To Cleveland & Back: The Journey To Coaching Back At My Alma Mater

Written By: Pieter Ritz

Michael Corleone once poignantly said in the Godfather part III, “just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!” In a much different (and much less negative context), the pull of Cleveland State and the sport of swimming was very similar for me. When I first began studying at Cleveland State, I actually had no intention of coaching swimming. My goal was to become a screenplay writer and director, live in Brooklyn, and strive to have the same success as some of my film idols like Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan. I tell recruits all the time that sometimes goals change and I couldn’t be happier that mine did.

Before my senior year after a summer practice in July, my college coach, Wally Morton came up to me and said the words that all athletes get instant anxiety from, “hey Pieter can I see you in my office?” I was racking my brain to remember what I may have done wrong at that moment or what else it could be about. Needless to say, it was the conversation that would start my path into coaching. I sat down in his office, Wally looked at me and said, “okay, let’s have that honest conversation. In a little over 7 months, college swimming will be over, and let’s be honest, we’re not going to become a pro in swimming (he was very right, that wasn’t going to happen). What are our plans for what we’re going to do?” I told him how ever since I could remember, I wanted to be a filmmaker. However, during my time at Cleveland State, I realized it wasn’t what I wanted to do anymore and that I wanted to explore coaching. I remember flat out asking him, “how does one end up a swim coach with a film degree?” Wally, in his usual cut to the chase mode told me “I don’t know, but we can figure it out.” Ever since that conversation, I pretty much knew that I wanted to end up in coaching, and maybe somehow someway, I could come back to Cleveland State and pay it forward.

As with all “back to where it started” stories go, the journey to come back to Cleveland State took me all over the country. I got my coaching career started as a Graduate Assistant at Henderson State University under Coak Matthews, and then worked as a volunteer assistant at Florida Gulf Coast University in my hometown Fort Myers, Florida under Neal Studd. Working with both programs helped mold me into the coach I am now. Coak was so gracious to teach me what worked so well for him over his long career and valued my independence while I worked on my own to figure out things like season planning and recruiting. Working with Neal I was able to learn how a top mid-major program operates and the work it takes to continue to be at the top. I was fortunate to be a part of a team that had a record showing at the CCSA Championship meet which led to a historic NCAA Championship meet for the program.

That historic year at FGCU was helpful as I searched for my first full-time coaching position. If I can give any advice to any of those volunteer coaches or graduate assistants looking for their first full-time position, patience is key. I interviewed with various club teams and college programs. Near the end of the summer, I was fortunate to interview with Mandy Commons-DiSalle at the University of Cincinnati. Mandy was coming off her first year as head coach of the program and was looking for a new assistant coach. At the time, Mandy was one of only a few female co-ed head coaches in the country. After I spoke with her on the phone and visited campus, I knew that was where I wanted to be. Fortunately, she offered me the job and I was officially a full-time swim coach.

A few people commented to me how it could be an “adjustment” working for a female head coach. My mother has worked in higher management for a company in Florida my entire life, and the age group coach that helped me turn my swimming from splashing around to a serious career was female. For me, working under a woman in charge was nothing new. During my 4 years at Cincinnati, I was able to learn and grow from a great head coach, regardless of gender. Mandy is THE most organized person in athletics I’ve ever met. When I first got to UC, I thought I was decently organized, but I learned very quickly I had much to learn. As I said before, Coak and Neal were instrumental in guiding me into coaching, but Mandy guided me on how to be a professional. Mandy was instrumental in helping me understand the balance the duties that comes with being a full time assistant coach: recruiting, swim camps, training, and working with administration. As she helped me to become a better professional, Mandy was always quiet about the accomplishments and achievements she earned. During my time as her assistant, I cherished the opportunity to be her “hype man”, of her accomplishments and accolades with fellow coaches and recruits.

Now, I’m back in Cleveland, working as an assistant coach where it all began. I’m working for a new female co-ed head coach, Hannah Burandt, which has made me become one of the very few that have worked for two female co-ed head coaches. It’s been great taking on a new challenge in my coaching career: being a part of a brand new staff. Hannah has made it clear from the first day that her program will be different, and she values what I’ve learned along my coaching path to help build that program. It’s been a pleasure to work with her as she seeks to know what traditions have been with the program, and what new traditions can be built to help the program to soar to new heights. One of our current divers is going through the film program now, and it’s funny to learn of his experiences with some of the same professors I had, or even how one of the professors used to be a classmate of mine. Away from the pool, it’s great to be back closer to old friends and teammates, people who have become more than just fellow swimmers, but family. Now that I’ve been back for a little over a year and a half, I’m finally able to accomplish the goal paying back what Cleveland State gave me over my time as an athlete. I cherish those opportunities to speak with the athletes and ask, “what’s the plans for the future?” further helping to complete the conversation I had with Wally years earlier, and complete the journey back to Cleveland State.

Cleveland State head men's and women's swimming & diving coach Hannah Burandt announced the hiring of Pieter Ritz, a CSU alum, as an assistant coach in August 2019. Ritz helped the Vikings to numerous successes in his first season at the helm. He helped both the men’s and women’s programs to runner-up showings at the 2020 Horizon League Championships. On the women’s side, Ritz helped the Vikings to the best showing by a CSU squad at the league meet in seven years, in terms of both placement and point total. The Vikings had tied for third in the preseason poll, but CSU not only surged ahead of the team it was tied with but also leapt past the preseason runner-up when it was all said and done. The CSU men won six titles at the league championships with Ritz’s assistance, the program’s second-best mark over the past seven years. Timothy Kubacki and Dominic Poletta both won a pair of individual HL titles while the latter subsequently won two individual titles at the National Invitational Championship. Ritz helped the Vikings as they broke school records in five swimming events, three men’s and two women’s, in his first season. Combining the men’s and women’s teams, CSU surpassed NCAA qualifying marks in five swimming events and posted 89 swims during the season that rewrote the all-time top-10 lists at CSU. Ritz, who brought seven years of collegiate coaching experience back to CSU, returned to his alma mater as he swam for the Vikings from 2008-12. Ritz's most recent coaching stint saw him spend four seasons as an assistant coach and the recruiting coordinator at the University of Cincinnati, playing a significant role in helping turn around the fortunes of both the men's and women's programs. After placing last in the league in the season prior to Ritz's arrival, the men's program won their first two conference championships in program history as the Bearcats won the 2018 and 2019 American Athletic Conference titles. On the women's side, Cincinnati went from a fifth-place effort the season prior to Ritz's arrival before garnering back-to-back runner-up finishes in his final two seasons. UC claimed seven individual men's swimming titles at the 2019 AAC Championships while a Bearcat also was named Men's Most Outstanding Swimmer for the first time in school history. During the 2017-18 season, 25 Bearcats were named All-AAC while eight claimed individual conference titles as the UC men won a conference championship relay for the first time. Outstanding individual efforts were not uncommon in Ritz's tenure at UC as Jacqueline Keire was a First Team All-American and won back-to-back AAC Most Outstanding Swimmer honors while Chris Bready became the first male Bearcat to qualify for the NCAA Championships in seven years in 2017. Ritz served as the site director for the USA Central Zone Swimming Select Camp and also led the organization and planning of the Cincinnati Swim Camps. Prior to Cincinnati, Ritz spent one season as the volunteer assistant coach at Florida Gulf Coast University. During his time at FGCU, the Lady Eagles were crowned conference champions in 2015 and qualified seven women to the NCAA Championships. The Eagles' 200 medley relay team earned First Team All-America status with their finish at NCAA's. Ritz began his coaching career as a graduate assistant coach at Henderson State University where he oversaw recruiting and managed the scholarship budget. During his two seasons at Henderson State, the program sent a total of six student-athletes to the NCAA Division II Championships. Ritz was a four-year letterwinner for the Vikings, where he earned the swimming program's Leadership Award in his senior season. He also served on the Student-Athlete Advisory Council for three years at CSU. A native of Fort Myers, Fla., Ritz graduated from Cleveland State with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 2012. He proceeded to earn a Master of Science degree in sports administration from Henderson State in 2014.

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