One year shy of her 40th season and two wins shy of 400, legendary Amesbury coach Gail Kelleher is hanging up her whistle and walking away from the sport she has been so successful at for the last four decades — field hockey.
Of course it was never about the numbers for the Newburyport Wall of Fame field hockey player dating back to her own playing days for the Clippers so many years ago. Kelleher said it was all about the program — the one she had built up into a CAL powerhouse, winning 15 league titles in her tenure — and her feeling was it was time to get some fresh blood to reinvigorate Amesbury field hockey.
"I knew we had a young group coming up real soon, but last year we only had two freshman players, which was a very unusual circumstance because ever since the CAL allowed schools to have freshman teams, we've had more than enough numbers to have a freshman team," Kelleher said. "The program needs to be built up in order to get going again. There's no middle school program, and to get back where it has been historically I knew was going to require a good-size effort, so I thought maybe we should get some younger blood.
"Also knowing we had a solid incoming freshman class, I knew I would have a real hard time knowing those kids are there and then walking away. So I said here's a little blip and maybe I should step out now," Kelleher said. "The hardest part for me is leaving the incoming seniors; that makes it very hard to leave. But it just seemed like no time was going to be great and this time was going to be best."
According to Kelleher, the biggest issue in resurrecting the Amesbury program, which for the last four seasons has finished a modest 36-28-9 since 2005, will be to get the youngsters in Amesbury out playing field hockey again from an early age.
Having given up the in-town intramural program to participate in the River Rivals program with Robin Volpone, Kelleher said Amesbury just has not taken to the program like other towns and hopes the new coach can really get things going again in Amesbury.
"I'm hoping that a younger coach can reach out to the younger kids because that seems like a blip with us," Kelleher said. "The River Rivals program started about four or five years ago, and when that started, we stopped intramurals. But in Amesbury, it hasn't caught on like we hoped it would. Somehow we want to reach out to younger kids and get then on board a little earlier."
But in giving up her coaching gig, there still are the memories: the big win over Watertown in 1998 that led to a North sectional title — one of three North sectional titles her teams would eventually capture. The state title game in the early '80s with Nashoba in which Amesbury tied in the score line, but lost because Nashoba had more possession in the Indian circle. And of course the people she has influenced and been around in those many seasons, the players and coaches.
"I have so many memories, but two things stand out; the players as a whole from the greatest athlete to the hardest workers or just the kids that played for four years because they loved the game, and I've been so lucky with my coaches," Kelleher said. "I find that more in field hockey the players have just a love for the game that is so apparent long after they play they still talk about that love.
"As far as coaches, fairly early I got kids to coach for me that played for me, and that was an awesome thing," Kelleher continued. "Coaches have been the nitty-gritty of this program, and it's so great to roam the sidelines with them."
Although Kelleher said she wants to give the new coach some space, she said there was no way she could completely walk away from the game and the school she has loved for the last 39 years.
"I can't imagine being too far from the games and that feeling," Kelleher said. "I can't go cold turkey. My heart will be there, and I have a feeling I will be in the background somewhere."