It can a bit intimidating for a fellow when he takes over the head coaching duties of a program that has had one coach at the helm for over 30 years and enjoyed a high level of sustained success. When that veteran coach you’re assuming command from is your dad, well, it can be doubly problematic.
But that’s not how Mike C. Fritch felt 11 years ago when the baton was passed from his father, Mike Fritch, to his son after the elder had built the Raider boys soccer program into pretty much a perennial Naugatuck Valley League contender.
“I don’t know, I guess I didn’t really feel much pressure taking over from my father, I didn’t think much about it,” said the younger Fritch, as he sat on the bleachers overlooking the Raiders’ home turf field, who were set to begin the 2020 season and hopefully complete it without incident in this year of COVID-19. “What helped me was the fact that I was on the coaching staff for three years prior to taking the head coaching job, so I knew the ins and outs and also the players.” Throw in the fact that junior played for his dad at THS and was a standout (All-NVL his junior and senior seasons, All-State his junior and senior years, All-New England as a senior, and voted the NVL’s top senor his final year at THS) and it was indeed a natural for the younger Fritch to move into his father’s coaching cleats.
Mike Fritch, the dad, is a member of the Connecticut Coaches Hall of Fame and also the Torrington High School Hall of Fame. His boys soccer teams won 297 games during his tenure and his girls basketball teams have amassed over 400 wins.
The younger Mike Fritch was a star athlete at Torrington High beyond the soccer field. He played three sports until his senior season when he concentrated on soccer and basketball and put his baseball glove away. He averaged around 15 points a game as a senior guard for head coach Tony Turina’s team that made the state semifinals. After graduating from THS in 1995 he attended the University of Connecticut for two years before transferring to Eastern Connecticut State University. “I thought about walking on for the UConn soccer team but I didn’t,” Fritch said. He decided to transfer to ECSU where his soccer career was resurrected in a big way. He went on to play three years, 1997 through 1999 for the Warriors of the Little East Conference and made and All-Conference team.
“It went very well at Eastern,” he explained. “It is Division III soccer but at a very high level. We traveled some, to places like Virginia Beach and New Jersey, and it was a blast. Soccer was one of the reasons I transferred, in addition to academic reasons. College was fun and I still remain in touch with my teammates and roommates I had at Eastern. I had been away from really competitive soccer for two years but I was 20 years old and in good shape, so I made the transition to college soccer pretty quickly. My parents were thrilled that I was playing soccer again and they came to all my games, as they did for my brother Chris (played basketball at Suffolk University) and Erika (played basketball at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute). They loved following us in sports.” And well they should. All three Fritch children are in the THS Hall of Fame.
Chris Fritch earned All-NVL tennis honors four years straight, including a doubles championship as a sophomore and team championships all four years. He was All-State and All-NVL in soccer for two years; All-State and second-team All-NVL in basketball as a senior, when he was named NVL Athlete of the Year. He went on to a post-graduate year at Hotchkiss, leading the Bearcats to Founders League championships in soccer and basketball, winning the Hotchkiss Basketball Prize, then another four years of basketball at Division III Suffolk University in Boston as part of a team that won the Rams’ only Great Northeast Athletic Conference championship when Fritch was a sophomore.
Erika Fritch Pratt was All-NVL in basketball for two years on her way to scoring a thousand points and earning Torrington’s Outstanding Senior Award in high school. She was also All-NVL in soccer as a senior, earning the female half of the CIAC’s Scholar-Athlete Award for Torrington. Pratt played basketball for a year at RPI while earning dual BS degrees, then a Master’s in Education at the University of Bridgeport. She’s a junior varsity coach in her father’s Torrington High School basketball program, teaches math at the Torrington Middle School, and coaches its softball team in the spring.
The 43-year-old Mike Fritch is an eighth grade history teacher in the Torrington public school system and is athletic director at the Torrington Middle School. He is his 18th year as an educator in Torrington, 21 years in all at the job of teaching kids. He is married to the former Nicole Bastiaanse, an art teacher at the West District Elementary School in Farmington and the couple has two children Vanderee, a freshman member of the THS girls soccer team, and eighth grader Avalee, who also plays soccer and softball.
A member of the Board of Directors of Torrington Youth Soccer the younger Mike Fitch has been extremely active in the local youth soccer scene, one of the reasons being that he wanted to help create chances for young girls to play the game. “Nicole Minard had a group of young girls playing but once she stopped coaching there was a gap for the girls. There were no girls teams ahead of her team and none forming in the younger age. The older girls had a choice of paging with predominantly boys teams and after awhile they drifted away from the game.”
He continued, “Joe D’Addona and I got together and started working to create more playing opportunities for young girls in town. And here we other people who helped a lot getting it going as well. We now have in-house teams for girls the lower grades and a travel team for the older kids. I think we sent eight girls to Mario’s (THS girls head coach Mario Longobucco) team this year and for awhile he was getting very any new girls coming in with experience. It’s worked out well for the girls.”
Of course, along the way Fritch has done a splendid job with the THS boys, at one point leading the Raiders to three NVL championship games in a row. His overall coaching record in his first 10 years is 103-72-11. His 2012 team went 13-6-1 overall, the 2013 club went 18-3 overall and set a school record for wins and shutouts, and the 2014 team was 16-4-1, giving the Raiders a gaudy 47-13-2 mark during that magical three-year span. Twelve players he has coached have made All-NVL, seven have made class L All-State, and two have been named to the All-New England team.
“We haven’t won a league championship but we had some very good teams during the last decade, and some very talented players that went on to play in college. Maybe the best team, I’ve head was a team that was the 2013 club and we got the quarterfinals of the state tournament against Pomperaug. We had a very strong defense at that time and we were up 2-0 at halftime. But they came back and we wound up losing. That was a tough one.”
Dad offered some thoughts on his son as a coach. “He has great rapport with his players. Having many of them as students is a major plus. His teams have been fit and prepared for each season, which in turn has gotten them to post season bids. I knew prior to retiring that the transition would be seamless. The reason being the way we tended to work together during our seasons together. Additionally is knowledge and experiences he had as a player greatly enhanced his coaching style. His knowledge of the game, his ability to demonstrate, organizational skills and mostly his vision of the game and how it is moving forward. We talk at times, but mostly about certain players or plays during a game. He has surrounded himself with a excellent staff to assist in player development. I just like to sit back and enjoy the game of soccer.”
The younger Mike Fritch has always tried to make his players understand the importance of teamwork and sharing the ball. He’s a proponent of the controlled passing game and working the ball around to set up a breakaway of quality shot for the forwards.
“I tell the kids to watch foreign soccer on television” Fritch said. “Just watch one game and see how the ball is moved around the field and how the players always have proper spacing. The best players, like a Mesi, will give the ball up knowing that they will get it back if they come open. I get a lot of ideas for strategy watching the foreign teams. At one time high school soccer as kick the ball and run to it. That works sometimes and I’m not saying you can’t be successful doing that at times. But I like the kids to work the ball to one another to develop the attack. Not only does everyone touch the ball but that style of play wears the other team down because they have to chase you all the time.”
Fritch is also a big believer in indentifying the players on his teams that can be counted on as leaders. “Sometimes it isn’t always the best player who can be a team leader, often it isn’t. But the player has to be smart and vocal and respected by his teammates. Also, I have learned that some kids need pushing and some kids don’t respond to that, so you have to treat every player as an individual.”
Torrington is coming off a 9-6-1 season but lost 10 seniors to graduation, including six starters. “I’ve got a lot of hard working kids and some good young players coming up through the system and I think we can be successful this season,” which would mean at least a .500 record and a trip to the state tournament.
Hopefully, there will be a complete season and a state tournament, but whether that happens is anybody’s guess right now. Torrington had been working out since mid-summer, taking proper precautions and social distancing during training. “We’re proceeding as if we will have a season,” said Fritch in early August. “I hope we can play because I felt real bad for the seniors who had their seasons cut short in late winter and in the spring when sports shut down because of the pandemic. For most of those kids, they might not play competitively again.”
He explained that the pandemic affected his family interactions. “My parents were in Florida when it hit and they drove back here making only stop. I and my brother and sister didn’t see our parents for several months, our kids didn’t see them as well. It was tough. But we finally got together a short time ago. We felt it was time and that things had quieted down and become safe. It’s been a difficult time for everybody.”
If things go well, Mike Fritch and the Raiders will create make some fun times on the field for themselves, parents and fans this fall. Wouldn’t that be a welcome relief?