The Journal Gazette
Wednesday, March 16, 2016 2:39 am

Tragedy molds USF coach

Greg Jones | The Journal Gazette

In his return to coaching, Jason Ridge considers himself a changed person. Unfortunately for the new Saint Francis women’s basketball coach, some of the differences have been brought on by personal tragedy and tough times.

It has, however, forged a new perspective on family, friendship and basketball as Ridge moves over not only to the college ranks after a successful run in high school, but also begins to coach females after a 20-year career guiding males.

Five years ago, while he was the boys basketball coach at Northridge High School in Middlebury, Ridge’s wife, Danelle, gave birth to triplets prematurely at 23 weeks. Two of the three babies died at the hospital, while Gemma, the last one delivered, had only a 5 percent chance of living.

"The issue with the triplets is a tough one," Ridge said this week sitting in his new office at Saint Francis. "Anytime you lose a child, it’s going to have a tough impact on you. Unfortunately, not only did we lose one child we lost another child the next day. In a lot of situations, it would be something that would be so devastating that it would be really, really hard to overcome. The thing that made our situation a little bit different was we still had another child."

Gemma, 5, has not only survived but thrived.

"She overcome a lot," Ridge said of his daughter, who spent four months in the hospital and has been back and forth some since then. "There’s no reason why Gemma should be alive today, and doing as well as she is. If you don’t know what Gemma had been through, you would not be able to tell that she had such a traumatic birth. She has been through so many things in her life, but she just keep going."

Eventually Ridge, 39, realized how much the experience and the inspiration of Gemma has meant to him and his family, which also includes older brother Marcus, 9.

"Both of my kids had an impact on me as a coach," Ridge said. "When we had Marcus when I was the head coach at South Adams, I remember it changed me as a coach because I started looking at the guys I was coaching as someone else’s son. I remember I wanted to treat their son the way I would want my son to be treated. But I will say that it changed my perspective on coaching.

"Now everything that happened with the triplets changed me in that ... we were so dependent on other people for so many things (food, financially); we were just really relying on people. We were going through something that was really tough, but the nurses and doctors and our friends just kept holding us up. I would say that’s the part of my life where I grew up the most because I gained some perspective on life. My first son gave me some perspective on coaching, and Gemma and everything that happened with the triplets gave me a different perspective on life."

After a three-year run at South Adams (20-41) and six years at Northridge (68-60, undefeated regular season in 2009), Ridge stopped coaching to further his education career. He became the assistant principal at Whitko for three years.

He knew, though, he wasn’t done coaching. He began as a volunteer men’s coach last year with Saint Francis and now is taking over a program from Gary Andrews that includes an NAIA Division II national championship a couple of years ago.

It wasn’t always part of the plan for Ridge, but one (deep down) he knew was coming.

"I have never been somebody who is comfortable with where I am at that moment," he said. "Even when I was going through the world of education, I wanted more, I wanted to be better and climb the ladder or whatever that would be. I really enjoyed my role as an administrator, and I enjoyed my role in public education. The thing that was the biggest part of my decision-making was I feel like I am a coach at heart."

It all started at the cradle of high school coaching for Ridge, a 1994 graduate of Wapahani High School near Muncie. Among other coaches, the school has produced Wayne Barker, Joe Bradburn and Chris Benedict, the latter for whom Ridge was an assistant for a dozen years at Wapahani and Columbia City.

College coaching, though, will be a whole new world for Ridge. One that he never dreamed about and even doubted would ever be a possibility.

"Frankly I never thought I would be good enough," Ridge said. "At one point in my life, I figured out that I might be pretty good at this, and I might have some opportunities that come with that.

"As I have grown up around the game, I do feel like I am good enough, and I will be able to hold my own."

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