By Sam Goldman (Photos courtesy of MPH)
Header Image: Mr. Ridall yells instructions at the traditional Red and White Day egg toss.
The clock hits 11:05 a.m. Students flush out of their classrooms, trudging through the hallway on their way to tutorial. In an attempt to soak up every last minute of free time, some instead pile into Don Ridall’s office to enjoy a few minutes of laughter, counselor-level advice or the occasional excerpt from his extensive collection of anecdotes. The chatter echoes throughout the main lobby.
Many minutes pass before students realize they have an important test or essay they could be preparing for. When they leave, Ridall often delivers one last piece of advice, a joke, or something for students to ponder. No matter how stressed they are, they’re more likely than not to leave his office with smiles on their faces. It’s been this way for 42 years. In that time, Ridall has grown to be more to the MPH community than gym teacher, coach and athletic director. He’s become MPH’s dad.
“Mr. Ridall is a good person to talk to, and whenever I have problems I just go into his office and hang out with him during tutorial,” said Brittany Grund, who transferred to MPH this year. “I’m very close to him even though I’ve never had him as a teacher, which I think tells a lot about him as a person.”
Some even say he is the essence of MPH.
“Mr. Ridall means everything that MPH embodies,” said senior Lizzie Mafrici.
Sophomore Ronaldo Chen, a soccer player and international student from China, can be found in Ridall’s office every day—in fact, many times a day.
“He plays a role of a father in America, since my parents aren’t here,” said Chen, who is in his first year at MPH.
As the longest-serving faculty member at MPH, Ridall knows a little more than the average student about the history of the school and the students who have gone through it. Since 1976, Ridall has taught and coached thousands of students while winning 555 games as the boys varsity soccer coach. His victories rank him second in all-time wins among coaches in Section III.
He has coached MPH to 39 sectional tournaments, six sectional titles, four regional titles, one state runner-up finish and two state championships. He’s been awarded Coach of the Year honors eight times in Section III, three times in New York state and once nationally.
He is well-respected by the local soccer community.
“He is an excellent tactical coach and has always gotten the most out of his players,” said long-time Christian Brothers Academy Athletic Director John “Buddy” Wleklinski, who has known Ridall for 30 years. “As athletic director he has earned the respect of his colleagues. He has demonstrated tremendous passion for his chosen profession, so it is easy to see why he has had such a successful career. I would like to think that MPH really appreciates all that he has done over the years. I would assume that he has left some very big shoes to fill.”
At the beginning of the school year, Ridall began to transition out of his role of athletic director. While he will continue to teach, coach and chair the Physical Education Department, he will also work with the Advancement Office in alumni relations.
Jim Ryan, who will take over as athletic director, said an employee like Ridall is rare.
“You can kind of draw a comparison … in a lot of ways to Jim Boeheim at Syracuse University,” Ryan said. “You’re not going to get somebody to stay at a corporation or an organization for 30 or more years anymore. Most people will go and work someplace for five or 10 years; that’s kind of the nature of the professional workplace now … It’s very rare to have somebody and interact with somebody who’s been here for so long. He’s created a lot of great memories for a lot of students and student-athletes.
“You never wanna be the guy who replaces the legend.”
And alumni describe him as just that: legendary. They also used words like passionate, competitive, loyal, dedicated and motivating. Former soccer player and 1980 MPH graduate Mark Egan said that Ridall instilled in him confidence, direction and purpose that allowed him to grow into the person he is today.
“Plain and simple, Don believed in me,” Egan said in an email. “He was/is a true life coach in every sense of the word. At the time, he may not have known it, and I surely didn’t, but his winning attitude, work ethic, positive outlook, and … [stay-the-course] mentality … helped me become a believer. He made me want to be a better person, player, teammate, [student-athlete] and classmate.”
While Ridall’s office door is open to all, there’s a special spot in his heart for his soccer players, and he’s known for delivering inspiring stories and speeches to them, pushing them to the next level both on the field and off.
“He preaches and instills qualities like leadership, dedication, discipline, and accountability into his team each year,” said former MPH soccer player and 2016 graduate Joey Cerio. “As a result I find myself projecting these attributes [onto] both my athletic and academic life every single day, and I am confident that they will remain with me forever.”
Ridall knows how to inspire a soccer team: he’s been doing it since he served as a captain to his high-school and college soccer teams up to coaching present-day. Although his methods are sometimes outside the norm, it seems like he’s been around long enough to know how to work the kinks out of his players.
This past fall, he inspired his players by digging a hole symbolic of the losing streak the team had. Ridall inspired the team to fill the hole and turn the season around. And they did: with each win, they scooped a shovel full of dirt into the hole, ultimately leading them to qualify for sectionals.
Another instance of Ridall’s interesting coaching methods was when a past team was very talented, yet had issues with certain individuals’ egos. He had players write their names on pieces of paper and then toss them into a fire where they “burned their egos.” The team went on to have a successful season after that.
Luke McKenney, who played for Ridall in the 1980s, has one particular memory about Ridall’s methods. As a freshman playing varsity, McKenney liked hanging out near the goal to talk to the seniors on the field, even after Ridall would call him to midfield. One day, Ridall kicked a ball that took one bounce and hit McKenney in the gut.
“Trust me, I never hung around the seniors after that one,” McKenney said.
When Ridall speaks, there’s no fact-checking to be done, no questioning his methods. His experience, past, and successful record are enough evidence for anyone. Ridall often speaks of the brotherhood of his soccer players, telling them they have brothers they haven’t met yet.
Last fall, when the soccer team went to Tully’s to celebrate their sectional qualifiers win, they ran into Eric Spevak, a member of Ridall’s first MPH team. Spevak eagerly offered his wisdom to the players and congratulated them on bringing the program back to its standard of making sectionals.
But long-time assistant coach Tony Venezia and others said that for Ridall, it’s about more than just winning.
“He puts the well-being of his students and athletes above all else,” Venezia said, “including winning.”
Coaching was a career Ridall had a lifetime to prepare for.
At the young age of 13, he knew exactly what he wanted to do in life. Born in Lysander, a small town with just over 6,000 people, Ridall grew up during the 60’s and 70’s, which was a time of freedom, creativity, and limited distractions. Ridall often played variations of kickball with the neighborhood kids, ran between houses playing hide-and-seek tag, and organized tournaments at the young age of 7.
Growing up, his uncle influenced him. He was the first of his family to attend college and then became a physical education teacher in Watertown. When Ridall was in seventh grade, he shadowed his uncle at work. Ridall knew from that visit that he wanted to be a physical education teacher and that he wanted to go to college at Cortland, just like his uncle.
During his freshman year at Baldwinsville High School, he began playing soccer and baseball and running indoor and outdoor track, discovering his love for organized sports. Ridall carried on this passion at the collegiate level for two years at Auburn Community College and then for three years at the State University of New York at Cortland, where he competed in varsity soccer and track.
After graduating from Cortland, Ridall followed his intended path and taught physical education at Oswego High School for one year before taking the job at MPH. Ridall was hired as a soccer and track coach as well as a physical education teacher. Two years later, he became athletic director.
Ridall has chosen to stay at his position for so long because his students are his inspiration.
“Probably the main thing is being able to work with young adults,” he said. “See the growth they make and hopefully instill in them some positive work attitudes, work ethic, dedication and things like that. And not only to improve, but [to] enjoy themselves.”
Other job offers came in over the years at both the high-school and college level, but Ridall chose to stay put while his two children attended MPH.
“Well, for me, it was the ideal situation for my children,” he said. “It was the right place for them to be.”
Cady Ridall, a 2016 graduate, said her father has put his all into MPH.
“He works so hard day in and day out to create this warm and welcoming persona that so many people have come to love,” she said in an email. “The only con I can think of as having my dad be regarded as this ‘celebrity’ is sometimes I felt he was more popular than me. (Which he totally loves.)”
The door to Ridall’s office is rarely closed, but when it is, it shows notes from students that say, “Mr. Ridall, you made my day,” and “Mr. Ridall, you’re awesome.” Below these is a sign reading “Safe Space: All students deserve a safe and welcoming school environment.”
Ridall’s office truly is a safe space where anyone is welcome to take a break from the drama of high school and have a conversation with someone who will listen, someone who takes interest, and someone who cares about the kids here at MPH.