LOWELL — Something wasn’t the same a few minutes after the North Andover High boys basketball team, one of the state’s top 10 teams for much of this winter, lost a tough game to Brighton High yesterday, 64-59, at the Tsongas Center.
Knights coach Mike McVeigh was hugging several friends and family members, including his wife Jackie, daughter Erin and son John after the game. These weren’t consoling hugs after a tough loss. These were longer and firmer hugs ... the kind you see after a life-changing event.
Well, a few minutes later after leaving the locker room, McVeigh repeated to a dozen writers what he had told his team.
“I am retiring as coach,” said McVeigh, who still had a tear on the outside of his left eye.
Surprising? Not really. McVeigh has been doing this for 31 years. He retired as a teacher at North Andover High a few years ago.
But after doing one of his best jobs this winter in his illustrious career with the Knights — 497-176 record — it caught a few of us off guard.
“I decided about two months ago,” said McVeigh, whose last team finished 19-5 while making it to yesterday’s Division 2 North sectional final. “I had a great talk with my team. I told them, as a veteran coach, I know how hard this meeting is after a (state tournament) loss. I could see the hurt in their eyes. I told them they had a right to be hurt.”
Talk about going out on top.
McVeigh admitted a particular piece of breaking news last year probably ensured he had at least one year left in him. That was when it was decided North Andover High, after 40 years in the Cape Ann League, would be re-joining the Merrimack Valley Conference.
He needed to be there on the sidelines as this group entered uncharted waters.
“When they threw us to the lions in June, putting us in the Large Schools Division (with Central Catholic and Andover), I met with the team,” said McVeigh. “I told them, ‘I’m going with you!’”
That he did.
And what a ride he took his team and his town on. McVeigh’s team not only competed with the best, they beat them all, including Central Catholic in a stunner, 58-52, and Andover, 73-50.
Both victories got the surprising Knights a sniff at the top spot of the MVC standings. They shared the MVC Large title with Central when the Raiders lost to Lowell.
“I am so lucky to have played for Coach McVeigh for four years,” said senior guard Derek Collins, who scored 16 points yesterday. “He taught me to be a man. I grew up a lot because of him.”
McVeigh appreciates the kind words, but he said he couldn’t have done it without a few key people that were standing only 20 feet away.
“You can’t do this job for 31 years without that group of people over there,” said McVeigh, referring to his wife, daughter and son. “They’re support is why I was able to do this. I am so lucky.”
McVeigh isn’t the only lucky one. The town of North Andover and its high school are lucky, too.
He not only leaves having brought North Andover basketball to another level, but he did it with class.
Now it’s time to be a full-time grandfather — Didn’t it seem like he always had a grandchild in his arms after a game this season? — and full-time basketball fan. Maybe he’ll be an unpaid assistant at Brooks School for his son, John, who loves the game as much as he does.
“What a ride!” said McVeigh. “I’m so proud of this town and how they support what we’ve done. I will still be around. I will always love this game and this school.”
E-mail Bill Burt at email@example.com.