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MIKE CLARK: Ridgley has reservations about Hammond school changes
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MIKE CLARK: Ridgley has reservations about Hammond school changes

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News travels fast these days, and sad news travels faster.

So it didn't take long before the calls and texts started to blow up Gary Ridgley's cell phone out in sunny southern Nevada.

Ridgley is enjoying retirement after relocating to the Las Vegas area following a long and successful coaching run at Clark. From 1973 to 2005, he taught and coached at the Robertsdale school whose days may be numbered.

Last week, Hammond superintendent Scott Miller unveiled a proposal to close two of Hammond's four public high schools after the 2020-21 school year. The following fall, a new, still-unnamed school going up now on the Hammond High campus will open its doors. Miller's pitch is for that school to take in all students who now would go to Hammond and Clark, along with some of Gavit's students. The rest of Gavit's kids would go to Morton, which would be the only current Hammond public high school to survive the change.

Miller also offered alternate plans that would preserve the four-school status quo, but made clear his preference for the two-school proposal. The latter plan already is getting pushback in the south Hammond neighborhoods around Gavit, and you can expect similar reactions on the other side of town.

Ridgley has been through this already. He graduated from Hammond Tech, which was the city's last public high school to close, in 1982.

He knows how a school can be a focal point for a community, from Friday night football and basketball to plays and band concerts and so many other activities.

It also can be a point of pride every time folks walk by the trophy case with its sectional and conference championship hardware.

"I think of the little things," Ridgley said. "It's going to be sad. All of those trophies and plaques for some of those teams are going to go by the wayside."

Ridgley was as responsible as anyone — and more than most — for all the success those awards represent. He coached the Pioneers to five sectional titles in baseball and girls basketball, and to multiple conference championships in football.

His teams were known for their scrappiness, an attitude Ridgley and his staff encouraged.

"Because we were a small school, we really tried to push the issue of Goliath vs. David," Ridgley said,

Often that was literally true. Ridgley's two sons, Randy and Ryan, weren't even 100 pounds when they got to high school. Randy, who was 5-foot-4, 89 pounds as a freshman and 5-6, 140 pounds as a senior, nonetheless wound up setting numerous school records in passing. Ryan was a North-South All-Star by the time he was a senior.

Ridgley wonders if the same opportunities will be there for undersized kids when there are only two Hammond high schools, each with more than 1,800 students.

"It's wonderful to have a nice, big school," he said. "But what's that going to do to some of the marginal (athletic) kids coming into high school?"

Ridgley coached multiple sports at the same time because he loved the competition. That spirit is embodied in his own kids, and all the others he guided during those three-plus decades.

Probably no sport showcased the Pioneers' grittiness better than baseball, where they had a distinct home-field advantage when the winds were howling off Lake Michigan.

"I don't think I ever coached a game at Clark without a hooded sweatshirt and a jacket," Ridgley said.

"That was the reason for our philosophy. We always worked extremely hard on defense, throwing strikes and scrapping out hits. We had many games 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2. It's the end of the game, it's 32 degrees — nobody's going to hit a long ball in that situation."

And if Clark and Gavit do shut down in a couple years, nobody will hit a long ball ever again at the wind-swept field on Hammond's far north side.

Mike Clark can be reached at 219-933-4197 or michael.clark@nwi.com. The opinions are the writer's.

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