“One day during this past season really stands out to me,” said Virginia Ronten. “After a practice, I remember Marlen walking through the door of our home and he was emotional. He told me that Ben Watson had just thanked him for giving him the opportunity and privilege of coaching with him.
THE 2010-11 SUMMERVILLE BEARS are all smiles after clinching the 2011 Mother Lode League championship against Bret Harte in Angels Camp on Feb. 15. For guiding Summerville to its greatest basketball season in school history, co-head coaches Ben Watson (back row, far left) and Marlen Ronten (front row, far left) are The Union Democrat Sports Figures of the Year.
“That really meant a lot to Marlen because he kept telling me that coaching with Ben was the very best time he’d ever had coaching.”
Summerville won the 2011 Mother Lode League championship with a 14-1 record. The Bears then advanced to the Final Four of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV Championships.
For the first time in school history, Summerville won a state tournament playoff contest defeating Central Valley in its Shasta Lake home, 64-56.
Amongst many post-season accolades, Summerville’s Jared English, Zach Roberson and Tige Wingo were awarded All-Area Tri-Most Valuable Player honors.
The Bears were guided by co-head coaches Marlen Ronten and Ben Watson. Basketball? Two head coaches? A most unusual arrangement to be sure.
“But it worked!” said English.
Nowadays, English is playing baseball for Sonoma State, Roberson is a quarterback at University of Mary and Wingo is on the Columbia College basketball team.
“Tige, Zach and I were all back in town for the Christmas break,” said English. “Never mind that we’re each playing a collegiate sport. We kept saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we were each still playing ball for Coach Ronten and Coach Watson ...’
“It seemed everyone on the outside, before the season started, was saying, ‘Oh, it won’t work, two head coaches — no chance.’ But as players, we knew it could work. Watson preached defense and Ronten preached run and gun and have fun. The key was those two coaches respected each other. Those two made our team into one family. They were the leaders of our family. Those two men expected good things from us.”
“They were a perfect match for each other,” said Wingo. “They were great coaches by themselves for years and years. Watson was more of a pound-it-inside coach. Ronten was uptempo. So when they decided to come together, they gave us a complete game — we had everything.”
For guiding Summerville to its greatest basketball season in school history, Marlen Ronten and Ben Watson are The Union Democrat Sports Figures of the Year.
“Both men are truly deserving of this honor,” said Kyle McLaurin, Ronten’s grandson and a 6-foot junior guard on Summerville’s current basketball squad. “My whole family appreciates this and I know my grandpa would appreciate it.”
After a courageous two-year battle with bone cancer, Ronten passed away on Oct. 25.
“These are two very deserving men for this honor,” said Roberson. “I think Watson being a head coach for three sports (football, softball) and keeping all three teams at such a high level is oustanding. And for Coach Ronten to fight back from his illness and then coach our basketball team to an unforgettable season — one of the greatest teams to ever compete in the history of Summerville — was just remarkable.
“They really are two polar opposites. Watson was more of a hard-nosed coach. Ronten was more easy-going. So we got the best of both of them. They jelled so well together.”
“Both men are so important to me and so I’m glad they’re being honored like this,” said English.
“Well, this is a great honor for both of them,” said Virginia Ronten. “They each spent a lot of time preparing to coach together. They were so accommodating with each other. There was never any, ‘Let’s do it this way.’ They’d just say, ‘Let’s give this a try.’ ”
“I think our coaching together was simply a couple of guys that always put the kids first,” said Watson, 53. “I am positive that Coach Ronten would be completely humble about this and give all the credit to the kids.
“At practice, it was Coach Ronten who was there first every day. He was fully prepared. He was on the court, instructing, energetic. The kids fed off of him. It was the highlight of my day to be able to work with him.
“Once we decided to coach together, I don’t think either of us had a single moment of doubt that it would work out. We were just both open to each others’ ideas. We had no doubt that we’d have fun coaching together. But I had no idea that our kids would take things so far. Working with Coach Ronten, for me, was special all by itself. But the success the kids had, the winning ... well, that was just the icing on the cake.”
“That’s nice that both Marlen and Ben are being honored like this,” said Watson’s wife, Beth. “Every day of their season together, Ben would come home from practice so happy and content. It was wonderful how everything worked out with them coaching together.
“I think they both had very strong, big personalities and each had their own set ways of doing things. But they both had a love of sports and what it can do for kids. Plus, they both love the school and, while others had their doubts that it would all work, Marlen and Ben never seemed to have any of those doubts.”
After being head coach at Summerville for over three decades, Ronten invited Watson to share duties in the spring of 2009.
“Just because it hadn’t been tried before, doesn’t mean it isn’t a good idea,” said Mike McLaurin, husband to the Ronten’s daughter, Wendy. “This was something that Marlen thought could work — co-head coaches — and he was stubborn enough and determined enough to do his part to make it work. Why can’t two different coaching styles come together at one table and work? Marlen and Ben made it work. And I know Marlen was looking forward to it working out for many years.”
On July 13, 2009, four months after the Rontens celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, Marlen Ronten was diagnosed with multiple myeloma (cancer of the plasma cells in bone marrow).
Recalled Virginia, “The doctor said, ‘Marlen, there is no cure, but it’s treatable. Sometimes people live two or three years or 10 years.’ ”
Ronten was unable to coach during the 2009-10 season. He had a bone marrow transplant in January of 2010.
“Normally, it takes about a year to recover from that transplant,” said Virginia. “But Marlen was so determined to be able to coach basketball in the fall that he just kept going to the gym, working out and speeding up that process.”
“Stubborn,” said McLaurin. “Marlen was determined that nothing would stop him from getting back to coaching.”
When the 2010-11 season got started, Ronten was there on Day 1.
While there was never any formal division of duties, generally speaking, Watson spent more time preparing the Bears on defense. Ronten spent much of his time on offense.
After suffering a one-point loss in their MLL season-opener to Amador, the Bears rattled off 14 consecutive wins.
“Both Ben and my father worked hard for the kids,” said Wendy McLaurin. “They had two different ways of doing things, but they complemented each other so well. Sometimes, two heads are better than one. The season became so special to my father because of what he was facing with his illness.”
“It was a magical season,” said Mike McLaurin. “Unfortunately, it ended up being a swan song. But you probably couldn’t have written a better ending to the story than the season they had last year.
“It still continues to sadden me to think of Marlen in the past tense.”
Marlen Ronten enjoyed the summer, fishing three times a week and was optimistic about the 2011-12 season.
On Oct. 16, Ronten needed emergency surgery for a perforated bowel. He would pass nine days later.
“Looking back,” said Virginia, “I think Marlen was aware that this was the end. One week before he died, he said to me, ‘I hope the varsity will be OK.’ ”
“Ben misses Marlen so much now,” said Beth Watson. “And that has nothing to do with winning or losing. Ben just misses having Marlen there as a friend to talk to every day.
“We’re all so grateful that last year worked out so well. A lot of people had their doubts whether having two head coaches would work. I admit that even myself, at times, was wondering whether it could work. How would they decide who is doing what? But each realized that the other had so much to give. They meshed so well.”
“First,” said Virginia Ronten, “both coaches loved basketball. More importantly, they both loved the kids and helping the kids. And both wanted to do everything they could to help the kids succeed. Yes, it was a wonderful year they spent coaching together. Prior to working together, they each went about things a little differently. But you put them together and ... well, look what happened. It certainly succeeded.”