As time expired on the clock in the third period at the 2022 AIA Wrestling State Championships, Cienega senior Ritchie McCormack looked up at the scoreboard, nearly in disbelief. After grinding to keep improving following a runner-up finish the previous year, he had completed his revenge tour.
“I remember a coach of mine when I first got into high school told me there are only two days that are going to feel better than that moment,” McCormack said. “Your first child being born and your wedding day. I don’t know what the others feel like quite yet, but I know this is one of the greatest feelings in the world, for sure.”
Dropping to his knees as he was overcome with emotion, McCormack couldn’t believe he had finally done it. With his little sister cheering loudly for him from the front row of the stands, he had brought home the gold. She was the first person he looked for in the stands after it started to sink in.
“I really can’t put into words what I was feeling,” McCormack said, reflecting back on the moment. “I finally got up after falling to my knees and seeing my teammates run onto the mat celebrating with me, I can’t even find the words to quite describe that.”
After starting the school year feeling he had a lot left to prove, McCormack had accomplished the final goal on his list. Just a few days before, he had marked off another significant goal when he signed his LOI with Chadron State, a D-II College in Nebraska, where he will join the football team as a linebacker next season. Everything was finally coming together for him after his years of sacrifice and hard work.
— Andy Morales (@AndyMorales8) February 20, 2022
McCormack’s journey to the top of the podium to close out his career wasn’t an easy one. This class of seniors continues to feel the lingering effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Not only did they spend a significant amount of time away from the classroom, but they also were impacted by the shutdown of athletics in Southern Arizona.
It still doesn’t take into account the current landscape of college athletics with the transfer portal and the vast number of players with immediate eligibility looking for a new home. Those players all impact the number of scholarships available for players in the 2022 class.
Despite all of the extra obstacles thrown at him over the course of the last four years, McCormack was able to beat the odds and write his own storybook ending.
“It’s a blessing,” McCormack said. “Covid’s given me extra time to keep working, keep staying motivated and get my head on the right path.”
When news of the widespread virus first rattled the country and shut down schools, McCormack used the time to take a deep look at what he could do to continue bettering himself. Instead of sitting around letting time pass him by during the shutdown, he did everything he could to keep pushing himself on his own. If his number was called this football season, he wanted to be ready.
Unfortunately, the students in the Vail Unified School District were just a fraction of the thousands of high schoolers across the state who would barely get a chance to compete, if any. Due to the high numbers of the virus being reported across certain zip codes, district officials felt it was in the best interest to cancel all athletic events.
For McCormack, the news came as a crushing blow. Taking away the chances to both growth through competition and get film for his reel to send to coaches, it would also send him into his senior season with a large number of teammates who had never played in a varsity football game.
Shortly after the new year, it was announced former Cienega football coach Pat Nugent would be leaving the Bobcats to start up the newly opened Mica Mountain program. The news left a number of players rattled, but McCormack looked at it as a fresh start and welcomed it with open arms.
“I feel like a lot of people looked at it as a setback, but I looked at it as a better chance to succeed knowing we were all equals to this coaching staff,” McCormack said.
Immediately after wrestling season concluded last March, McCormack was back to work preparing hard for the upcoming football season. Not only putting in the work with the program, he also was taking the additional steps to work with speed coaches and spend extra hours in the gym improving.
“I could tell this kid was a tremendous player that everyone spoke highly of,” Cienega football coach Justin Argraves said. “Going into the season, I mean, this kid was just a monster in the weight room.”
Keeping his head down and working hard every single day, McCormack led by example for the Bobcats.
“He brings tremendous energy into the weight room when you watch him and what he does,” Argraves said. “He just came in, did everything our strength coach, Coach Early, asked of him and the kids fed off that energy.”
Soaking in everything he could in the offseason, McCormack was ready when he took the field this year. Helping to lead the offensive attack as a running back, he also was recognized numerous times throughout the season for his defensive work as a linebacker.
“Not only was he having to learn a new offensive playbook, but a new defensive playbook,” Argraves said. “He excelled on both sides of the ball and kind of was the heart and soul of our team.”
Despite being a two-way starting player for Cienega in the fall of 2021, the lingering impacts of the 2020 shutdown were still hurting McCormack. Little film from the previous season to send to coaches was one of the biggest setbacks, especially when coupled with the current situation surrounding the transfer portal.
“I had no film to send to anybody, and just was very under-the-radar,” McCormack said.
In hopes of garnering additional attention from other schools, McCormack started working with Rodney Cox of Gametime Recruiting and Consulting.
“With this whole Covid thing and, you know, they call them the ‘super seniors,’ it’s limiting,” Cox said. “Colleges were being super picky because now they can go in the transfer portal.”
Many believe McCormack is the type of player who would have previously gotten the chance to play for some of the smaller D-I programs prior to the shift within the landscape of college athletics. Cox, who started as a walk-on at Arizona State before earning a scholarship and starting position, understands all too well what it’s like to be overlooked. It’s part of what made the journey together so special for the two of them.
While Cox was able to bring in more offers for McCormack, he ultimately decided on Chadron State, making it official in February.
“Chadron State actually happened to be the first college to come in contact with me, ever, right before my senior season,” McCormack said. “One of the coaches from Chadron State was invited to come watch one of Cienega’s practices and the next night, I got a message from him on Twitter. Things really took off from there.”
“He’s one of those loyal guys, and they were one of the first teams,” Argraves said. “It just shows his character…A very loyal, stand-up young man.”
While signing an NLI to play football at the next level was one of McCormack’s remaining goals on his high school bucket list, he still had one other major one to tackle; The State Wrestling Tournament. His years of hard work, dedication to the process and his legacy would all come down to this.
“It was very stressful knowing this was my last chance,” McCormack said. “I had a very good chance my junior year at taking home the title, but some things got in the way and I ended up falling short by a point to a very great wrestler. I knew I’d never get this chance back.”
Staying focused for the duration leading up to the tournament to make weight and throughout the entire weekend, McCormack said he never let his mind drift elsewhere. The only thing he would think about was his next match, which is what he credits with getting him through the weekend.
Just as he would any other year, McCormack has already shifted his attention to preparing for the upcoming football season. After finishing up at school, McCormack still takes time out of his day on his own to continue training every day. He also is focusing very hard on finishing up school with honors, currently carrying a 4.3 GPA.
Leaving Cienega brings up mixed feelings for both McCormack and his teammates and coaches. While both are excited for what’s next to come, they know things will not be the same without his presence on campus.
“Ritchie is one of those individuals that you really can’t replace,” Argraves said. “I mean, everyone will remember the name Richard McCormack and his association with Cienega High School and what he did here. Hopefully, people can strive to be like the type of young man he is.”
McCormack is also taking this time to enjoy some of his last weeks at home with his family. His younger brother, who is a sophomore, also plays football at Cienega and his younger sister has been inspired to follow in Ritchie’s footsteps and take up wrestling.
His hope is for his siblings to see what he’s been able to accomplish and be inspired to chase their own dreams.
“I feel like my siblings both have way more potential than me,” McCormack said. “I kind of just wanted to lay the foundation for them, whether they choose their path in wrestling, football, whatever. I just wanted to set the example that if they work hard they can achieve whatever they want.”
Brittany Bowyer is a freelance journalist who started her career as an intern for a small sports website back in 2015. Since then, she’s obtained her master’s degree in Sports Journalism from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at ASU and is in her fourth year of covering various levels of sports across a broad range of platforms in Arizona. You can follow her on twitter @bbowyer07