Tom Ritari apologized for being so long in returning this call Wednesday evening, saying third and fourth graders occupied his time — little dribblers as he calls them.
At 76 years old, Ritari has been engrossed by the game of basketball ever since graduating from Edinboro (Pa.) University in 1968. He’s been coaching for 50 years and plans to keep mentoring this fall and winter.
“It’s something I had a passion for,” he said. “I’m pretty decent at it, playing. It’s been a big part of my life.”
He’s a Conneaut native, giving back to his hometown — coaching the Spartans girls basketball program for the third time this upcoming season. The first time was a one-year stint, while the second ended after the 2006-07 season.
“Conneaut has always been good to me,” Ritari said. “I know the people here very well. It’s like any small town. You know a lot of people, and end up coaching a lot of their kids. It becomes a family kind of setting.
“People look out for you. They watch out for you. They pretty much take care of you.”
Ritari, an Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Fame inductee in the mid 2000s, was the Ashtabula County Coach of the Year in 1999-2000 and 2000-01 when his teams went a combined 41-6.
Five Division I athletes played softball and basketball and ran track at the collegiate level.
“We were very well blessed with a great group of girls,” Ritari said.
When does he know he has a good player on his hands?
Ritari remembers when he had open gyms, seeing who would be picked first and second for teams. That would be a telltale sign, along with many others.
“It’s not really a gut feeling, but when you watch a kid that can score the ball very well, despite what the situation is, you know you have a player,” Ritari said. “When you have a player that gets a ton of rebounds because she wants the basketball, you know you have a player.
“You watch those kids in open gyms, you see them. You watch the seventh and eighth graders. They have that same desire, hustle and attitude toward the game, you know you have a player.”
Attitude is the key factor. He said those with a good attitude can do something — even with a bit of natural ability.
Ritari coached boys teams as well, along with a five-year stint in South Carolina coaching girls basketball.
“I’ve always found girls easier to coach than guys because they listen and they attempt to do what you’re asking them to do for the most part,” he said.
He last coached varsity basketball with Jeff Compan at Pymatuning Valley. The Lakers were undefeated in the Northeastern Athletic Conference, and Ritari coached the defense for this girls team in the 2017-18 season.
It was his 50th year in coaching.
“I told Jeff that was enough,” Ritari said. “Fifty years was enough for me.”
This year’s Conneaut team starts practice on Oct. 22 as girls from soccer, volleyball and tennis come aboard this Spartans program.
There are no expectations for this year’s team, he wants to see how they develop the rest of this fall into the season.
“I don’t even want to see them in the gym when they’re running other sports,” Ritari said. “You concentrate on the sport you’re playing.”
For now, he’s developing the youth of his area trying to prepare them for a possible high school career on the hardwood. If those in third grade stay through the program in sixth grade, Ritari said those players will have played 40 games and learned the fundamentals.
“We’re hoping to grow an interest in basketball and carry that through as we get the sameness through the entire program,” he said.