie having to win two to either win the championship or tie them for first. We won the first game (of the doubleheader). I remember the bases were loaded (in the second game), and she made a coaching change right in the middle of an inning. Her third baseman was having a rough day, and she put her second baseman at third. We hit a line drive down the line. It would have cleared the bases, but the girl made a diving grab and we lost by one. From that time on, it was big.
“She was one I learned a lot from. I’ve always liked that type of game. She probably started that. Aileen Steelman was softball. I come in. A new person moves into the neighborhood, full of pee and vinegar. Here you’ve been so competitive and won many championships, and all of a sudden somebody else comes in and starts talking about taking something that you pride yourself in. People like her and Pete Jones (who coached boys basketball at N. Davidson), those are the ones that helped me get started. I wanted what she had. Those were the people I patterned. Aileen’s teams had giddy-up, poked their chests out, walked tall and played hard. We used to watch Davie to see how they were playing. That was the game you pointed to.
“I was sad to see her retire. Kinda glad, but sad, if you know what I mean. If you got in a big rally, she went to the mound. She was fiery and she had their attention. She didn’t like to lose. I mean did not like to lose. Not only was she a good coach, she was a good person and a disciplinarian. As a young coach, I had to fold up shop or say: ‘That’s what I want to be like.’ And she was what I wanted to be like. When you say, ‘Aileen,’ a big ol’ grin comes over my face.”
Steelman was inducted into the Davie High Athletic Hall of Fame in 2003. Although she is remembered most for a 178-42 softball record, she also coached girls track, volleyball and JV basketball in a 21-year career at Davie.
Playing ball and working on the farm defined Steelman’s childhood. She was a country farm girl who grew up a mile and a half from the Davie County-Yadkin County line in Lone Hickory. She lived there her whole life.
Steelman reflected on her blue-collar roots. “We worked all the time,” she said. “Dad (Daniel Boone Steelman) would tell (my two brothers and I): ‘If you guys get the tobacco hoed, we’ll go fishin’.’ We had a basketball goal in the cow pasture. We milked cows by hand and would play basketball until we heard him coming, because we were supposed to have the milking done when he got home. One day when we got ready to go play basketball, the hogs got out and daddy said: ‘You can’t go to no ballgame until you get those pigs up.’ When I got to the game, the coach was mad at me and I didn’t get to start.”
Steelman was a dazzling athlete in basketball and fast-pitch softball. A four-year starter for Courtney High from 1958-62, she averaged 19.6 points as a junior and around the same as a senior.
In one monumental performance against Yadkinville, Steelman scored 30 points in a 32-31 loss.
“Some nights you just can’t miss, and some nights you can’t hit,” she said with a laugh. “That was a night I couldn’t miss and nobody else could hit. But they fed me pretty well.”
George Daywalt, who starred at Cool Springs High, recalled another Steelman masterpiece.
“I think the score was 35-22 and she scored 23 points – one more point than our whole team,” he said. “I never forgot that. She shot a jump shot, which you didn’t see back then. She’d play in the pivot and shoot turnaround jump shots and stuff, and that’s back when a lot of girls didn’t do anything but shoot set shots. She was hard-nosed, too. She played wide open, rough and tough. She was ahead of her time the way she played.”
She arrived at Davie in 1967. During one stretch, she coached volleyball, JV girls basketball and softball in the same year. She started girls track in 1975. She coached two sports at once, holding basketball practice at 3 and softball practice at 5. In a very different time, when basketball was the only real sport for females, they had a Play Day in the spring in which 20-plus schools from the Western North Carolina High School Activities Association met at North Rowan to compete in numerous competitions. Davie would enter dozens of female competitors, and Steelman’s fingerprints were all over every one of them.
“I was gung-ho. I wanted to coach ‘em all,” she said. “I coached track and field, volleyball, basketball, horseshoes, softball. We started practicing in November and we had our Play Day in May. I needed help. It was pretty tough. But we were either first or second in almost all of them.”
Steelman experienced a humble beginning in 1967-68, but she built the War Eagles’ “Olympians” from the ground up and led them to four WNCHSAA titles in six years.
“My first year we were not good,” she said. “I had no idea what to do. I didn’t know the competition, so I wrote down all the scores and stats, and the next year we worked hard to beat those numbers. I was running from volleyball to horseshoes to softball – and no other coach. It was this field, that field, this field, that field. It was great. I enjoyed it to no end.”
Steelman won five straight NPC softball titles. Her JV basketball teams delivered one winner after another, helping fuel Bill Peeler’s varsity powerhouse. Peeler went 445-220 from 1960-88 with 17 conference titles and eight 20-win seasons.
“I was very fortunate to have her,” Peeler said. “She was tremendous help.”
Of the 77 seasons that Steelman coached in 21 years, 76 ended with winning records. That’s not a misprint, folks – 76 of 77.
Steelman’s softball teams were successful from the get-go, going 10-4 in 1975 and 17-3 in the spring of 1976. The team in the fall of 1976 went 12-0 and took home the WNCHSAA title, the War Eagles capping the perfect season with a 4-3 win over North Gaston. They were so dominant they outscored opponents 141-29. The MVP of the title game was Deanna Thomas, the pitcher was Cindy A. Lanier and the top hitters were Thomas, Cathy Hutchens, Daphne Beck and Renae Jones. The cast included Donna Howard, Joy James, Cathy Spargo, Wanda Beal, Janet Allen, Cindy F. Lanier, Jill Amos and Kim Scott.
Steelman said she was blessed to have a steady flow of great talent, a list that included Thomas, Sharma Dulin, Leisa Hepler, Doris Hepler, Donna Hendrix, Sheri Kepley, Dena Sechrest, Angela Riddle, Winona Gregory, Melissa Smiley, Stephanie Miller, the Laniers, Rhonda Driscoll, Regina Swicegood, and on and on.
“I like to give a lot of the credit to Garland Bowens,” she said. “He had such good teams (in summer leagues). He took those kids when they were little, worked with them and took them to all kinds of state tournaments. Half or more of my team was his team when they came up.”
Winona Gregory loved everything about Steelman: her fire, passion, integrity and obvious love for kids.
“You wanted to prove yourself and be your best with her,” said Gregory, a four-year Davie softball player from the Class of 1981. “When I think back, I don’t really know how she did that. I played community ball against her. She knew me and the position I played, and I loved to catch. I remember her saying: ‘Lefty, where do you want me to put you?’ Of course I said catcher. She said: ‘I’m going to stick you in the outfield.’ I was like: ‘What in the world is she doing?’ She had people that were excellent at a position and had won awards and trophies, but it didn’t matter to her. She was so good at picking out talent and really stretching your ability.
“It didn’t matter if you had players who were all-conference or all-state or whatever. If you didn’t have a good practice, you weren’t going to play. I so respected that in her. There were no politics about her. She played the best 10 every time, and it wasn’t always the same ones. I don’t ever remember a disgruntled parent. She never played favorites; we were all her favorites. She was a natural leader and you wanted to follow her. If you weren’t the best girl to put on that field, you weren’t going on the field, and everybody was OK about it. If you weren’t a team player, you just didn’t make the team. It does a little bit to your ego, but you never questioned it. I don’t think anybody ever questioned her decision-making ability because it was always so sound and so fair, and that’s very hard to find in a coach. That’s a very rare trait. I’m very honored to have played for her.”
Davie’s staggering success in softball kept building. Davie went 16-0 in the NPC in 1978, 13-1 in 1979 and 17-4 in 1981, winning its fifth straight conference title. The War Eagles went 15-5 in 1982, 17-4 in 1983, 21-2 in 1984 and 13-6 in 1985. They finished first or second every year from 1975-85, and they outscored opponents by a whopping 2,041-725 over 10 years. They reached the final eight in the state in 1979, 1981, 1983 and 1984.
While Steelman had tons of talent, there were times when she simply outcoached opponents.
“She figured out a team (in 1978), and it ended up being one of the best teams she had,” said Angie (Riddle) Williams, a shortstop/pitcher from 1977-81. “We had lost several from the year before, and it would have been so tempting to leave things as they were. But she moved people around and made us a little stronger than what everybody figured.”
Steelman’s 11-year streak of finishing first or second in softball ended in 1986, when Davie went 10-9 and placed third. That was her final season, and 1987-88 was her final year at Davie. Her mother’s ailing health prompted her to work closer to home and begin teaching/coaching at Courtney Elementary (K-8).
From 1988-97 at Courtney, she was head coach in volleyball and basketball and the assistant in softball. She took on massive projects in volleyball and basketball.
“They had never had volleyball at Courtney,” Steelman said. “The first couple of years were terrible. They didn’t know how to hit, they didn’t know how to set, they didn’t know how to spike, they didn’t know anything. I said: ‘I believe I made a mistake moving from Davie.’ I got them in camps and clinics, started working with them in the summer, and we came along and had some really good teams.”
Steelman made Courtney, by far the smallest elementary school in Yadkin County, a stunning success. Take 1996-97, Steelman’s final year of teaching/coaching: Courtney went 14-0 in volleyball, 10-0 in basketball and 10-0 in softball.
In retirement, Steelman overcame cancer in 2002 and continued to stay active. She was a constant winner in Senior Games, playing on 3-on-3 basketball teams that won state championships and setting state records in the shot put in two age brackets (55-59, 60-64). She would compete in 10-plus events and routinely earn medals in most of them. She was also a huge gardener, taking her produce to a farmer’s market three days a week.
But let’s go back to the Davie-North Davidson rivalry that was riveting for a decade. The reason Lambros treasured that era so much was because of his respect for Steelman and her teams. A budding coaching star from a blood rival watched Steelman with awe, and is there a finer compliment than that?
“She wore that visor,” Lambros said. “She would pull that visor down and say: ‘Here we go.’ That’s what inspires people. She had a passion to coach and play. So many times now, you don’t see that passion. You see something else. She wanted her least player to be as good as her best player, and she expected the same amount out of both kids. That’s inspiring because that shows true passion.”