By Ken Stejbach, sports writer Exeter News Letter. Nov 27, 2001
EPPING — Hey, Coach Ron Weitzell! You really didn’t believe the girls of Epping and Newmarket would let you retire from coaching basketball that quietly now, would you? Not after 27 years of coaching at the high-school level — 21 of them at Epping, the last six at Newmarket. Weitzell quietly retired this past spring. Randy Edgerly will be taking his position.
Hey Coach Weitzell, remember those sob stories from “Reader’s Digest” you used to bring in, all underlined and highlighted. You know, the ones you used to read us for hours on end? Now it’s your turn to listen, as is customary when you’re getting roasted. Of course, you’ll get a chance to speak, but it’s going to be last this time. More than likely, too, everyone will be sleeping, fidgeting by then. The same way we used to a long, long time ago. You know what though? Those were some fun times. Remember when you bent down during a time out? All of a sudden there’s this big noise and sure enough, those pants of yours were ripped right down the seam. And didn’t your face turn beet red that day. In typical Weitzell-manner, though, you tied a sweatshirt around your waist and kept on coaching.
Kerry (Bascom) Poliquin, class of 1987, remembers : We were too busy rolling on the floor (to listen),” says Poliquin. “We had a lot of good times with him. He always made it fun.” Nowadays, Poliquin works as a residential program coordinator for Developmental Services of Strafford County. Back then she had led the Blue Devils to a Class S title in 1985, and later went on to the University of Connecticut, where she became a first-team Kodak All-American on a team that made it to the Women’s Final Four of the NCAA. Poliquin’s first memories of Weitzell were when she was a seventh grader, and though she was a little intimidated playing with all those seniors, she remembers your kindness and coaching. ”He just taught you the game, and made me and my teammates fundamentally sound,” says Poliquin.
“He cared about the person,” said Poliquin. “He became an incredible family friend. He was more than just a coach to me.” Poliquin says her greatest lesson from Weitzell was: “That you had to work hard for what you want, because nobody’s going to hand you anything. ”Obviously if it wasn’t for him, I probably wouldn’t have become the player I became.”Poliquin played five years under Weitzell. That’s five years of listening to stories.”He just kept going on and on and on,” says Poliquin.
Hey coach, remember how you used to get involved in the game, how when there wasn’t any coaching box, you’d be roaming up and down the sideline shouting to your players? Remember how you’d come all neatly attired, and how, as the game progressed, you’d take your jacket off, loosen your tie, and roll up your sleeves? By game’s end, especially if it was a big game, underneath your shirt you could see your T-shirt that said something profound on it.
Amy McPhee, a member of the Class of 1989 who helped lead the Blue Devils to the 1989 Class S title, remembers. McPhee went on to play three years for the University of New Hampshire women’s hockey team. She was team captain her senior year. Nowadays she teaches physical education at Oyster River High School. McPhee says the greatest lesson you taught her was about setting a goal, sticking with it and achieving it. As driven as you made them, though, there was always humor along the way. “Be a lion on the court, and a lady off it,” remembers McPhee.
Nicole (Lavoie) Higginbottom, Class of 1991, also remembers that saying. Higginbottom, a senior secretary at Exeter Hospital nowadays, doesn’t exactly remember what the T-shirt said the day the Blue Devils won the state championship in 1989 (she was a sophomore), but it had to do with something about winning. She remembers doing cartwheels across the Plymouth State College gym floor the night they won the title. Higginbottom played five years for you, Coach. Five years of listening to stories, five years of line drills, 100-rebound drills. She says she still has nightmares about forgetting her sneakers or shorts, but she says, “He taught us what he knows and loved each of us.” He was even at her wedding reception and will “always be a part of our lives.”
Hey coach, remember the dancing and singing in the locker room before the game? Higginbottom’s greatest lesson from Weitzell, she says, was “respect yourself, and respect others, obviously. Be all you can be, and don’t let anyone limit you. Everything’s possible.”
“He always worked hard to make us a team out there,” remembers Kiley Bascom. “He did want us to have fun, but he always wanted us to work hard when we’re out there.” Bascom, Class of 1996, nowadays is a behavioral health counselor who works with the mentally ill at the Strafford County facility. “He wasn’t just my coach, he was a family friend,” says Bascom. “I still see him, and I always give him a hug. It’s like we’ve never ever left.”
Allyson Benvenuti, one of the senior captains from Newmarket’s Class of 2001, remembers the stories, most of which were told Sunday mornings. Benvenuti, who ended up scoring 1,025 points for the Mules, is attending Ithaca College in New York, where she’s enjoying being a member of the crew team. She says that in those stories, the main message was to be thankful for everything they had and to follow their dreams.
Mary Gatchell, Epping Class of 1995, is following her dream of being a musician in New York City these days, playing and singing at some of the same clubs that superstars like Madonna got their start at. Gatchell remembers the stories, the mostly sad ones, about “how lucky we were to be alive with two legs, two arms, and with a head on our shoulder.” He would say: You guys will be thanking me 20 years down the road, when you’re heavy and lazy and can’t get down the floor. Gatchell looked pretty spry going down the floor during Friday’s Alumni game. Weitzell, who coached the alumni and watched them get pounded by the varsity, was all smiles and laughing Friday. It was that kind of game. Gatchell, though, remembers how Weitzell would be 100 percent into the game, how he’d raise his head to the ceiling a few times during the game. Or if he was really disappointed, how he’d bury his head in his hands. Regardless, there was always one thing she could count on, and that was that he was “behind us 100 percent,” that he cares about his players.
Hey coach, remember a road playoff game your Blue Devils were getting the Mother of All Home Jobs from the referees? Remember how when the Epping fans began adding their opinions you stood up during a bad call, turned around toward the fans and gave them a speech to quell their voices? Your speech was so terrifyingly convincing that the refs took notice, and even began giving your Blue Devils some breaks. Perhaps they sympathized with you? Whatever … It worked. Just wanted to get in a word before you get in yours.
Coach Weitzell was in good spirits Monday morning, recalling Epping’s championship seasons in 1985 and 1989. Even the golf championship his Newmarket boys won in 1997. All those wins and victories over the years, however, pale in comparison with seeing how well his girls developed later in life, how well they’ve done with their families and careers. ”Basketball’s like life,” says Weitzell. “It has its highs and lows. It depends how you handle it.” The greatest reward of coaching is “seeing them develop as adults and how they make life better for their country and the world,” he says. “It’s just been a great ride.” It doesn’t mean the ride’s over, though.
Instead of coaching basketball, Weitzell will be spending his time refereeing basketball, something he’s been doing for almost 40 years now. He’ll also continue to coach Newmarket’s golf team, and umpire softball.
He grew up playing basketball in junior high and high school for Newmarket before heading to the U.S. Navy. He continued to play in the Navy, and when he came back home, he began refereeing basketball. Later he and his wife, Chris, began a Saturday morning basketball program at Newmarket for early elementary grades. A dozen years later, he began coaching the Newmarket Junior High girls team. Four years later he began his high-school coaching career at Epping.
Weitzell doesn’t have a clue what his overall won-loss record is, but there was one stretch — from 1985 to 1989 — that his team went 113-9, a stretch that included two championship and three runner-up seasons. Besides being named Coach of the Year in 1985 and 1989, he says, he was also very fortunate to coach New Hampshire’s 1987 Alhambra team, which defeated Vermont. He was also Class M’s golf Coach of the Year in 1997.
But what kind of T-shirt were you wearing the day you won the 1989 title? Weitzell believes it was a shirt the girls gave him earlier in the season. One with all his rules on it. It was a long list, he remembers, joking about it. Just one of many good times.
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