By Dan Guttenplan
---- — When Glen Gearin accepted the athletic director job at Amesbury High in 2011, the athletics program was in need of an overhaul.
At the time, an Amesbury resident was in the midst of a court case stemming from an attempt to illegally force an Amesbury basketball coach to resign. Other Amesbury residents had started online petitions calling for the ouster of other Amesbury coaches. The boys basketball was 21-111 in the previous seven seasons. The girls basketball team had won a total of five games the previous two seasons. The hockey team was 6-67-6 in the previous four seasons.
Just two school years later, Amesbury is experiencing somewhat of a renaissance in the athletic department. Once-proud programs like hockey and baseball have become more competitive since Gearin’s hire, and the girls and boys basketball teams both qualified for the state tournament this season.
Gearin attributes the success this school year to a strong senior class of athletes.
“It’s a great group of seniors,” Gearin said. “They were a group of strong leaders and athletic kids. The younger kids on the team looked up to the seniors. It has to start there, and then the other kids follow. The juniors and sophomores participating at the varsity level made for some well-rounded teams.”
Gearin’s theory that the program’s success was the result of a strong group of seniors holds water when considering many of the same athletes starred on teams during multiple seasons. For instance, many of the Amesbury athletes who led the football team to its first Cape Ann League title since 2008 also played on the basketball team that made its first state-tournament appearance in over a decade, and the baseball team that qualified for the tournament for the first time since Gearin’s hire.
On the girls’ side, many of the top athletes in the senior class played soccer, resulting in the first undefeated regular season (15-0-2) in school history. That capped off a decade of improvement under coach Cathy Berry, who started in 2002. Berry’s teams never won more than five games until 2008. The Indians earned state tournament berths each of the last three years as this year’s group of seniors made significant contributions at the varsity level.
“The coaches put in a lot of time with the kids and emphasize doing things the right way,” Gearin said. “They want the athletes to take accountability and responsibility for their actions.”
Hockey coach Chris Kuchar has certainly instilled that mentality since taking over in 2011-12. Rather than focus on the team’s performance on the ice in the beginning, he stressed to his players the importance of developing as individuals off the ice. Kuchar pushed community service and involvement in the community.
This year’s hockey team had two senior captains who received a multitude of honors since their playing careers finished. Senior defenseman Lucas Townsend received the Sanborn-McGrath Award for leadership and community service. He completed a service trip in May in Haiti, where he built houses ravaged by an earthquake. He also received scholarships from the Positive Coaching Alliance Triple Impact initiative and the Hood Milk for sportsmanship. Senior goalie Evan King was the CAL representative for the MIAA/Boston Bruins Sportsmanship Award. He also received an ROTC Scholarship, as well as the Lt. Scott Milley Award and Scholarship.
“I didn’t really know what was in place before I got here,” Gearin said. “The thing I know from being involved in sports is you need a connection between youth and high school programs. That’s another thing we’ve tried to do.”
Gearin has implemented youth sports nights in football, basketball and soccer. Young athletes from the youth programs are invited to share time with the high school players, fostering mentoring relationships among Amesbury residents.
“We want to show the youth kids what we’ve got,” Gearin said. “The high school kids get a kick out of it. When we first did Youth Pop Warner Night, the Amesbury Jets and cheerleaders brought about 200 kids for the night. It was great for the high school kids to see that. We put on a show and gave them the spotlight.”
Other Amesbury programs that have historically struggled to compete in the Cape Ann League — like tennis and track and field — also had strong seasons. The Amesbury girls tennis team set program records for wins and set victories. The girls track team had a strong showing in the championship meets, leading coach Ernie Bissaillon to be named CAL Coach of the Year.
“I didn’t know many of the coaches before I got here,” Gearin said. “The people in place now are working hard. When they ask for stuff, we get it to them. We try to facilitate them to be the best in their jobs. We ask them to give 100 percent when they’re coaching. When the coaches do right by the kids, and the kids see that, there’s mutual respect and admiration. That’s what we’ve had here lately.”