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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Toughest loss

Sutton High School players carry on without beloved coach

SUTTON -- The best nights are those freezing Fridays when the winter wind whips around the steeples and silos and the high school gym -- full of friends, neighbors, sweet sweat, and love -- is the warmest place in town.

Small-town high school kids remember those nights for the rest of their lives . . . the night a senior captain hit a shot from the corner to send the game into overtime . . . the night a sophomore guard stole the ball to clinch a conference title . . . the night a nervous freshman came off the bench to make a couple of clutch free throws.

When the game is over and the gym is empty, the players walk to their cars under an infinite black sky that city kids never see. As their still-wet hair crystallizes, the ballplayers drive to the local pizza joint, then swap stories that they'll still be telling a generation later when their own kids are wearing the same colors for the high school team.

And if they're lucky, they'll have a coach like Stephen Romasco, a coach who meets and marries another teacher in the school and stays in the same town, coaching the same team, for more than 30 years. They'll have a coach who teaches history and runs clinics in the summer and raises his three kids with the same structure and kindness he showers on his students and his ballplayers. They'll have a coach who is respected by the entire town. They'll have a coach whom they come to think of as a second father, a coach who teaches them to be the young men they were meant to be.

Oh, did we mention winning? They'll also have a coach who wins 435 games, 13 Dual Valley Conference titles, seven Clark Tournaments, and three Central Mass. titles.

Coach Romasco will not be on the bench tonight when the Sutton High School Sammies play West Boylston at home in a quarterfinal District E, Division 3 state tournament game. On Feb. 20, Coach suffered severe headaches in the first half of a Clark Tournament game and left the gym via ambulance. Only 57, and fit as a marathoner, he died of a cerebral hemorrhage the next day. The whole team spent that night in senior Brian Sampson's kitchen, crying and telling Coach stories until 5 a.m.

The Sammies (named after Old Sam Sutton, the grizzled, gun-totin' Civil War cartoon figure who serves as town mascot) went back to Clark two days later, trailed, 20-4, early in the game, but came back and won. Coach was buried in the West Sutton Cemetery the next day. The Sammies returned to Clark and won the tourney last Saturday night. That was the night the entire starting five from Romasco's first team (1973-74) came out to honor Coach and watch his last team. That was the night the basketball rolled out of bounds onto the small shoes of Coach's wife, Kathy. She said it felt like a kiss from Coach. She picked up the ball and tossed it to senior guard Jamie Dahrooge. She said Jamie winked at her. Must have been another sign from Coach.

Now they are back in the state tournament and they are the top seed (19-2) in their bracket.

"We want to win it in his memory," said Sampson. "We want to bring him out on top."

"Coach always taught us what to do in situations," added senior forward Peter Sachs. "He didn't do much yelling during games. It was all about being prepared. So that's what we're doing now. He prepared us." . . .
Take the Mass. Pike (west) out of Boston and go all the way to Exit 10A, which marks routes 146 and 20. Follow 146 south toward Providence. Shortly after the abandoned drive-in theater, turn right onto Boston Road. You'll see Tony's Pizza up the hill on the right. That's where the Sammies will be after tonight's game ("Tony's is quality," said Dahrooge). You're just 2 miles from downtown Sutton, a hilltop village along the Blackstone and Mumford rivers, once home to numerous farms and small mills. It was founded in 1704 and settled in 1716.

The Sammies wear Sutton's colors: green and white. Green for summer. White for winter. The Sutton High School girls are the Suzies.

You might as well be in Grover's Corners, N.H. There are no stoplights in Sutton. You'll know you're downtown when you hit the intersection of Boston Road and Uxbridge Road. Polly's Antiques (closed) is on the right and the town common -- complete with gazebo and war memorial -- is on the left, opposite the First Congregational Church. On the far left corner, you'll see the Town Hall Building, which is adjacent to the Police Department. The Town Hall also houses a fire truck, rescue vehicle, water tanker, and forestry truck. It's next door to the Sutton Historical Society Museum, which is inside General Rufus Putnam Hall (1823). On the Town of Sutton Community Bulletin Board is this message, "Burning Begins on Jan. 15." That means it's OK to set a match to your leaves, brush, or anything else that grows on your land.

Sutton Town Clerk Laura Rodgers has answers to all of your questions. Sutton is 34 square miles, the population is 9,259, and the town has eight full-time police officers, two full-time firefighters, and 42 volunteer firemen. Government is open town meeting and there are five town selectmen. Bordering towns are Millbury, Grafton, Oxford, Douglas, Northbridge, and Uxbridge. Don't be alarmed by the sign indicating a road to Purgatory. Uxbridge Road will take you to Purgatory Chasm State Reservation. It's where glacial ice passed through Sutton 14,000 years ago.

Like everybody in Sutton, Laura Rodgers knew Coach. He was her high school history teacher. That was a while ago, but she won't say what year. Even the town clerk doesn't have to give you that information.

Out of the Town Hall, back on Boston Road, you pass St. Mark's Catholic Church and Singletary Farm and then, at the intersection of Putnam Hill Road, you see the marquee standing proudly in front of the old "Sutton Memorial School" facade. Gift of the class of '93, through the years the school sign has boasted of state soccer champs, bake sales, and car washes. Now it features five strong, sad letters . . .

"COACH"

It's a powerful introduction to Sutton High School, home of the Sammies. . . .
Stephen Romasco was born in Worcester, raised in Whitinsville, and graduated from Northbridge High School and Assumption College. He never played varsity basketball. In 1970, he came to Sutton High to teach history. A year later, on the first day of school, he met a new teacher, fiery-eyed beauty Kathy DiGregorio. They married in August 1974, which was after Steve's first year coaching the varsity basketball team. The program was in tatters when Steve took over, but he taught his players how to run the floor and press the opposition. He taught them about commitment, teamwork, sacrifice, and sportsmanship. He made them wear jackets and ties to games. He made them think like winners and look like winners, and pretty soon they were winning. Almost every game. He founded a youth basketball program, coaching the younger brothers of his players. Later he coached a few of their sons.

"He was like a father to me," said Bob Grasseschi, class of '90, Sutton's all-time scoring leader (1,252 points), who has taken over as Sutton's head coach. "I say that to everyone. It's just unbelievable what he did here, what he did for all of us. We have this great tradition, all these banners, and it's all because of him. Like everybody else, I had him in middle school. He was just an amazing teacher and philosopher."

All of the Sutton public schools are on the same site, so Coach was easily able to find Kathy, a third-grade teacher and mother of their three children. Chris, the oldest, played for Coach, and the Sammies went 80-13 in his four years. He's 24 now and a financial planner. His sister, Catie, is a junior point guard at Wellesley (she was an extra in "Mona Lisa Smile") and she brought the whole team home to watch the Super Bowl with her parents last month. Steve loved the Patriots. And like every coach, he was inspired by the old school nature of Bill Belichick's champs.

Alex, Steve and Kathy's middle child, was born with a rare neurological disorder (ALADD -- Aromatic L-Amino Acid Decarboxylase Deficiency), which took away his speech and most of his muscle functions. He was home-schooled after he turned 12 and died last summer at age 22. Everyone who knows Steve and Kathy -- and that would be every person is Sutton -- was inspired by the love and care they showered on Alex every day of his life. A spiritual woman, Kathy believes Alex's life and death helped her prepare for Steve's sudden passing.

The Sammies are holding up as well as can be expected. They keep it light by telling stories about Coach. Brian Sampson smiles when he talks about how Coach could never remember the name of the best player on any team they were preparing to play. Patrick Belniak remembers Coach converting him from hockey to basketball when he was in the eighth grade. Tim Winn remembers how Coach would tease him about stepping on the 3-point line and turning a three into a two. They've been playing together since fifth grade, and at home they've all got drawers full of shirts and ribbons from Coach's summer camps. A lot of them have marked their game sneakers with tributes to Coach and Alex.

Senior Deryk Largesse is a Coach legacy. His older brother, Dan, was part of a Sutton class that won three Clark titles in four years. As much as any kid in Sutton, Deryk grew up in the gym, watching his brother, watching the Sammies, waiting for his turn to play for Coach.

The gym will be packed tonight. State tournament. First home game since Coach died. It's going to be emotional. There'll be an empty seat at the front end of the Sammies bench. West Boylston will pay tribute to Steve Romasco and his family. Maybe someday the Sutton school committee will name the gym after him.

"It still seems weird that he's gone," said Sachs. "I come to practice and I almost think he's going to be there. I guess it will settle in more when the season is over."

In 2004, Stephen Romasco said, "The constant over the years has been the kids. Some people say kids have changed, but I think they're exactly the same as when I started. The players I started with were great and really receptive to coaching and the kids I coach now are still that way."

The best high school coaches always say this. Times change. Kids don't change. Some kids are just luckier than others. They get to grow up in a sleepy town like Sutton and they get to play for a coach like Stephen Romasco.

Donations to the Stephen Romasco Scholarship Fund may be sent to Sovereign Bank, 335 Main St., Oxford, MA 01450.

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