Frank Kelley admires his sparkling new trophy and awards room

Frank Kelley admires his sparkling new trophy and awards room that in the basement of his home. Friends and neighbors helped the Wilmington High School Hall of Fame track coach and math teacher spruce up his home in the final years of his life. Memories of his 1974-75 WHS spring track team lined the walls of the room. (photo by Rick Cooke).

If anyone had any serious doubts that the Wilmington High School varsity boys track team wasn’t ready to duplicate their 1974 performance in the spring of 1975, all one needed to do was to listen to how one of the best track coaches in the Merrimack Valley Conference felt about the Wildcats and their venerable coach Frank Kelley.

The press was all ears as they gathered around the Andover High School track to catch what Golden Warriors coach Dick Collins had to say after being stunned by Wilmington in 1974. Collins was never one to toss around empty handed compliments, so these words just about stopped local reporters in their tracks on that track. It was a very memorable post-meet presser to say the least. Mr. Kelley would have loved that “tracks on that track” play on words for sure. But those words rang true way back then. They still ring true today. Great coaching never gets old, it just gets imitated in the hope that greatness can eventually emerge.

The Wilmington Wildcats of those 1974-75 years were a spring track juggernaut. The Wildcats of 1974 were for real, and with a solid nucleus returning in 1975, it was clear that Collins knew exactly what he was up against for two consecutive years.

“My team had a 93 dual meet winning streak that was snapped by Frank and his Wilmington kids. Frank was the best coach that I ever faced. He is a tremendous gentleman and friend, and of course an outstanding track coach.”

When asked if the Wildcats would be good again in the near future, Collins smiled and with that he quickly moved on to the next question. Perhaps he knew what he was up against? The Wildcats of 1975 were The Little Engine That Could-Part Two.

Kelley emphasized work and repetition from his track athletes and students. There was foot placement and arm action on the track, study and homework in the his math classroom. Kelly would go to track clinics in the summer, and he learned about better coaching techniques over the years by watching other coaches and athletes.

And in 1975 Kelley had another elite group of track athletes. Once again the coach didn’t boast about having a lot of depth on that 1975 team, but the track athletes that he lined up in every event were some of the best in Massachusetts.

Kelley peppered his practices with the desire of seeing that each and every athlete worked hard to achieve their personal best performance every week. If he was a tough grader in the classroom, Kelley’s gentler side often emerged at track practice. That never meant that he didn’t expect everyone on the team to put in the necessary work.

“He really was the only teacher that I knew that would give you a negative grade,” remembers former Wilmington High School Director of Athletics Ed Harrison, who would go on to be a fine teacher of football at Wilmington High School. “I figured that you would at least get something for writing your name. Frank would explain why you got a negative eight. Your friends would get a 28 and he would tell them — ‘good job’. He made us all want to do our best in the classroom. I got a bunch of A’s in math courses at UMass-Amherst because of the work that Frank had me do in his classes at Wilmington High School. He definitely had his ways about him in that class.

“Before he had that walking stick I remember that he hit the intercom speaker in the room with a broom stick and knocked it right off the wall. Frank made that class so much fun that I almost majored in math in college. I had fun, but I was prepared, starting with my junior year in that Algebra II class.”

That attitude that Harrison talks about years later extended to Kelley’s practices every day. On his way to and from football practice Harrison could hear Kelley’s voice booming all the way to the locker room, exhorting his team on day after day.

Doug Stewart, Bob Reid and Bruce Bishop had all graduated before 1975, but Kelley still had that nucleus around in 1975 that helped guide the Wildcats to another excellent season. That year the team rolled to an 8-1 record, losing only to Andover, 73-72 in dual meet competition. There would be a memorable moment that Kelley figures cost the Wildcats a second straight upset victory over the Golden Warriors.

“McCully was running the 120-yard high hurdles, and he hit the first hurdle. He hit it so hard that it flew up in the air and hit Gerry Stabile from Andover in the lane next to him. Rick finished second. Everything doesn’t always go right in a track meet, since there are so many different things going on. McCully was still leading going into the third hurdle, in spite of it all. It threw his timing off.”

Wilmington did manage to win the Class C Meet again, so Kelley was more than satisfied. McCully’s high school track career reached a high point in this meet when he ran a record 19 seconds flat in the 180-yard low hurdles.

It wasn’t until 1986 that a Kelley spring track team came close to matching those seasons of 1974-75. The 1986 team had some fine athletes that included Frank Dinsmore (relay, 880), Chris Athanasia (javelin), John Desforge (440) along with Eric (sprints, jumps) and Kevin Cripanuk (hurdles, long jump).

“Victory is always more pleasant than defeat, but I still remember things that I did 14, 24, 34 years ago that could have helped us to get a win. But, then again, I probably won some meets that I probably had no business winning,” said Kelley many years later.

It was remarkable that another small school like Wilmington came close to running the track table again in 1975.

No story of that 1975 team would be complete without mentioning Steve Winchell’s record breaking throw of 162’10 in the discus at the state trials in his senior season.  It was an incredibly memorable achievement moment when Winchell outdistanced a pair of talented competitors from Duxbury. Winchell arguably was the best discus thrower in the history of Wilmington High School spring track. Steve’s only regret was that he wished he could have carried the great success of the trials into the state meet.

“I remember we went to the state meet in Andover and it was pouring rain,” Winchell said to the Town Crier in 2012 when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame.  “I was sort of a tall and skinny kid who had more speed than strength and the rain affected me a lot.  I really relied on my technique and I could not get good traction.  Some of the bigger, muscular guys were able to compensate for it, but I could not.”

Winchell was one of the many Wilmington High athletes coached-up to greatness under the leadership of legendary Hall of Fame coach Frank Kelley, and Steve he credits Kelly for much of his success.

“I loved Frank. He was a great, great coach,” Winchell said in the same 2012 story.  “He spent a lot of time with me from my freshman all the way through my senior year.  We had some top-rated guys, but really he was just an outstanding coach.  I was a tall and skinny kid who did not have much power, but he coached me to set a record.  That guy could coach anything. He was just amazing.”

Bob Butler was a multi-sport standout at Wilmington High School, graduating in 1980. Butler ran cross country for Frank Kelley and played varsity basketball before getting back on the track bandwagon every spring. He even was an assistant track coach on a volunteer basis from 1981-83. Butler remembers what that 1975 spring track team and performers like Winchell meant to the history of Wildcat sports.

“Steve was a big kid, and was probably a freshman or a sophomore on that 1975 team,” says Butler. “He was the greatest discus thrower that we ever had at Wilmington High School. I ran track from 1977 until 1980, and I remember that several guys from those great 1974-75 teams coached us.”

SEASON HIGHLIGHTS

Beat Chelmsford 78-69: Bob Sferrazza breaks program’s high jump record; Other firsts from Frank DePiana in shot put, Steve Winchell in discus, MacInnis and Coville;

Beat Austin Prep 116-29 and then Central Catholic 94-51.

At MVC Relays: Wilmington finished second as a team led by four first place teams including high jump trio of Nee, Mark Blaisdell and Sferrazza and Dana Rouesche in the long jump;

At Central Invitational: Wilmington finished first place as a team. Roueche was double winner in triple jump and 200; Nine other first places;

State Coaches Relay Meet: team finished third led by first place shuttle hurdle team of Joe Tannian, Peter Brown, Don Capone and McCully;

Defeated by Andover 73-72 and then beat Tewksbury 108-37;

Coaches Invitational: Nee tied for first in the 440, and 880 relay team of McCully, Sferrazza, Rouesche and Nee broke school and meet records with their first place finish;

Class C Meet: Wilmington takes first place, winning by 21 points over Acton-Boxboro. Place finishers include: Rouesche second in long jump and fourth in 220; Tannian fifth in long jump and fifth in low hurdles; Spring second in two mile; Ian MacInnis fourth in two mile; McCully first in 180 low hurdles (19.0) which was a meet record; Mile Relay was first with Nee, Tony Gravallese, Rouesche and Steve Coville; Sferrazza finished third in dash; Nee was third in 400; Coville was second in 880 which was a school record and the 4x110 relay team finished in fifth place.

Jamie Pote and Mike Ippolito contributed to this report.

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