Globe North Sports

After 40-year career, coach hangs it up with state title

Ryan O’Connor holds the trophy as Newburyport High players celebrate their Division 3 state championship win. Ryan O’Connor holds the trophy as Newburyport High players celebrate their Division 3 state championship win. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)
By Lenny Megliola
Globe Correspondent / June 26, 2011

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LYNN — He was meant to do this. He was sure.

How do you know, how can you absolutely be certain what you want to do for 40 years, when you’re just 15 or 16? Billy Pettingell knew.

Then it was over.

With two outs in the top of the seventh inning of the Division 3 state championship game last Saturday at Fraser Field in Lynn, Bill Pettingell turned to the Newburyport fans behind the dugout and gave an unpretentious fist pump. His Clippers were on top, 9-4, against Pioneer Valley. A lazy fly ball to right field was the final out. It was Pettingell’s 616th win, and his last. He had announced his retirement before the season.

His teams won 18 Cape Ann League titles, four Division 3 North crowns, and two Eastern Mass. championships. This was his first state title. Forty years, but no longer counting. “It was destiny, fate,’’ said Pettingell. “This year was so magical.’’ The Clippers capped a 23-5 campaign with 12 straight wins.

The lead was 3-2 before the Clippers scored four times in the bottom of the fourth. “I felt relieved after we got the eighth run,’’ said Pettingell. “The knot in my stomach disappeared.’’ Games always gnawed at Pettingell’s gut. “It was the practices I loved,’’ he said.

Practices were quiet retreats where he could teach the game. “He has such a passion for what he does,’’ said his wife, Elizabeth.

The Clippers grabbed on to their coach’s passion. “He cares so much,’’ said sophomore catcher Connor Wile. “If something was wrong, in practice or a game, he’d fix it right away. The whole year we wanted to win for him.’’

“He knows more about baseball than anyone else in the world,’’ said first baseman/southpaw ace Ryan O’Connor, who will pitch at Bentley next year. “I learned a ton from him.’’

Even with a five-run cushion, junior righthander Brett Fontaine felt the pressure to finish off the last inning, in the coach’s last game and with everything at stake. “I tried not to think about that,’’ said Fontaine, who threw 73 of his 108 pitches for strikes. “I didn’t want it to affect my pitching.’’

Pettingell had two idols growing up in sports-mad Natick, Walter “Butch’’ Hriniak and high school baseball coach John Carroll. Hriniak was three years older than Pettingell. They were from the same West Natick neighborhood, off Hartford Street. Pettingell used to follow Hriniak to the playing fields. “Walter’s still the best athlete in Natick history,’’ said Pettingell. Many old Natickites would support that notion.

“I wanted to be Walter,’’ he said. “He was a shortstop. That’s what I wanted to be.’’

Hriniak (class of ’61) starred in baseball — making it to the majors briefly — football and hockey. Pettingell followed him at quarterback and shortstop for Natick. His winter sport was basketball. “I tried hockey when I was 8 or 9, but I got hit with a puck and my toenail fell off. Then I discovered the nice warm gym at Cole School.’’

The Hriniak-to-Pettingell transition was seamless. “Things were going so well. We had Walter, then Billy,’’ said Jim Stehlin, the quarterbacks coach at the time.

Hriniak and Pettingell were also pitchers, Carroll using them mostly in save situations. Pettingell finished with a 12-1 career record. He saved a few games for righthander Joe Coleman who had a stellar big-league baseball career.

At Providence College, Pettingell started as a shortstop and wound up the Friars’ top pitcher, compiling a 7-1 mark his senior year. Two of his coaches in the Cape Cod League made their mark in other sports: Lou Lamoriello (hockey) and Dave Gavitt (basketball). “Both loved baseball and really knew the game,’’ said Pettingell.

He graduated from Providence in 1968, and waited for the phone to ring. “I thought I was going to get drafted.’’ He didn’t, so he went north to play pro ball in the Quebec Provincial League. “Each team could only have two Americans. It was a great experience. I played against Joey Jay, Tim Harkness and Felix Mantilla,’’ all former major-leaguers.

Stehlin had moved on to Newburyport, as athletic director and football coach. He hired Pettingell to coach the junior varsity baseball team. Two years later, he was the varsity coach. “Billy put together a program that would last,’’ said Stehlin, a Groveland resident. But who knew it would last for 40 years? “Billy just said ‘We’re going to be a successful team and here’s how we’re gonna do it.’

“When you say baseball in Newburyport, it’s Billy.’’

And when you say baseball in Natick, John Carroll comes to mind. “When I started playing for him as a sophomore, I knew I wanted to be a coach some day,’’ said Pettingell. “I said, ’I want to be like this guy.’ ’’ Hriniak, who became a famed hitting coach in the big leagues, idolized Carroll too. An unbreakable relationship existed with Carroll, Hriniak, and Pettingell.

Pettingell, a Newbury resident, was also an assistant football coach at Newburyport for 25 years and coached the golf team for eight years. He retired as a history teacher five years ago.

Now that his coaching career is over, his sentiments pretty much echo those of Carroll when he retired at Natick. “I feel blessed, privileged and honored to have coached all these kids at Newburyport,’’ Pettingell said after the championship game.

After the game, Wile seemed to already sense the post-Pettingell days. “It’ll be different without him. Very different.’’

Lenny Megliola can be reached at