By Jean DePlacido
---- — PEABODY — After 33 years and 701 games, the end of an era for Peabody High girls basketball came yesterday afternoon when Hall of Fame coach Jane Heil announced her retirement.
“I always said I would know when it was the right time, and I feel it’s now,” Heil said at a news conference held in principal Eric Buckley’s office following a meeting with her team. “I believe I’m leaving the program in good shape for the future.”
Heil put Peabody High girls basketball on the map, making them both a local and state powerhouse first in the Greater Boston League and later the Northeastern Conference. Among the many highlights of her illustrious career is the 1984-85 season, when the Tanners won the Division 1 state championship.
She leaves with an overall coaching record of 528-173. Heil coached Peabody High for 18 years from 1977-78 to 1994-95, took four years off to watch her own two children, Kristin and Bobby, play, then rejoined the Tanners as head coach in 1999-2000 and proceeded to coach another 15 seasons.
Heil said she first started thinking about retiring last summer and talked it over with her family and staff, but didn’t make a final decision until a week ago. It didn’t really hit her until Tuesday when she sat down to write her retirement letter to athletic director Phil Sheridan and Buckley.
“I will never leave this program; it will be in my heart forever, and my life was made richer and better,” said Heil, who coached the Tanners to 17 GBL titles, one NEC crown, 27 trips to the Division 1 state tournament, two Division 1 North crowns and the aforementioned state title.
This past season, Heil guided the Tanners to a 16-6 mark before bowing to Central Catholic of Lawrence in the Division 1 North quarterfinals. In the team’s final home game in late February, three significant things happened: senior center Carolyn Scacchi reached the coveted 1,000 point mark for her career; Peabody won a tournament game for the first time in four years, and it marked coach Heil’s 700th game behind the bench.
Heil said there are three magic numbers in her mind. No. 1 is this year’s team, which she said will be first in her heart because it’s the last one she coached. The other two are No. 66 for her current age, and No. 33 for the years she coached.
Heil admitted she thought wins and losses were more important in her first 18-year stint, but came to realize it’s more about the lasting friendships you make. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003, but never missed a game or practice in that 19-2 season. She has said many times it was family, friends, and the girls on the basketball team that helped her get through it.
She was inducted into the New England Basketball Hall of Fame in 2004 and the Mass. Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame this last November.
The long-time coach said she couldn’t begin to put into words what the program has given her. She will remain on as a consultant until a new coach takes over.
The former Jane Appiani grew up in the gym watching her father, the late Leo Appiani, coach the Medford High team. She and her husband Bob started coaching together along with his sister, Karen Connolly, at Higgins Junior High (now the middle school). Bob Heil has been Jane’s assistant through the years.
Other longtime members of her staff (all present except Bob, who is recovering from surgery) are Diane Broughton, Stan McKeen, Jean Hallinan, Kristin Heil Papanickolas, Nick Papanickolas and Catie Cullen. Heil’s two beloved grandchildren, Angelia and Mike, were also on hand yesterday.
Describing Heil’s legacy, people used words like ‘caring’, ‘life lessons through basketball’, ‘passionate’, ‘do it up proud’, ‘family’ and ‘bleeds blue.’ Four senior players gave their coach flowers.
“We’re losing a coach valued throughout the community, but we’re gaining our No. 1 fan for the future,” said Sheridan, who told a funny story about the years he shared the Peabody High fieldhouse with Heil when he was the track coach. Somehow, they managed to remain friends while the two teams tried to practice at the same time.
“I know the program will move on because she’s established a base. Jane has been with us the better part of four decades and touched the lives of thousands of female athletes, coaches and parents.”
Through the years Heil has maintained close relationships with her former players. Last summer Denise Deshields Reynolds, who was a team captain during Heil’s second season coaching, stopped by to say hello when she brought her son to Boston to visit colleges. She is now a doctor in charge of 30,000 inmates in Texas.
“I’ve had the privilege to coach some amazing people over the years,” said Heil, who is also a terrific tennis player, a member of the Bass River doubles team (with partner Lorraine Benoit) that placed fourth nationally in the Super Senior National Championship in Arizona in 2010.
“MVP has taken on a new meaning; Most Valuable People. I’ve had so many, and it’s the kids I’m going to miss the most. I think maybe it’s time for a younger person, an energizer to take the job.”
Heil’s energy and passion for the game never wavered. She was like the Energizer Bunny patrolling the sidelines until her final game ended.