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Chris Masse on football: Garnet Valley’s Mike Ricci was more than a coach

I was befuddled when guidance counselor asked me what my future plans were. Just starting my freshman year at Garnet Valley High School, I had not planned ahead that far since my professional sports dreams died when I realized one needed skill in those arenas.

So after a few seconds of thought I figured writing about sports would be the next best thing and told her I’d like to be a sportswriter. This group discussion took place during class and within earshot of English teacher Mike Ricci. A few days later, Ricci asked me if I’d like writing sports for the student newspaper. Almost immediately, I was hooked. What started in class that day has become a passion as I approach my 23rd year in this business.

Had Ricci not heard that discussion, I honestly do not believe I would be here today (much to my critics’ delight). He helped change my life for the better. And I know there are countless other Garnet Valley alumni who can say the same thing.

Oh yeah, he is one phenomenal football coach, too.

Ricci coaches his final home game tonight when Garnet Valley (13-0) hosts Coatesville for the District 1 Class 6A championship. If Coatesville wins, it will be Ricci’s final game, period. A win and the Jaguars will reach the state semifinals. Either way, his is a story which I believe needs told.

After playing collegiate football and baseball at Delaware, Ricci arrived at Garnet Valley and became one of the state’s youngest coaches, beginning his Garnet Valley run at age 23. Four decades later, Ricci is No. 2 in Delaware County wins at 259. The Jaguars have become the class of the proud Central League, dominating a prestigious league which many thought would eat Garnet Valley alive when it joined early in the 2000s. Instead, they have won four straight league titles, going undefeated each time.

That only tells part of the story. When I competed at Garnet Valley from 1991-95 we were barely a Class AA school. As a freshman, I was one of 29 players who made up the 1991 team. We all played offense, defense and special teams. It was the only way we could survive.

Steadily, however, houses began popping up anywhere there once was open land. The enrollment skyrocketed and now Garnet Valley is a 6A power. As the numbers grew, the football program exploded. Ricci always got the most out of his teams which were short in numbers and size. Given greater resources, he took the program to unprecedented heights and Garnet Valley became one of a large district’s most recognizable programs.

When there were still only four classifications, Ricci did what once I thought could only happen when I wrote fictional stories and led Garnet Valley to the 2007 Class AAA state final. The Jaguars moved up to the largest class a year later and the dominance has continued. Undefeated regular seasons and extended playoff runs have become the norm and the Jaguars find themselves just two victories from reaching the state championship.

Thirty years ago a paragraph like that may have elicited laughter. It’s remarkable how far this program has come and what Ricci has built at this Southeastern Pennsylvania school. If tonight is his last game, if it’s next week or the week after, he has built something special.

Again, it goes beyond wins. Ricci coined the phrase “Oneness,” and his teams embody it. And even before he started using that term, Ricci’s teams lived it. His teams are always hard-working, selfless and driven like the man himself. It does not matter the skill level either, Ricci is going to coach up each player the same and coax every ounce of ability he can.

To me and so many other Jaguars, that really is the measure of the man. The wins are great, but those are not what we remember most about our time with Ricci. What takes him to the next level, regardless of wins and losses, is his complete commitment to his students. He is a father of four, but honestly, Ricci has been like a father to so many others over the years.

I also played baseball for Ricci and he was a great on the field coach in both sports. He was demanding but also made the experience fun. His practices literally were run to the minute and were as organized as anything I’ve witnessed. We might be outplayed, but we were never outcoached and were always prepared.

More important, you always knew how much Ricci cared about you, beyond what happened on the field. There wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do or often didn’t do. That extended to his students as well. If you went to Garnet Valley, regardless of whether you played football, Ricci was going to do everything he could to make your life better and set you up for future success.

Early in my freshman year, I suffered two concussions. It dampened my love for football and I knew I wanted to try something else by season’s end. Believe it or not, I actually was pretty good in junior high and I expected Ricci would be angry that I was letting football go. Instead, he offered his support and never stopped believing in me or encouraging me long after I left football behind.

He helped me get into Penn State, helped me become a better writer and always was in my corner. I’m just one of an endless stream of Jaguars who have roamed the halls since 1985. If I asked others to share their stories about Ricci’s impact on their lives this column would consume the entire sports and news sections.

Graduating from Garnet Valley does not mean Ricci forgets about his players and/or students either. I remember him crying while addressing us before our final 1991 game. It wasn’t that the season was over, but it was like he was saying good-bye to a family because that’s what we had become. Garnet Valley is Ricci’s extended family and of those 29 players on that 1991 team which went 4-6, I guarantee you Ricci can remember every single one.

And if one of those players needed something, Ricci would be there in a second if called upon. The wins are secondary because that is what makes Ricci a coaching legend.

With the exception of my dad, also a long-time football coach, Ricci is the best coach I ever had. His Jaguar paw prints are all over my life and the lives of so many fortunate enough to call him coach, teacher and friend.

I know I’m a better person today because of working with Mike Ricci. I know I have an army of fellow Jaguars who will say the same thing.

We all start lives with a blank canvas. Ricci has spent the majority of his life at Garnet Valley working on his. Teaching and coaching became his life’s work.

And Ricci has painted a garnet and white masterpiece.

Chris Masse may be reached at cmasse@sungazette.com. Follow him on Twitter at @docmasse

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