One of the first ‘faces of the franchise’ for the Kitsap Pumas when they arrived in late 2008 was Scotsman James Ritchie. He’s been in the coaches circle ever since, becoming one of the more recognized Pumas in the eyes of fans. Supporters / writers Alison Slow Loris and Ian Logan look at Ritchie’s career so far and wonder out loud about what could be next.
by Pumas supporters Alison Slow Loris and Ian Logan
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Once upon a time James Ritchie hoped to become a goalkeeper for a pro soccer side in his native Scotland. He’d started playing at age seven, always in goal, and though he knew at 5’ 9” he wasn’t tall enough, he could dream—until a bad knee injury at age twenty-three reduced his slim chances to nil. His job in a government ministry might be secure and well-paid, but could never satisfy the soul of a young man whose first love would always be football. Today 30-year-old Ritchie, has a different dream: to become head coach of the PDL Kitsap Pumas. That goal—for the man who has served as one of the Pumas’ assistant coaches from Day One; for the man who took over the Olympic College men’s soccer team, turned their sorry record around and shepherded them into the playoffs for the first time ever—just might be within reach.
Pumas owner Robin Waite recently announced that previous head coach Pete Fewing, who led the Pumas to the PDL Championship this year, would not be returning in 2012. Now Waite is reportedly considering Ritchie, along with unnamed others, for the job. We got our first hint of this last month when, meeting Waite in the stands at an OC match, we asked if he was scouting future Pumas.
No, he replied; he was there to observe Ritchie’s coaching style.
Few Kitsap fans may know that Ritchie was just the third member of the Kitsap Pumas organization. In August 2008 Waite, a former part-owner of the USL Sounders, was laying the groundwork for a professional soccer club in Kitsap and had just hired Ben Pecora as general manager. Pecora had been working with Ritchie at a Bainbridge youth-soccer camp, and thinking Ritchie would be invaluable in setting up youth camps for the Pumas, introduced him to Waite. But Waite wasn’t ready to talk about camps until the pro team was up and running. Instead, he hired Ritchie as the first member of his coaching staff, and asked him to design the tryouts. Later Waite added Andrew Chapman, Peninsula College coach, and later still, signed John Wedge as head coach. As a Pumas coach, Ritchie has specialized in goalkeeper training.
Coaching the PDL team, however, is just a fraction of Ritchie’s work for soccer in Kitsap. He did in time set up Pumas youth camps, and in January 2010, he began coaching the Olympic College men’s soccer side, with brilliant results. Besides deepening his coaching powers—much of his work until then, apart from the Pumas, was with adolescents—the job provided opportunities Ritchie was not slow to grasp, for recruiting and developing potential future Pumas.
Recruitment and development are very close to his heart, and the Pumas have greatly benefited from his talents—signing the brilliant midfielder David Gray comes to mind. An even younger find of Ritchie’s, Scottish teenager Ross Leebody, was OC’s top scorer in the 2010 season, and is now Ritchie’s assistant coach at OC. We’d be very surprised not to see Leebody on the PASL (indoor) Pumas’ soon-to-be-announced roster, and we expect him to make a good showing at next spring’s PDL Pumas tryouts.
Also in 2010, with Coach Fewing’s encouragement, Ritchie initiated the Pumas Reserves, a group of talented college and high school lads who play a summer season against regional amateur teams. (The Reserves matches, by the way, are highly entertaining, pitting the passionate if sometimes rather raw Pumas youngsters against older, slower but often much craftier players. When the Reserves win, it’s often in a scramble that teaches them a lot about getting themselves into and out of trouble.) Having the Reserves in place paid off when, late in the 2011 PDL season, with one goalkeeper injured and the other red-carded, the Pumas had to pull a third keeper out of a hat and came up with the promising Reservist Casey Collins—whom we also may see on the indoor team.
Ritchie’s journey from Linlithgow (near Glasgow) to Bremerton involved stints coaching in Missouri, Cape Cod, and Bainbridge Island, interspersed with returns to the Glasgow area, gathering credentials and friends along the way. One friend, Vladimir Simic, brought him to high-ranked Missouri Valley College as an assistant for two years. After returning to Scotland and injuring his knee, Ritchie poured his love of soccer entirely into coaching and began picking up his formal coaching credentials. Next came two years in Cape Cod with the Ultimate Soccer Academy, under Coach Paul Turner who had led the Cape Cod Crusaders to the PDL championship in 2002 and 2003. Then, just for a lark, he took a position coaching youth teams on Bainbridge, where he met Pecora.
After several years in Kitsap, Ritchie says that while Scotland will always be “home” he is comfortable here and in no hurry to leave. (The climate is much what he’s used to, and at seven degrees south of Glasgow’s latitude the winter darkness is not an issue. With maturity and a settled domestic life, Ritchie’s formerly rash demeanor on the sideline has improved. Having heard of past eruptions of his temper, including a near-brawl with an equally hot-headed opposition coach, we had to ask if he thought he had mellowed out in the last few years. He laughed and said he still wants to win as much as ever, but he doesn’t feel the need to yell so much at his players or at their opponents. Having more confidence, he thinks, in both himself and his players, has made for a slightly calmer Coach Ritchie. He insists on self-control from his players too. “My boys know better than that,” he said of swearing and other displays of temper, adding rather ominously, “They know what will happen to them.”
Perhaps he has mellowed just a bit, but the fire is by no means gone, as we saw during a recent OC match. An OC goal that would have tied the match was disallowed as offside, and Ritchie on the sideline went what in a milder man we’d call absolutely ballistic. He did not, however, actually buttonhole the ref or the opposing coach, confining himself to arm-waving and furious muttering.
Ritchie’s not quite sure how to describe his personal style as a coach, but says every coach has, or should have his own style. He often disagreed with Coach Fewing’s decisions, and said so—but then as Fewing himself liked to point out, if you’ve got four coaches that always agree with each other, you’ve really only got one coach. One element of Ritchie’s philosophy, which seems to be in tune with the prevailing bent, is to encourage flexibility. He wants his players to try out different positions, to “improvise and adapt” rather than locking themselves into one role. He speaks with admiration of 2011 Puma Elliott Fauske as “your classic utility man. You give him a job to do and he does it.” We recall seeing Robbie Christner excel in midfield as well as at forward, and hazard a guess that Coach Fewing and Coach Ritchie saw eye to eye on this topic.
Finally, Ritchie doesn’t just coach players now; he coaches the coaches too. A member of the National Soccer Coaches’ Association of America, he’s active in developing young talent in the coaching field as on the playing field.
There are other candidates for the job of Kitsap Pumas head coach, and some may have better credentials, but Ritchie offers some unique advantages. He knows the team as no outsider can—and we do hope to see at least a few of our most beloved core players back next year. He’s willing to live here, too, and we saw the strain placed on Fewing by the commute from Seattle. Ritchie remains quietly hopeful that he’ll continue to be a part of the club at least. Does he think he’s got a real chance to become the Pumas head coach? Yes. Do we think he deserves it and can make a go of it? Again, yes.
Ritchie’s Olympic College men’s side, in O.C.’s first-ever post-season action, have advanced to the semifinals of the NWAACC (Northwest Athletic Association of Community Colleges) playoffs, after road victories over Clark (0-1) and Edmonds (1-1, 5-6 PKs). O.C. faces Highline this Saturday at Starfire Sports Complex in the first of the two NWAACC semifinals.