Several weeks ago, the Town Crier started a 15-part series on legendary coaches at both TMHS and WHS, while several from Shawsheen Tech will be included. In Tewksbury, the series started with stories on Al and Mark Donovan, Tony Romano, Bob McCabe and Dennis McGadden. In Wilmington, the series included the same story on Mark (and Al) Donovan and continued with stories on Evelyn Wells Carter and then former wrestling coach Mike Pimental.
Below is the another installment of the series on former WHS Hall of Fame Athlete and Shawsheen Tech basketball and football coach Bill Ritchie. The first part of the story below, which was written by Mike Ippolito, originally appeared in the Town Crier back on January 28th, 2004 issue. The second and third portions of the story below was written by Jamie Pote.
This story appears in the Wilmington edition this week and it’ll appear in the Tewksbury edition next week.
BILLERICA – Longtime Shawsheen Tech girls' basketball coach Bill Ritchie knew this would be his last season with the team. He just didn't know it would come so soon.
On Friday afternoon, Ritchie hung up his whistle and clipboard for good. After 15 years as head coach, Ritchie fittingly won game No. 200 and 201 this past week in his marvelous career. But he didn't send in his resignation letter because of a milestone he reached. Instead, he told the team that it was because he's been diagnosed with prostate cancer and will undergo surgery soon.
To say that Ritchie is committed to his team would certainly be an understatement. When the season began back in December, Ritchie knew that he was seven wins away from the milestone and didn't want the attention of his achievement to take anything away from his players and his team.
He insisted that the story be about his players and not about him. As it turned out, Ritchie got win No. 200 last Thursday night with a 61-36 rout of Essex Aggie. He picked up win No. 201 the next night against Chelsea in his final game as coach of the Lady Rams.
Ritchie was notified about his cancer during a routine doctor's visit in November. He had been planning on ending his career the following the end of the season, but not he has been forced to call it quits much earlier. Even when talking about his illness, Ritchie still remained focused on the team.
"It's disappointing," Ritchie said. "Forget whatever the reason for me leaving. You want your last game to be with your team, so I am disappointed not to have that opportunity."
Last year, the season ended very late for the Lady Rams as they advanced all the way to the Division 3 North Sectional Finals after winning the Commonwealth Athletic Conference championship. That was the program's deepest state tournament run since Ritchie took the 1996-'97 team to the Boston Garden, losing to Hull, 47-29, in the Division 4 state championship game.
This year's team, after losing several key seniors, may not quite reach those heights, but under Ritchie they were off to an 8-4 start and well on their way to another tournament berth. The strong start may have surprised some, but his players knew that regardless of the number of stars lost to graduation, Ritchie would put them in a position to win games this season.
"Mr. Ritchie is an awesome guy and a great coach," said Tewksbury resident Jenn Elwell. "He's not only a great basketball coach, but he's also very interested in how we are doing in school. He will really be missed."
Just as Elwell pointed out how Ritchie's care goes beyond the basketball court, the senior captain also noted that his consistency even in the face of a tough personal situation was key to the team.
“He always tries to give us everything and this year was no different,” Elwell said. “He did not want to upset us, and he has acted no differently towards us. He is always for the team first.”
Ritchie has of course always brought that attitude towards coaching the Lady Rams and it has obviously paid off with 201 wins. But Ritchie has had that same approach for many years, as evidenced by his career as head football coach of the Rams, during which he took the team to its only Super Bowl appearance in 1978.
Shawsheen Athletic Director Ron Nowakowski has seen Ritchie's expertise up close for many years, and he has grown to admire his ability to communicate with his athletes year-after-year.
“Bill is a very dedicated coach. He's been with the school since the outset and has been a big part of many successful teams,” Nowakowski said. “He works really hard with the girls and has a really good repoire with the kids.”
As for Ritchie, when he looks back on his career he will also recall his ability to connect with many student-athletes over the years. When asked what he would miss the most about no longer patrolling the sidelines, he thought carefully before answering.
“One of the funny things I will miss is growing old fast. You see a freshman come in and next thing you know they are seniors. It seems like yesterday that Jenn Elwell was a freshman. You think life goes on at a steady pace, but you don't realize how much time goes by.”
And as Ritchie pointed out earlier, time certainly went by far too quickly this season. He had considered retirement at the end of last season, but chose to come back for one more to the team he loves. It would have been hard enough to let this group of players go at the end of the season, but to have it cut short against his will made a difficult situation even worse.
Not that Ritchie has ever been the type to especially revel in his personal achievements, but his health situation this year allowed him to have an even more than usual perspective on his 200th win. He was within two wins of the milestone on the day he was asked about it.
“I would like to get it, but I would rather have gotten it in the last game of the season so I could have had a full year with this team,” Ritchie said. “Two hundred does not mean nearly as much now.”
The milestone certainly meant a lot to this players, however, who presented him a card offering their congratulations after the Essex game. This group may only have been a part of a handful of his career wins, but they are grateful for the basketball knowledge he has given them.
Elwell, for one knows that Ritchie had a great deal to do with her development from a raw freshman to the team leader she is today.
“He has absolutely everything to do with my improvement,” she said. “When I started with him, I had just played in the Rec. League and had never really taken basketball seriously. He helped me all through high school with my mechanics.”
Ritchie has undoubtedly helped countless players in the same way through the course of his career. And now as he ends this phase of his life and moves onto the next, which according to Ritchie includes a good prognosis for his recovery from cancer, he can look back on a career full of memories.
But ask him to pick out one memory or two to put above all others and he is very reluctant to put one team or person ahead of any other.
“I've got a lot of them. A lot of them. But I'll keep them up here,” a misty eyed Ritchie said as he pointed to his head.
And while he'll keep his memories of his teams and the players in his head, it won't take them long before they remember just what kind of a person and a coach Bill Ritchie has been.
Bill Ritchie, a 1965 WHS Graduate, is one of 120 athletes to be inducted into the Wilmington High School Athletic Hall of Fame. Below is his induction biography:
As the second Hall of Fame indictee from the Ritchie family, Bill is regarded as one of Wilmington's finest all-around athletes of the 1960s.
During his early athletic years, Bill starred in both Wilmington Little League Baseball and the Reading Pony League. At those two levels of baseball, he was a member of eight championship teams and four all-star teams.
In football, Bill played on two undefeated championship teams and was a Lowell Suburban League All-Star player in 1963 and 1964. In 1963 he was voted the outstanding player of the Wilmington-Tewksbury game, and in 1964 he won the prestigious Walter Casey trophy as the Most Valuable Player of the year. At one time, he held records on both offense and defense, including most touchdown passes in a season and interception return yardage in one season. Continuing his football career, Bill played on the 1966 and 1967 Boston University team as a defensive back before an injury ended his playing days.
In basketball, Bill was the point guard in both his junior and senior years. Along with captaining the 1964-65 team, he was chosen an MVC All-Star in 1965.
Baseball may have been Bill's strong suit as he was to suffer just one defeat, including tournament play, during his high school pitching career. Along with that, he managed to lead the 1965 team in hitting.
He earned the Scholastic Achievement Award in Biology in 1964 and was selected a Junior Rotarian in 1965. Bill has gone on to coach several championship teams at both the high school and collegiate levels, and has been awarded the “Coach of the Year” commendations from several publications.
He holds a B.S. In Physical Education from Boston University, graduating in 1970. In 1977 he received a Master's in philosophy from Suffolk University and continued his education to earn a C.A.G.S in Educational Administration from Suffolk in 1981.
Bill currently resides in Tewksbury with his wife Donna. They are proud parents of two children, Joanna and Kyle.
A clean bill of health
Bill Ritchie coached the Shawsheen Tech Football team from 1972-79. He ripped his Achilles tendon in '79 and didn't finish the season with the team. Several years later, he became an assistant coach at UMass-Lowell, employed as the program's secondary coach and worked there from 1982-85. After a short break, he got back into coaching, taking over as the head coach at Bishop Guertin High School in New Hampshire. He held that position from 1989-1990, before becoming the offensive coordinator at Revere High School. He held that position for five years and then became the defensive coordinator at Andover from 1996-97. He suffered a heart attack which ended his football coaching days.
In basketball, he coached 23 years in total, the first eight as the JV Coach at Shawsheen and then the final 15 as head coach.
After his retirement as Tech coach in 2004, Ritchie stayed busy with sports, but also no longer had to deal with his cancer.
“Everything is really good," he said back in the fall. "I've been cancer free for 16 years now and I'm at the point where I don't have to be annual checked anymore. I am still working for CBS and FOX (television stations) and on rare occasions NBC. I do a lot with the Patriots and Golf tournaments with audio, microphones and sideline audio, so the big bubble thing you see on TV. I won an Emmy Award for my work in Super Bowl 50, so that was pretty neat."