John Wooden, legendary college basketball coach at UCLA, was nicknamed “The Wizard of Westwood.” In these parts, we could call Lady Wildcats’ softball coach Cheri Ritz “The Wizard of Wayland.”
Though she lost a boatload of talent from the state championship 2015 ballclub, particularly in the pitching department with Pitcher of the Year Mallory Teunissen, Ritz and the Lady Wildcats just managed to cop yet another regional championship Saturday.
It’s interesting that Wayland at one time was just 9-8 on the season overall, but since then has won 18 of 19.
Ritz has been a wizard in exploiting the strengths of this team — booming bats — and allowing the pitching of sophomore southpaw Abby Merice to blossom when it counts the most, near the end of the season.
Ritz has won eight consecutive district championships, has won or shared the last 13 straight O-K Gold Conference championships and I don’t want to do all the heavyweight research it would take to find the last time a Wayland softball team won fewer the 20 games in a season. This is not to mention two state championships and a national Coach of the Year award.
I wrote a column about the Wizard of Wayland four years ago. Because very little has changed, except the number of league, district, regional and even state championships has changed:
My New Oxford American Dictionary defines the word “enigma” as “a person or thing that is mysterious, puzzling, or difficult to understand.”
“Enigma” best describes how I view Wayland softball coach Cheri Ritz.
I first met her in one of my last days as sports editor and staff writer for the Wayland Globe in late August 1976. I took her picture and wrote a brief story about her winning a tennis tournament. She hardly said a word when I tried to interview her.
I didn’t really think much about it afterward because I was headed to Albion to become the sports editor of a six-days-a-week daily newspaper and I was about to embark on a life-changing experience by being introduced only a month later to computers in my everyday work.
Ten years later I returned to my old haunts and a few years later finally would up in Hastings as editor of five weekly newspapers. At one time, in 1993, I found myself filling in for several months as sports editor of one of our publications, the Middleville Sun and Caledonia News. Because I just couldn’t get out and about very much, I had to rely on the telephone to do sports stories.
One coach who never seemed to be home when I called and never returned my calls was the coach of the Middleville Thornapple Kellogg Trojans softball team, who happened to be Cheri Ritz, the Wayland High School tennis star I once wrote about and photographed.
Her team was one of the most successful at the school that spring, but I just couldn’t get her to return my calls. What I did get instead was phone calls from irate parents who asked me why I didn’t adequately cover the exploits of the Thornapple Kellogg softball team that was winning some big games. I lamely replied that I had tried, but could not get the coach to cooperate by providing me with the necessary information.
While I was defending myself, I wondered why Cheri Ritz was so reluctant to respond to the local press. Most coaches who are unavailable when they’re losing and don’t want to talk about it. But she was winning, and still didn’t seem to want to talk about it.
I got out of pressing the matter further because I finally succeeded in hiring a new sports editor and Ms. Ritz succeeded in coming back to her alma mater to coach the Wayland Lady Wildcats.
I only watched Ms. Ritz and her program from a distance in the ensuing years. I was not blind to the fact she was turning Wayland into a first-class program in terms of winning and being known and feared throughout the state. Her teams were racking up massive numbers of victories.
My niece was a member of the team she coached all the way to a Division 2 state championship in 2006 and my wife and I were present at Bailey Field in Battle Creek to witness the magnificent achievement against Monroe Jefferson.
Cheri Ritz over the years has been the only Wayland coach to eclipse the gaudy statistics of the legendary Zack Moushegian, who won 434 varsity girls’ basketball games over 24 years and became a beloved legend in his own time. Cheri Ritz went beyond Zack by scoring her 800th coaching victory and by winning two state championships that eluded his grasp.
Yet Cheri Ritz doesn’t seem to get the same kind of fond public appreciation Zack always commanded by his mere presence. Zack had a forceful and compelling personality that added to his legendary and even revolutionary exploits, but the intensely private Cheri Ritz seemed for a long time to want to avoid the spotlight and was uncomfortable with attention.
The result has been that Cheri Ritz hasn’t really gotten all of the praise and appreciation her track record deserves.
This past spring, no matter how the chips fall, may be her finest achievement yet. Somehow, Cheri Ritz has managed to put together yet another team that exceeds expectations. Yet we shouldn’t be surprised. She does it almost every year.
Virtually all her players fiercely assert Cheri Ritz’s abilities as a softball coach are unrivaled. And sometimes we have to wonder just how she’s able to do it almost every year.
My only wish is that Cheri somehow would find the gift of gab that Zack had. If she ever finds it, she will indeed become a legend, not in her own mind, but in her own time.
PHOTO: Coach Cheri Ritz gets dumped on by Bethany Teunissen after winning the regional title at Hope College Saturday.