Rita Placek led Princeton volleyball to great heights

LaMoille native never thought she’d be a coach

Former Princeton coach Rita Placek speaks during the community reception to honor the 1990 state champion Tigresses volleyball team. It remains as the only state champion in school history.

Rita Placek didn’t get to play sports at LaMoille High School and never gave much thought to pursuing a coaching career before Title IX.

She thought she’d become a PE teacher and cheerleader sponsor after college.

“I don’t think many of my colleagues, including myself even pictured ourselves as coaching,” she said.

Upon graduating from the University of Illinois, she and her husband, Bruce, were looking for jobs in the same vicinity. She landed at Princeton and he got hired at DePue.

“When Roger Swan (the late PHS superintendent) said that part of my teaching responsibilities would be coaching volleyball, basketball, track and being an GAA (Girls Athletic Association) assistant, and I said, ‘OK, I can do all that,’ because I really needed that job,” she said.

That job proved to be what legends are made of.

Along with her other coaching responsibilities, Placek took over the PHS volleyball program in its second season in the fall of 1974 and led it to great heights.

In 25 seasons, Placek guided her Tigresses to six conference (NCIC) championships, four district championships, 11 regional championships, nine sectional championships and three state appearances, culminating with the 1990 Class A state championship.

It was the first girls state championship in Bureau County and remains as the only one, boys or girls, in school history.

For all of her accomplishments, Placek, who compiled a 495-178-14 record, Placek, has earned induction into the Bureau County Sports Hall of Fame.

Placek had to start from “square 1″ teaching the girls in her fledgling program the basic fundamentals of the game as most could only serve underhand. Fortunately, she was prepared for the task.

“When I did my student teaching at Urbana High School, I was just really lucky the cooperating teacher was the volleyball coach. Because that would have been the first year (of Title IX),” she said. “She taught me an awful lot. All I had knowledge of was how to teach volleyball in the PE setting.”

Rita Placek came to Princeton High School in the fall of 1974, taking over as volleyball coach in its second season. Team members were Jorja Bogott, Melinda Edgerly, Rita Goble, Deanna Howarter, Dina Lackey, Janet McMahon, Gail Schleuger and Dawn Wagner.

Placek started a winning tradition in a few short seasons at PHS, winning their first district championship in 1976 and their first sectional championship in 1979, the first of four straight sectional titles, laying the foundation for future success.

“We just kept making steady progress. Once you start having that success, that usually breeds success. And I think that was definitely happening,” she said.

The Tigresses made their first state tournament appearance in 1980, falling to Elmhurst IC Catholic (15-11, 15-7) in the Class A state quarterfinals.

In 1982, PHS won its first 22 matches of the season, claiming NCIC, regional and sectional championships, before falling to Hartsburg-Emden at supersectional.

The Tigresses started a string of four straight sectional championships in 1987, finally making a breakthrough at the supersectional in 1990, defeating Coal City at Wenona to return to state.

This time they won it all, defeating Huntley (15-12, 16-14) for the Class A State championship behind the talents of All-Stater Nicole Coates and Karen Flaherty, Tina Forth, Rachael Longman, Kerry Sluis and Shannon Sapp.

“I’m very, very proud of having a state championship and very proud of all the girls on that team. They were an amazing team with a lot of talent,” Placek said.

Her 1990 team was inducted into the Bureau County Sports Hall of Fame in 2020 and Shaw Media’s Illinois Valley Sports Hall of Fame in 2023.

Four years later, PHS returned to state for the third time, facing an old familiar foe in Huntley. This time, Huntley gained revenge, defeating the Tigresses 15-12, 12-15, 15-11 in a tight quarterfinal match.

“Mrs. Placek built something special at PHS with the volleyball program,” said Sapp, now the Mrs. Shannon Killion. “She had high expectations for us and it all paid off. I’m grateful for the work she did to establish PHS volleyball.”

Playing in the old NCIC, which was comprised in half by Class 2A schools, toughened up her PHS teams, including the likes of Mendota (Class A) and LaSalle-Peru (AA), who made 10 and one state appearances, respectively, during Placek’s tenure. Both made the 1990 state tournament along with the Tigresses.

“Every year I was coaching, the NCIC was a powerhouse,” Placek said. “We were playing so many teams in the NCIC, plus once we had success, we were trying to beef up our schedule and playing bigger schools. So we were playing Moline, going to tournaments that had the big schools in it.”

Former Princeton coach Rita Placek receives a hug from PHS' Angie Kastor during the 1998 volleyball season.

Placek retired after the 1998 season. She contemplated hanging it up a few seasons earlier, but elected to round it off at 25 years.

“I was always kind of bad with numbers, so I figured I’d remember I coached 25 years,” she said. “I had hinted on getting out a couple years before, but every time at the season I was ready to go again. I decided 25 years was all I was going to coach.

“It was a wonderful experience. A lot of great memories.”

She retired from teaching in 2007. The Placeks bought a house in Durango, Col. the year before and spent their summers there before moving permanently in 2018.

Note: The Bureau County Sports Hall of Fame was formed in 1995 as part of the BCR’s Tribute to Sports program. While the Tribute to Sports was discontinued in 2005, the Hall of Fame was reinstituted in print in 2016.

The Rita Placek File:

* Princeton volleyball coach, 1974-98

* Won 1990 state championship

* Won 6 conference championships

* Won 11 regional championships

* Won 9 sectional championships

* Made 3 state appearances

* Had 495-178-14 record

Have a Question about this article?