Fires still burning in Ritari
Former Conneaut player, coach still going strong at 60
By KARL PEARSON
Eighth of a series...
Talk of coaching trees has been a subject of sports conversations for years, but seems to have become one of the truly hot topics among members of the media in recent years.
It used to be the conversation was about Miami of Ohio as the "Cradle of Coaches" for producing great college football coaches like Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler, Bill Mallory, Paul Dietzel and Sid Gillman. Many of those coaches had all kinds of links into the coaching ranks springing off of them.
In more recent times, there is talk of the Bill Parcells coaching tree or the Bill Belichick coaching line. In basketball, it's the Greg Popovich line, the Bob Knight tree or the Dean Smith tree.
Operating on those standards, there was a basketball coaching tree at Conneaut High that sprang from the teachings of the late Andy Garcia. Several of the young men who worked with the man for whom the Spartans gymnasium was named went on to coaching notoriety in their own right. Jon Hall, Harry Fails and Paul Freeman are three expressions of that.
There is another branch that springs from the foundations laid by Garcia, Hall and Fails. As much as anyone else, Tom Ritari owes a direct lineage to those three coaching giants as his coaches and coaching colleagues. He freely acknowledges his debt to them.
"Harry was my coach my freshman year. That was a great experience," he said. "Playing for Andy was a great experience, too.
"Jon and I have been connected since 1961. It has been a phenomenal, fantastic relationship. I know how much all my coaches affected me."
Although he downplays his contributions, Ritari was a standout player for Garcia's Spartans for three years until his graduation from Conneaut in 1963. After finishing a fine playing career at Edinboro University in 1968, he immediately hooked up with Hall as an assistant coach at several high schools throughout the state, along with a brief head coaching stint.
Eventually, Ritari truly set out on his own path as a head coach, returning to his high school alma mater to do so. It turned out to be quite a career, first as the Spartans boy coach, then to great success with the Conneaut girls program.
Even though he has been away from coaching at Conneaut for four years and out of northeastern Ohio for two, Ritari hasn't left the coaching merry-go-round, continuing to coach girls basketball at his home in Bamberg, S.C. At 60, the coaching fires still burn brightly.
"I played the game with intensity, and I still have great passion for basketball," he said. "I've been blessed to love something and have the ability to do it.
"I love what I'm doing. I'm really a blessed guy. I still play the game, and I'm not done coaching."
For all those blessings, Ritari is about to receive another back in his hometown. He will return March 29 for his induction into the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Fame.
"It's very humbling," he said. "I've been very blessed in the things I've done to be surrounded by great people.
"I don't think my playing career was all that great. All I ever tried to do was make other players better. I never had a great scoring average, but apparently I was good enough to play college ball.
"As far as coaching, when I think of all the people I've worked with and coached against, I don't think I deserve to be in the company of those people. I'm very humbled by that."
Hall said Ritari's humility is misplaced on both levels.
"Tom was a very energetic, team-oriented player," he said. "He was one of the best point guards I ever coached, along with Bob Naylor. And he's a real good person.
"As a coach, he was always right there with me," Hall said. "If I wanted to talk basketball at 2 a.m., he'd be there and if I wanted to watch film, he was right there. When I first worked with him, we were co-coaches. The only thing was, I made the final decisions."
The roles were reversed at Conneaut with the Spartan girls.
"He did the same thing with me when he was the head coach of the girls," Hall said. "He gave me responsibility for the defense and we made decisions together.
"Tom is very deserving of being in the Hall of Fame."
The early years
Ritari was into sports from the time he was a small boy near the home he and his parents, Russell and Helen and older brother Bob, occupied on Sandusky Street, just a few blocks from Conneaut High School.
"I've always been involved in athletics," he said. "I grew up play with a bunch of older kids like my brother, Rob DiPofi's dad Bob, Jim DiPofi's dad Denny and David DiPofi.
"I'd watch basketball and try to imitate the players with great ability I saw. I really admired (Boston Celtics guard) Bob Cousy for his ballhandling and passing ability. I used to go down in our basement and dribble for hours, behind my back, between my legs. Our TV was right above it, so I think I interrupted some of my dad's viewing."
He didn't get into school basketball until the eighth grade.
"We didn't have seventh-grade basketball, so I played in a church league," Ritari said. "When I was in eighth grade, I played for, ‘Iron Mike' Stefanik, but they moved me right up to the freshman team and I played there for two years.
"The only thing I ever remember him telling me was to shoot more. I probably fought that."
On the varsity
In his sophomore year, Ritari started out with the JV team, but got the call from Garcia to move up to the varsity in midseason.
"We were undefeated in JV basketball and we went up to a game at Wickliffe," he said. "Denny Naylor and I were on the bench and Andy sent Jon down to tell us we were starting the second half of the varsity game. The first time I ever started a full game was against Edgewood, and we played on the stage at Braden."
Frank Farello was the JV coach then and gave Ritari a truth he carried into the rest of his playing career.
"One thing he taught us stuck with me," Ritari said. "He told us to develop one shot every year that we became so confident in we felt we couldn't miss it. I tried to develop a new shot every year."
Garcia made quite an impression on his young point guard.
"Andy had a way of getting your attention right away," Ritari said. "He taught me defense is such an important part of the game. He never asked you how many points you'd scored, but how many the guy you guarded scored.
TOM RITARI (34) is shown with two of his coaching mentors at
Conneaut, Andy Garcia (left) and Jon Hall (right). Ritari will join
Garcia and Hall in the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation
Hall of Fame on March 29.
"(Garcia's vocal style) bothered me a little when I was a sophomore, but by my junior year, I learned to listen to what he said, not how he said it. I got to know him over the years as a very loving and caring guy for all the students in the school."
The coaches' antics were almost amusing at times.
"Sometimes, he'd get so mad he'd start yelling and he jump up and down and do two 360s," Ritari said. "In those days, one of the officials had to stand near the scorekeeper during timeouts. Andy would have a way of going and yelling at the scorekeeper and get his point across to the officials what was bothering him that way."
Ritari shared guard duties with Dick Goodale as a sophomore.
"My sophomore year we were above just above .500 (11-8), but we beat Ashtabula twice," he said.
After that, Ritari was responsible for initiating the offense, dumping the ball inside to 6-foot-5 Ed Maenpaa and 6-3 Jerry Lane, along with getting John Mowrey, Helsey and Rudy Meyers involved as a junior.
"In my junior year, we were about .500, too (9-9)," Ritari said.
His senior year was a highlight.
"My senior year, Tom Naylor, who was one of my best friends, was on the varsity," Ritari said. "He was great at shooting from the corner. I believe he's the best shooter I ever saw at Conneaut. George Smart was his running mate at forward.
"We were 14-7 and won the NEC my senior year. We lost to Ashtabula in the sectional final."
Balance was the key for those Spartans.
"My role was to get the ball to the scorers," he said. "I averaged 12 that year, but Maenpaa had 11, Lane 10, Naylor nine and Smart eight. Ed and I worked well together."
Hall helped with that.
"Jon designed a play call The Wall, which I suppose was like the Picket Fence in Hoosiers," Ritari said. "I'd hide behind it and come out and shoot.
"He designed a delay that had three guys in the corner. There was no five-second call, so I could hold the ball for two minutes sometimes. George and I were 80-percent foul shooters, so they'd foul us and we'd hit them and win the game."
Ritari remembers his foes well, too.
"Jim Osborne was a great guard for Geneva," he said. "Al Bailey was coaching at Geneva. Bob Ball was still coaching at Ashtabula. I remember playing against Wash Lyons and Dave Sheldon at Ashtabula and Paul Freeman at PV.
"We had good battles with Geneva. Our battles with St. John were good ones when Smokey Cinciarelli was coaching and Bill Smothers played for them."
He remembers a game with St. John well.
"St. John used to play at West Junior High, but it was a big game, so we played at Ball Gymnasium," Ritari said. "The day of the game, some of our fans went over there and put five crosses on the St. John lawn with the players' names on them.
"They found out who did it and made them go take them down. But when the game started, those kids marched into the gym holding the crosses. They weren't happy."
Off to college
Ritari had an offer to play college basketball at St. Joseph's in Indiana, but when Edinboro coach Jim McDonald, a legend in his own right, made an offer, the youngster quickly accepted at school much closer to home.
"Jim McDonald had been a great player in West Virginia when Jerry West was playing," he said. "A lot of what he taught me was about the fine points of the game.
"He used to say, ‘Coach the details and the big things will take care of themselves.' He was a stickler for the little things."
Ritari doesn't blow his horn much about his college career, either.
"I had a great freshman year," he said. "They had some great guards ahead of me my sophomore and junior years, and I learned a lot watching from the bench. I started about half the games as a senior. I learned a lot in practice."
When he went to Edinboro, he wasn't sure what his career path would be, but a trip home sealed the deal.
"I probably had coaching and teaching in the back of my mind," Ritari said. "I came back one Christmas and helped my brother, who was coaching the junior high team at Conneaut. I loved it."
He earned a bachelor's degree in education with a major in geography and minor in history and came back to teach in Conneaut.
He taught for one year at Conneaut and coached the freshmen boys.
"They made coaching easy," he said. "I had Tim Richards, who went to Kent State main, Robbie Ferl, who went to Hiram, Joe DeNunzio and Tim Church. We won the freshmen tournament."
But Hall made a call and coaxed Ritari to Kenston, who served for two years as the former's JV coach, then succeeded Hall as the head coach for two years.
"Jon and I had kept in contact and he told me about a job teaching and coaching at their middle school," Ritari said. "I was a volunteer coach for a year, then JV coach.
"We won two (Chagrin Valley Conference) championships and a district title while Jon was the head coach."
He found Hall a tough act to follow.
"It was tough trying to win people over after Jon left," Ritari said.
TOM RITARI during his days coaching the Conneaut girls. At right
is current Spartans girls coach Tony Pasanen.
So he was happy to hook his star to Hall's when he called from New Philadelphia. But that didn't last long.
"I got to New Philly and Jon left for Solon," Ritari said of his one year down south.
Then Hall, ever the coaching nomad, summoned Ritari to Kent Roosevelt for a two-year stint.
"I coached little Jon there," he said. "But I (fell victim to Reduction in Force)."
Ritari calls he and Hall kindred souls.
"Jon is the biggest influence on me as a coach, and that's saying a lot because Harry Fails is my cousin," he said. "Andy and Jim McDonald were big influences, too, but Jon is the biggest.
"I learned three things from Jon — get organized, have a passion for the game and be a constant student of the game. I still get DVDs and books to learn. Jon and I used to go to two or three clinics a year. You can never stop learning."
Back home again
But doors opened back at Conneaut. He returned to take over as girls varsity head coach and earned Star Beacon Ashtabula County Coach of the Year honors for the first of four times for the 1979-80 season.
"They had won one game the year before, and we won like 12 (actually 11-8)," he said. "We had Cindi Brunot, Mo Maire (his future wife), Denise Nine, Janie Roberts, Marsha Williams and Ruth Campbell coming off the bench. We did that against girls like Diane Davis at Ashtabula and Anita Tersigni and Nadine Cox at Geneva."
In 1980, Ritari succeeded Harold Rose as the boys head coach and stayed in that role for three seasons, compiling a 27-36 record.
"When I was the boys coach, I had Mark Wheeler and Greg Gamble," he said. "One of our best games was against Ashtabula when Bob Walters had one of his really fine teams. We couldn't stay with them, so we went to a four corners. The score was 10-8 at halftime. We lost by 15 or 16, but I felt good about the game."
But he wasn't happy with the direction he was taking the Conneaut boys.
"I felt we weren't making the progress we needed, so I decided to step down," Ritari said. "I'm my own worst critic."
So he sat out a year, doing color commentary for Conneaut's cable TV station.
"But I was going stir crazy," Ritari said.
Then he went back to the boys ranks, coaching the freshmen team for Dave Simpson for one year and the JV team for Greg Mason for three more.
Return to the girls
Then CHS athletic director Bill Fails approached Ritari with the offer to take over again as girls varsity coach for the 1990 season. He accepted.
"I think it worked out well," Ritari said.
Indeed. Over the next 15 seasons, the Spartans won two Northeastern Conference championships, four Division II sectional titles and, in the 2000-01 season, the district championship. Those Spartans are the last Ashtabula County girls team to reach the regional tournament. He finished with a 161-139 record with the girls.
It was a gradual building process with the girls, but they were productive years as he was chosen Star Beacon Ashtabula County Coach of the Year in 1992-93 (11-10), 1999-2000 (20-3) and 2000-01 (21-3).
"The first thing I did was make KayAnn Fails our point guard, because I knew she could handle the ball," Ritari said. "I asked her, ‘Do you want to win or do you want to score?'
"That really made it happen with KayAnn, Martha Kananen and Gretchen Showalter. They were good as juniors and even better as seniors, but we couldn't get past Madison and Kevin Snyder or Riverside and Eric Seufer."
There was a bit of a lull after that.
"We struggled a little after that," Ritari said. "The kids played hard every minute. We struggled a little on offense but got after it on defense."
But there was a resurgence.
"Then we got Melissa Anderson and Erica Wallace in 1995-96," Ritari said. "Eventually, Jen Johnston came along in 1999 and we started to turn the corner. And we'd have Annie Soller out there shooting threes."
And the good times began to roll.
"Then we had that good group of freshmen come in," Ritari said. "We had a bunch of little, fast kids and one tall girl. And Jen told me she could see those freshmen could play."
And Hall signed on to the ship.
"When Jon came back as my assistant, I took us about five minutes of that first practice in 1998 to starting clicking again," Ritari said.
Jessica Olmstead and Char Kudlock got the ball rolling for the young Spartans. Eventually, girls like Stephanie Anderson, Stefanie Brown, Adrian Tuttle, Nikki Sanford and Ashley Chicatelli would become more prominent in the picture.
One telling point was defeating a highly regarded Madison team twice in a two-week period when most of those girls were freshmen.
"We had no seniors on that time," Ritari said. "I knew we were ready then."
The momentum kept building.
"Jessica hit her stride as a sophomore, but that legend, (Rod) Holmes down at Jefferson, beat us that year," Ritari said.
It all came together the next year.
"The girls took off and ran with it," Ritari said. "We lost one to Jefferson, but we got the second when Jessica had 37 points and we won by three or four."
It got even better in 2000-01. There were even some negative moments that made it happen.
"We lost to Regina, 91-27, in the Madison Tournament that year," Ritari said. "I think that helped us because we came back and beat a good Howland team by four or five in the consolation game."
It paid off at the Division II district at Edgewood.
"We beat Jefferson in the semifinal, then Perry in the final," Ritari said. "Tuttle blocked a shot by (Perry standout Amanda) Tsipis with about a minute to go. Then we won the game at the foul line. It was a great feeling."
It didn't all go away over the final four years of his career with the girls, either.
"The year after, we were 15-7 with Aimee Soller, Ashley Chicatelli, Natalie Brown, Darcy Wallace and Shannon Ritari (the oldest of he and Mo's three children)," Ritari said. "We weren't expected to do anything that year. That was very satisfying."
Since then, the Spartans have never won more than 10 games. He retired from teaching in 2003 and finished up in 2005. But he didn't quit coaching, going to a small school in Girard, Pa. for one year.
But that didn't last long, either.
"On Valentine's Day of 2006, we had two feet of snow at home and I was still teaching at Girard," Ritari said. "They didn't call school over there and it took me two hours to get out of our driveway.
"We had a time share down in South Carolina, but I went home and got on a Web site looking for teaching openings. Bamberg-Ehrhardt had an opening for a social-studies teacher and positions for a head girls basketball and tennis coach. I'd coached tennis for 15 years. I set up an interview, flew down and was offered the job on the spot."
So Ritari has been able to stick with his teaching and coaching passion.
"I can walk to school," he said.
He and Mo, who have been married for 26 years, live with their three children in Bamberg, about 60 miles each way from Columbia, the state capital, and Charleston.
MO AND TOM RITARI and their son, Russell, in sunny Bamberg, S.C.
Shannon is now a senior at Southeastern University in Lakeland, Fla., Kelsey is a freshman at Coastal Carolina and Russell is an eighth grader at Bamberg-Ehrhardt Middle School.
Some of Ritari's relatives remain in Ashtabula County. Tom, his son from a previous marriage, and daughter-in-law Christine, who reside in Ashtabula, have given him three grandchildren — Alexander, Arianna and Aiden. His brother, who was an assistant principal for Hall at Edgewood and is now retired, also lives in the county.
Obviously, basketball has always been one of the focal points of Ritari's life and will no doubt remain so.
"Basketball has opened up so many opportunities and given me so many chances to meet great people, coaches and athletes," he said. "I know how they have affected my life. I still love the game, or I wouldn't be doing it.
"I've been so blessed by my family and all the people who have surrounded me."
He still has goals in the game, too.
"My lifelong dream is to win the state championship," Ritari said. "I can see the last shot being made to win the game by one point and it all ends for me there."