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Two Harbors coach celebrates 30 years with alumnae and family

Coach Rick Ray looks through an album of team photographs from the past 30 years Tuesday. Photo by Adelle Whitefoot.1 / 3
Rick Ray poses for a picture with current and former basketball players during the presentation on Dec. 26 before a girls basketball game. Photo courtesy of Chris Lemke.2 / 3
Rick Ray gets hugs from his current girls basketball team after receiving a plaque honoring his 30 years as a coach for Two Harbors High School. Photo courtesy of Chris Lemke.3 / 3

Every girl that went through the basketball program at Two Harbors High School in the last 30 years had Rick Ray as one of their coaches. Some of those girls, now women, came back to town on Dec. 26 to honor his many years as a coach.

Ray started coaching in 1985 at the age of 25. He was asked by his old football coach, and at the time athletic director, Chuck Halsted to be an assistant coach for the girls basketball team. Ray said that Halsted called maybe five or six times and he kept on turning him down for the job.

"The last time (Halsted) called he said that he needed me to coach and if I didn't they would probably have to fold the program," Ray said. "So I said I would give it a try, and once I got a taste for it, I was hooked."

According to Ray, his first daughter was just a year old at the time he started coaching and he was working as a welder. He started out at Husky Hydraulics right out of high school and when they left town he was hired at North Shore Steel. Ray said his boss at the time, Milton Larson, was very supportive of him coaching, allowing him to schedule his work weeks around away games.

"There were lots of times he would let me work what ever worked for me," he said. "If I had to leave at noon to catch a bus for an away game I would just make up the hours the next day. It was pretty nice to have an employer that will back you up like that."

After 13 years of coaching, Ray thought he would have to give it up when his wife got sick. She was diagnosed with cancer and in late 1998, she took a turn for the worse.

"I thought I was going to have to give up coaching to take care of my daughters, but my wife encouraged me to continue coaching," Ray said. "She said, 'What better way to take care of your daughters then on the court as their coach?' So I owe a lot to her."

His wife passed away in the fall, and when basketball season came around Ray was back on the court, his wife's words still fresh in his mind. Ray has three daughters and in 14 of his 30 years of coaching he had at least one daughter in the basketball program in Two Harbors. He even coached all three of them when they reached the high school level. His youngest daughter graduated in 2010.

It was Ray's daughter Abby Ray and current head coach Chris Lemke that played the event before the game last week. Abby Ray said that her dad mentioned to her before the season started that this was going to be his 30th year — and Lemke knew, too.

"We went back and forth on date and thought that Christmas would be the best time because a lot of people would be in town," Abby Ray said. "Chris had me contact as many of (Rick Ray's) old players to get them to come to the game."

The recognition ceremony was done before the game against Silver Bay started. Rick Ray said he didn't even expect a thing, even when he saw so many old familiar faces in the crowd before the game.

"When he was walking around the bleachers before the game, his two son-in-laws saw him coming and put up their hoods so he couldn't see him, and me and my sister ducked out of the gym with his grandkids under our arms so he wouldn't see us," Abby Ray said.

Rick Ray said he knew something was up only when athletic director Scott Ross called him to the middle of the court, while all the other coaches remained on the bench. That's when he noticed all the familiar faces in the crowd.

"I didn't expect a thing," Rick Ray said. "It's really weird, when you're on the floor you really don't notice people unless you're really looking through the crowd. You're just kind of oblivious."

Half of the gym was filled with alumnae that were coach by Ray — when Lemke asked them to stand up, it was an overwhelming number of girls. When Lemke asked anyone who was touched by Ray in a positive way to stand up, everyone in the gym stood up. That's when Ray lost it, he said.

"I had to turn around for a second to compose myself," Ray said. "It was really humbling. Chris (Lemke) did a great job talking."

Over the 30 years, Ray estimated that he has coached nearly 1,000 different girls and has served under six different head coaches who he said he wanted to thank. He coached the longest with THHS assistant principal Julie Benson, 16 years, and THHS athletic director Ross, 12 years. Ray was coaching with Ross when he had his heart attack in 2006. A week after getting out of the hospital, Ray was back on the court coaching once again, but since then he has been taking it one year at a time. Ray said he was once told by one of his coaches that if he could walk away from coaching and not miss it, then he'll know it's time to give it up.

"I don't think I'll ever be able to walk away and not miss it," he said. "I know I'll have to retire at some point, but I think even then I'll miss it."

When asked how many years he thinks he has left in him, Ray said he didn't know and that he's still just taking it one year at a time. His daughter, Abby Ray had a different opinion.

"After (the event) everybody asked me if he was going to quit anytime soon, and I think in 10 years we'll be back, celebrating 40 years of coaching," she said.

Adelle Whitefoot

Adelle Whitefoot is a Michigan native who moved to Minnesota in Sept. 2014 when she started as a reporter for the Lake County News-Chronicle. She graduated from Northern Michigan University in Marquette, Mich., in 2012 with a bachelor's in English writing and has been a professional photographer since 2011. Whitefoot is the night general assignments reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. 

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