By Bill Kirk
---- — ANDOVER — Two dozen pink balloons swayed in the cool evening air, held aloft by the members of two different teams from two different towns who stood as one around the circle in the middle of the field.
As the members of the Danvers and Andover varsity field hockey teams stood silently under the lights of Lovely Field last night, Danvers’ first-year head coach Jill McGinnity read a moving tribute to Colleen Ritzer, the Andover woman who was murdered Tuesday at Danvers High School, allegedly by one of her students.
“Hello everybody,” she said over the loudspeaker, taking the microphone in the press box from longtime Andover High School sports announcer Bill Drummond. “I’m going to try to do this without getting too emotional.”
Her voice cracked as she spoke about Ritzer, who taught many of the girls on the Danvers field hockey team. Ritzer’s brother, Dan, and sister, Laura, a senior at Andover High School, stood in the stands and watched as the event unfolded.
“This is a perfect setting to remember a sister, a daughter, a teacher and a friend,” McGinnity said. “Colleen had a huge and positive effect on everyone. Let’s pay her memory forward and live by her words: Be kind, smile and find the good in every day.”
Her words brought tears to most of the 100 or so people in the stands and on the field.
“Let’s have a moment of silence as the players release the balloons in honor of a beautiful person,” she said. After a few moments, she said, “Here’s to you, Miss Ritzer. You may release the balloons.”
They rose into the night sky, trailing their strings behind them, as if in slow motion. Everyone stood quietly and watched as they disappeared into the darkness.
Drummond, who taught math to Ritzer while she was a student at Andover High School, took the microphone.
“We’ll never forget this night,” he said.
Back on the sidelines as the game got underway, McGinnity said she felt it was important to play the match, even though some people thought the game should have been canceled.
“These kids needed this,” she said. “It’s a team. It’s a way to come together and lean on each other. They need to lean on each other.”
She said she was struck by the fact that the two teams were playing their last games of the season against each other: the town Ritzer was from against the town where she worked as a math teacher.
“It’s crazy to think about why we would be here,” she said, noting that her students, many of whom were taught by Ritzer, are trying to stay positive. “They are paying it forward. She was a very special person.”
For the Andover players, it was senior night — during which the 12th-graders on the team are honored by the underclassmen. Many of the players didn’t even expect to have a game last night, according to Andover head coach Maureen Noone.
“I think it’s nice we can help out,” she said before the game. “We were going to cancel Senior Night, but the Danvers coach said, ‘absolutely not.’”
Instead, the seniors from Andover presented the seniors from Danvers with bouquets of pink flowers before the game. All the players from both teams wore pink ribbons in their hair.
Leigh Keefe of Andover, the mother of sophomore field hockey player Brenna Keefe and the organizer of Senior Night, made pink “Ritzer Strong” signs, which she hung up on the outside of the concession stand. Later, members of both teams would gather for refreshments following the game.
“Pink was Colleen’s favorite color,” Keefe said.
Many of the girls on the field hockey team also play ice hockey with Laura Ritzer, she said.
Earlier in the week, on Wednesday, Principal Chris Lord postponed the field hockey game against North Andover so the Andover players could attend a vigil in Danvers for Ritzer.
“All the girls decided they wanted to go to the vigil,” Keefe said, adding that Ritzer’s death deeply affected the Andover players.
On Wednesday, the teammates got together and went to one of the captain’s houses and baked. Then a couple of them took the food to the Ritzer family’s house, where they were warmly greeted.
“They are all doing amazing things,” she said.
Several Danvers parents were touched by the ceremony.
“It was very classy for Andover to do that,” said John Papamechail, whose daughter, Nicole, is a senior who plays goalie. He said his daughter had Ritzer as her math teacher last year. When news of her death hit, he said his daughter was “devastated.”
Most of the kids didn’t want to go back to school yesterday, the first day classes resumed following Ritzer’s death Tuesday night. But, he said, Danvers High School handled things well.
“The principal has been unbelievable,” he said, referring to Susan Ambrozavitch. “Everything is from the heart.”
He said counselors at the school really helped the students cope with returning.
“My daughter is doing surprisingly well,” he said.
Another Danvers parent, Sean Birmingham, said it was a rough week for students and parents, but that the game, and the ceremony preceding it, were a great way to end it.
“Coming back to where she was born and where she went to high school, two communities coming together, what a great way to celebrate her life,” he said.