Wilmington High School’s track team made Merrimack Valley Conference history in the spring of 1974. Coach Dick Collins’ Andover High School Golden Warriors had won 93 meets in a row, not having lost in eleven years. No one expected Coach Frank Kelley’s Little Engine That Could to even come close to toppling one of the best track programs in Massachusetts. Especially given that the meet took place at the Andover High School track.
The Wilmington Town Crier called the victory “the upset of the decade.” There were only a handful of people in town who knew the real identity of the ‘reporter’ for the local newspaper. It was Kelley, banging away on a portable typewriter in a study hall at Wilmington High School. The head coach would finish writing his team’s story of epic proportions, embellishing his copy with unabashed “attaboys” and many exclamation points. Coach Kelley would then walk down the hallway and hand his finished story to Wilmington High School industrial arts teacher Bob Dicey, who made sure that the story appeared prominently in what was then a tiny section of a newspaper run by Town Crier Publisher Captain Larz Neilson. The Captain often thought of sports as an afterthought in the distribution of Wilmington news back in 1974. If it wasn’t ice skating or the improving football program, Neilson wasn’t all that interested. Now Wilmington High School really had something to boast about. A track team that had just pulled off the upset of the decade in the Merrimack Valley Conference. These Wildcats were becoming front page news in Wilmington.
Hugh Wiberg completed the coverage with a series of action-packed photographs. A 45-year-old Kelley is seen in one photo being carried off the Andover High School track by Wildcats Dave Spring, Ed Adams and Keith Roesche. This victory would be remembered as arguably the best moment in Wilmington High School track history. A moment frozen in time.
COACH COLLINS GIVES CONGRATS
“Those Andover teams of the early 1970’s had beaten us so badly (in 1972 and 1973) that it was hard to imagine that we actually had a shot at beating them in 1974,” remembers record setting hurdler Rick McCully in the book ‘Our Mr. Kelley — A Lifetime of Coaching and Caring.’ “It really took a great effort from all of our guys to keep the score close. We were behind by that one point entering that last event, but our mile relay team won the race and clinched the meet. Carrying Mr. Kelley off that field was a special moment for us and for him. He truly deserved it.”
“Often I don’t expect anything, then I’m pleased when it happens,” said Kelley years later in fondly remembering the victory.
In the face of some ramped-up expectations based on some quality athletes, Kelley’s Wildcats came through with a win for the ages. Members of that 1974 “Team for the Ages” included McCully (hurdles), Doug Spring (two-mile, mile), Ian MacInnis (two-mile, mile), Doug Stewart (220, long jump, triple jump, relay), Gordie Fitch (long jump, 100-yard dash, relay), Bob Reid (shot put, discus), Paul Fitch (long jump), Mark Blaisdell (mile), Dave Spring (800), Dana Roesche (long jump, quarter mile), Bruce Bishop (100, discus, relay), Paul Reed (pole vault), Tim Nee (quarter mile, relay, high jump), David Cain (middle distance, relay) and Steve Coville (880, high jump, triple jump).
“I probably said to the team — ‘put me down — put me down! But I probably weighed a lot less back then,” said Kelley after the team carried him off the pitch.
It was Collins who left that Wilmington High School team with a lovely parting gift that afternoon in Andover.
“Dick immediately said to me that he would like to come on the team bus if I didn’t mind. After all of the kids had piled on the bus, I said — Mr. Collins’ teams have won 93 meets in a row and he has something that he would like to say to you. Then a voice came from the back of the bus. ‘Not anymore.’ Dick just smiled and the kids gave him a three-minute standing ovation.”
The Andover coach waited for the cheering to stop. “I knew that we were going to have to lose some time, and I was hoping that it would be to a good team, and you are a very good team.”
Indeed these Wildcats were a very good team. They were strong in all of the events that spring, from top to bottom. Most track teams have at least one weak event. If there was a weak link, it was hard to spot.
Fourteen boys would contribute to the upset that would help the team complete a perfect 9-0 dual meet season. The Wildcats took a 9-0 lead into the long jump that was swept by Dana Roesche, Doug Stewart and Paul Fitch. Tim Nee jumped 5’10’’ in the high jump — his best effort of that season. Stewart, a hall of famer and one of the best athletes in WHS’ history, scored a 43’3’’ in the triple jump — a school record. After six events the score stood at 27-27. Kelley knew that it would come down to just how his collection of gold-standard track athletes performed over the final events. In the book “Our Mr. Kelley — A Lifetime of Coaching and Caring” coach Kelley went into great detail in describing his team’s very special day.
“Some kids on that team had been with us for three or four years and were exceptional athletes. They were a good group, willing to work hard and we had good versatility. And, I would consider Doug Stewart to be of the top dozen athletes that I ever coached at the high school.”
Wilmington was strong in the sprints and the hurdles, with Andover getting top performances in the distance events. Junior Rick McCully would set a school record with 15.0 time in the 440-high hurdles, while fellow junior Don Capone surprised with a 15.7 time and a third place finish in the same event. Kelley would later call Capone’s effort one of the keys to the victory.
“If Andover gets those two third places, Andover wins the meet,” recalls Kelley. “Don’s third place was very big for us. The kids had given him the nickname ‘snowshoes’ — I guess they thought that he had big feet.” Those big feet would help Capone to go down as very big name in Wilmington High School track history.
Bruce Bishop, according to his coach, ran a “very respectable” 10.5 in the 100-yard dash, while Ian MacIniss broke the school record with a 4:37 in the mile, although he finished third and was not able to overcome the effort by Andover’s Greg Brown over the final 300 yards of that race. At this point in the event, there was a mistake that could have cost Wilmington the meet.
‘Reporter’ Kelley sent this copy to the Town Crier. “A missed hand-off in the 880 relay resulted in a disqualification, as the baton exchange was completed beyond the legal exchange zone.” What the coach doesn’t mention in his story was that freshman Gordie Fitch was running that day with his broken right arm in a cast. Bruce Bishop tried a hand-off that clanged off Fitch’s cast, and the baton would fall, but not the hope of a Wilmington upset. Fitch was feeling badly after the event, telling his teammates that he had blown any chance of a Wilmington victory. “I told him not to worry, that we would get those points back somehow,” remembers Kelley.
Sometime later he would bang-out those final two paragraphs for the newspaper. “Now it was Wilmington’s turn to go to its’ strength. Doug Stewart became the second fastest 220 man in the school’s history — second only to Mike Esposito, as he flew the furlong in 22.4. Paul Fitch was overhauled by George Stedman 50 yards from the tape, but still took third place. Again it was Andover’s turn. Doug Stewart and Dave Pratt battled tooth-and-nail for the first mile (sub 4:55) in the grueling two-mile before Pratt’s strength earned a 20 yard victory. Mark Blaisdell’s tactics paid off with a personal best 10:53.4 and third place. Andover 71, Wilmington 69. The mile relay — everything was on the line. Ninety-three victories and eleven years were pitted against Wildcat tenacity. Andover miler Greg Brown took the lead and held on for 380 yards. Tim Nee’s late charge passed Brown and presented number two man David Spring with a three yard lead. Dave extended the margin to ten yards, making a solid pass to Dana Roesche to send him away winging.”
Kelley and Andover’s Collins stood arm-and-arm watching that final relay. Kelley remembered that Collin’s Golden Warriors just six seasons earlier handed the Wildcats a 109-5 shellacking. Realizing that his team would clinch a victory after that final event, Kelley was into the moment — with reservations — as the team lifted him skyward and carried him off the Andover High School track.
Kelley really cut his coaching teeth with his track teams from 1972-75, culminating with that upset of Andover and a performance for the ages in the spring of 1974. It was in that season that Kelley arguably had his best collection of athletes, and one of the leaders of that talented bunch of Wildcats was McCully. It was Kelley’s response to a potential event-altering decision that will stick with the talented McCully for the rest of his life. McCully remembered the story in “Our Mr. Kelley — A Lifetime of Coaching and Caring.”
“I remember my freshman year (1972) on the spring track team, and how far behind we were after the field events against Andover High School. They swept the points in several events — and we always forfeited in the javelin, because Mr. Kelley had seen someone get hit with one in a meet, and he didn’t think that it was worth taking the risk with that particular event. But, by the spring of 1974, he knew that we couldn’t afford to give away any points if we were going to compete with the good teams. Gone were the days of being crushed before we even got started. Finally, David was able to defeat Goliath — and Andover — even if it was only by one point. And, that one point came when we won the final event-the 4x440 relay.”
McCully tells the story of his 1974 team with passion and great detail. “At the end of that 1974 season, we competed in the Class D Championship Meet, which we all knew that we had a pretty good shot at winning. When Mr. Kelley went to the seeding meeting he found out that we were being moved up to Class C because we were one student over the cutoff limit (490 students were allowed in grades 9-12, and WHS had moved up to 491). We were able to win the Class C Championships that year, largely on the strength of winning both the 4x220 and 4x440 relays — an unusual achievement because most schools didn’t have the depth to field two good relay teams.”
“At the seeding meeting for the All-State State Championship Meet the following week, Mr. Kelley again entered both relay teams, this time in the biggest meet of the year. Other coaches advised him against it, suggesting that we might be able to win one of the races if we loaded up in that event. Mr. Kelley never considered doing that because it would mean that four of our runners that had been such an important part of getting us to that point would not be able to run in the meet. That’s Mr. Kelley. He never put winning ahead of doing what he thought was right. As it turned out, we saw Brockton High School win that meet, and at the time there were many people that thought we had no shot at competing in a meet with the sixth largest high school in the country.”
Kelley not only surprised everyone by leading his team to a tight battle with a perennial track powerhouse, he proved his point to many coaches, all of whom might have been second-guessing themselves for past decisions made for the sole purpose of moving up a couple of places in the track pecking order. The Wilmington High School Hall of Fame coach went entirely in the opposite direction and bucked the odds because he had confidence in the ability of his athletes to perform their best under pressure.
“Our 4x220 relay team finished with the same time as Peabody High School in that final,” remembers McCully. “We were nosed out in a photo finish and settled for second place. Meanwhile, Brockton had a series of injuries to several runners. With one event-the 4x440 relay-left in the meet, Dracut coach Dave Stecchi said to me — ‘you know, if you guys win the relay, you will win this meet.’ I thought that was impossible, Brockton must be way ahead by now. Stecchi was right. Our guys ran great, but lost the race to Reading by two-tenths of a second. We finished second to Brockton in that meet by one point. If Mr. Kelley hadn’t run both relay teams, we would never have gotten that shot at winning the State Meet. That was Mr. Kelley, teaching us a life lesson, not about winning, but about doing what’s right, even when we were too young to realize it.”
That decision paid off in a very big way. Everyone participated and everyone almost made history together. Even when the Wildcats were struggling against the big boys year after year, Kelley was always upbeat as long as he knew that every athlete was out there trying to better individual performance marks. Because Kelley knew that much of winning had to do with attitude based not on some score-but on doing your best. That year the best performance of many individuals just happened to be at a championship level. Kelley was right there-doing it the right way. Finally, he would have that classic coach-being-carried-off-the-field moment to add to an ever-growing collection of memories.
THE COACH HAS SOME REGRETS
The Class C Champions went on to the All-State Meet at UMass-Amherst, where they dropped a very tough-to-take 18-17 decision to the big boys from Brockton. To this day, Kelley regrets a decision that at the time he thought was based on some rather logical prognostication.
“The more I look at it, the more I think that I lost the meet. We could have won. If I had any brains I would have put Doug Stewart in the triple jump. I put him in the long jump and he got a third. Doug was an excellent triple jumper, and at one of our earlier meets that season, I talked to the Lunenberg coach, who was a former triple jumper in the Olympics, and I asked him to look at Dougie. Doug was jumping 42’ and 43’, which is pretty good, and this coach looked at him, and said that his hop was too high, that it takes everything out of his legs. I corrected that with Doug, but that year was the first year that they had the triple jump in the All-States. If I had put Doug in that triple jump we might have won. That was a second guess. I second guessed myself. I do that a lot.”
The price he would have to pay for helping an athlete to a personal best was again to review just how a particular athlete got to the highest level of competition. What would make that youngster better? In this case, Kelley was more than willing to admit that he made a mistake. There would be some tough luck involved in this All-State Meet. An injury caused by a ‘fun’ tradition helped Kelley to rethink yet again, learning that even some fun can lead to an unfortunate result.
Bob Reid, the team’s star shot-putter, finished seventh thanks largely to a pulled hamstring he suffered earlier in the week running in something called ‘the weight man relays.’ In some meets the ‘heavy’ guys — like shot putters and discus runners — would team up to run relay races against the opponent.
An injury caused by this carefree Wilmington High School track tradition would almost cost the team valuable points that might have given the Golden Warriors the victory. It was a non-scoring event that was designed to placate any desire that a big man might have that he could roar down the lane in a 50-yard-dash. “Well, Bob pulled a hamstring doing this. I have never run a weight-man’s relay since,” offered Kelley after the meet. “I’m sure that he could have finished fifth if not for that injury.”
Brockton won the javelin, shot put and the high jump to put away the meet. “I remember a fellow from a newspaper asking me — ‘are you going to do it? — are you going to win the whole thing?’ I said ‘are you kidding me? I didn’t think that we had a prayer in that meet,” said Reid.
The record-breaking shot putter Reid now lives and works in Tennessee, but his heart and mind is never very far from his deep-seeded roots with that 1974 championship team.
“I remembered that we had the confidence to beat Andover, and how close that team was — and how we all pulled for each other. Everyone on that team was loose, not tense. We had so many contributors — not necessarily winning, but placing in their individual events, which helped us gain valuable points.”