Valley News – East by Northwest: Bristol swap coach boys football in Seattle for Thetford

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THETFORD – Bob Bristol is expected to be in Europe right now.

After 35 years as a football coach, history teacher, dean and athletic director in Washington state, Bristol and his wife, a Dartmouth College graduate, moved to the Upper Valley in May in anticipation of retirement. But after Bristol found a dog sitter right next door to Thetford Academy, he became intrigued by the local school scene.

His wife, Tracy Bennett, encouraged him to seek open coaching positions in the area and indeed, following the departure of Ray Thorburn, Thetford had a vacancy as head boys’ football coach at the university. Bristol threw his hat in the ring and was ready to postpone the couple’s plans for a long hiking trip in Spain and Italy this autumn.

“I’ve always loved coaching,” said Bristol. “Instead of teaching all day and then coaching, I spend all day thinking about coaching.”

Bristol grew up in New Jersey, attended prep school in Connecticut and spent his first two years of college at Hamilton College in upstate New York, but completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Oregon and attended graduate school at the University of Washington. He stayed in the Seattle area, worked in various capacities at the Overlake School, and took charge of the boys’ soccer team in 1989.

Bristol also coached basketball and both boys’ and girls’ lacrosse at Overlake, but football was his greatest passion. At a school without a strong sports culture, his teams won three state championships before he retired from coaching in 2017 to focus on teaching. In 2020, Bristol was inducted into the Overlake Sports Hall of Fame.

Bennett, who had been the principal of the Seattle Waldorf School for nine years, and Bristol were both ready for retirement this year, and Bennett had longed to return to the Hanover-Norwich area. So the couple moved and Bristol thought his coaching career would be over as well as his teaching career.

Bristol interviewed then-sporting director Blendon Salls, who has since resigned and been replaced by Bri Barnes, and Thetford student dean Siobhan Lopez. Thetford is considerably smaller than Overlake, but similar to when he started his previous tenure, most of the players are triathletes with highly transferrable skills.

“You have to be more patient with some things you do,” said Bristol. “These guys don’t play all year round; You learn a lot in a very short time window. I brought some new things that were new to some of the kids.”

The program Bristol inherited had not enjoyed a successful season under Thorburn in four years, and a first-round win over Randolph last year was the Panthers’ only postseason win in that span. Thetford may have five seniors, including top scorers Jacob Gilman and Aidan Keane, but a squad of just 15 doesn’t leave much room for substitutes and substitutes.

Thursday’s rematch against Randolph, a 3-1 loss for the Panthers that dropped them to 3-4-2, was the first game they played with a full roster in two weeks. Gilman, who leads Thetford with eight goals, even came on as a goalkeeper for junior starter Justin Robinson against North Country on September 24 and kept a clean sheet in a goalless draw.

“They get better at every game and every practice session,” Barnes said. “As long as we can keep them all healthy, it’s going to be fun to watch them in the playoffs.”

Bristol’s learning curve has been steep despite his experience – his players and assistant coach Enrique Polletta, father of newcomer midfielder Wyatt Polletta, have educated him on the sides on Thetford’s schedule.

Bennett has also found new work in the Upper Valley in education counselling, so both she and Bristol remain employed. Finding coaches at local high schools hasn’t been easy in recent years, so Barnes is hoping Bristol will stick around for at least a few more seasons.

“He is excited. He’s having a good time,” Barnes said. “The players really respect him and appreciate his love for the game.”

Benjamin Rosenberg can be reached at [email protected] or 603-727-3302.

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