Shook steps down as Danbury wrestling coach

A legend has stepped away from Danbury wrestling.

Ricky Shook retired as the Hatters’ head coach earlier this school year, leaving a program which he had guided for the past 23 years.

Shook, who has moved to North Carolina, made the decision to step down after selling his house, but didn’t say much about it to his team this winter.

Apparently, it was not a well-kept secret among the Hatters.

“I kind of kept it quiet because we had things to accomplish this year wrestling-wise,” Shook said. “We went through the year, I didn’t say a word, and at the last practice, I said ‘guys this is my last practice.’

“They said ‘Oh, we know. You’re moving to North Carolina’. So it wasn’t like a big secret with our wrestling guys.”

Danbury athletic director Chip Salvestrini said replacing Shook, a Danbury alum, won’t be easy.

“I’ve always felt that with Ricky, he’s a college coach in a high school program,” Salvestrini said. “There’s definitely going to be a transition from the old to the new. You don’t replace a coach like Ricky Shook; someone of his caliber. We’re going to be hiring an individual that is a disciple of Shook but is going to learn on the job.

“Coaching a technical sport like wrestling, the coach is paramount. You’ve got to have somebody who’s really built on the technical aspect. Ricky was second to none with that.”

There’s always a question about what constitutes a sports dynasty, but the Danbury wrestling program certainly fits the bill.

In 22 seasons, Shook led the Hatters to 21 FCIAC, 18 CIAC Class LL, and 17 State Open championships, as well as two New England crowns. He had a career record of 391-25 for an eye-popping winning percentage of .940.

In Shook’s final season, Danbury was 11-1, won an 11th consecutive FCIAC title, and shared the Class LL championship with East Hartford.

Shook has been inducted into four Halls of Fame, including the National Wrestling Connecticut Chapter in 2013, the CTHSCA in 2016, and FCIAC and New England in 2018. He has been the National Wrestling Coaches Association’s Connecticut Coach of the Year four times.

Shook was a Hatter wrestler in the Class of 1983, going 58-5 and winning two FCIAC and one Class LL championship. He also wrestled four years at Central Connecticut State University with a record of 65-20.

He rejoined Danbury as an assistant coach from 1988 to 1998 before taking over as head coach for the 1999-2000 season.

Danbury’s success, Shook said, rests with a foundation that was built several decades ago.

“When coach (Mike) Morris was there, he hired all the right people,” Shook said. “I was one of them and we had John Nimock and Mark Tolla; we had a lot of ex-wrestlers. Morris got us all involved and it just kept evolving from there.”

“I ended up taking over in 2000 and just expanded it even more.”

Shook said that Morris, who coached the team from 1979 to 1991, had the “best saying of all” for Hatters’ wrestling: “Morris started the program, Nimock made us good, and I made us famous,” Shook said.

One of his most remarkable feats came this season, as he was able to get the Hatters back to their usual lofty heights after a year off due to the pandemic.

“Coming off of COVID, it was tough for everybody,” Salvestrini said. “But just the manner in which he went after it and got our kids back to the level where they could compete at a high level was amazing to watch.”

Salvestrini said the school has been looking at coaching candidates for the past couple of months, and should make a decision in the next couple of weeks.

“We want to give the new coach an opportunity to get somewhat up to speed when November rolls around. When Ricky resigned, talking to the principal and the powers that be, we said let’s try to get this done before the summer time, so we’re on schedule to do that.”

Shook told Salvestrini during the wrestling season that he was going to retire, although the athletic director made a few attempts to get him to stay.

“I always told Ricky you’re not going anywhere till I retire, and he’d laugh,” Salvestrini said. “I tried to talk him out of it, but you could tell after a while, he was ready. All we could do is support his decision and he went out the way he wanted to go out.”

Shook is confident the Hatters’ success will continue. He plans on staying in touch with the high school program, as well as some of his college wrestlers, such as Jakob Camacho, AJ Kovacs and Ryan Jack at North Carolina State, and recent graduate Kai O’Dell, who will be heading to Appalachian State.

Shook has already found a club in North Carolina and said he’s been there twice a week, and he’s also planning on seeing some Danbury kids in the Nationals in Virginia next year.

For the Hatters, Shook said he’s “just a phone call away.”

“We hopefully have the right guy in place and it will continue,” Shook said. “I think they’ll be an even better team coming up, and we have the right people running the youth right now.

“Everybody keeps asking me what are they going to do? But it’s all in good hands and I think it’s all good.”

david.stewart@hearstmediact.com; @dstewartsports