Kappy’s Corner: The story behind UTEP women’s basketball | Lifestyle

The 1974-75 UTEP women’s basketball team will be enshrined in the UTEP Athletics Hall of Fame later this year. They will join the inaugural 1974 UTEP volleyball team, former football stars Johnnie Lee Higgins Jr. and John Furman, and track and field standouts Fred DeBernardi and Jennifer Smit.

Most Miners fans don’t know the story behind the creation of the women’s basketball program. El Pasoan Wayne Thornton, who had graduated from high school in 1972 and was an assistant coach on that inaugural team, told El Paso Inc. exactly how the Lady Miners first formed.

Thornton said that former track and field hurdler Don Lewis deserves much of the credit. In addition to competing for the Miners, Lewis hosted a jazz show on KTEP, the student radio station. Thornton’s brother introduced him to Lewis, and the two immediately struck up a friendship.

It was not long after that Lewis asked Thornton why UTEP did not have any sports for female student athletes. The two got together and coached a women’s intramural flag football team they organized from the Kelly Hall dorm. After a successful season in 1973, they decided to form a women’s intramural basketball team.

Thornton and Lewis used The Prospector, the UTEP student newspaper, to help recruit athletes for their basketball team, and the two served as the squad’s coaches. Gloria Estrada, one of the most decorated women’s basketball players in UTEP history, had just graduated from Fabens High School, and she played on that first team.

Wayne Thornton in 2020.

Opponents in 1973 included New Mexico State, Fort Bliss, the University of Juárez and any other school that they could find.

“To me, Don Lewis will always be the very first coach of UTEP women’s basketball, and he gave me the opportunity to be there,” Thornton said.

The following year, UTEP hired Carol Ammerman as the head coach of the basketball team, and she asked Thornton to stay on as an assistant.

That 1974-75 squad played a better schedule than the previous season, and they also became recognized as the first official Miners women’s basketball team. Thornton said that Ammerman was so skilled as a head coach that he considered her the female Don Haskins. She was able to get The Bear to attend many of her practices and help out the team.

“When (coach Haskins) walked in there with those ladies, he was a teddy bear,” Thornton added. “He was unbelievable at breaking things down to very simplistic terms in order to help the girls understand defense.”

The Miners finished their inaugural campaign 11-5, and Ammerman coached the team until 1978 when Thornton took over for one season as UTEP’s head coach.

These days, Ammerman lives in New Mexico and all but one player from the 1974-75 Miners still live in El Paso.

All surviving members will attend the UTEP Hall of Fame induction ceremony on Sept. 24. Thornton hopes to present each player from that team with a letter jacket since they never received one during their playing days.

Since 1997, Steve Kaplowitz has hosted “Sportstalk” from 4 to 7 pm weekdays on 600 ESPN El Paso. You can email him at skaplowitz@krod.com.

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