DANVERS (CBS) — Philip Chism‘s former soccer coach was in a meeting when he received a phone call saying one of his players was missing.
Danvers High School coach Mike Chase got the call from one of the seniors on his team, telling him that Chism hadn’t shown up to practice or the team dinner that day.
“They were looking for Phil, they didn’t know where he was,” Chase told WBZ NewsRadio 1030.
Chase and the rest of the Danvers High community would not learn until the next morning that Chism was a suspect in the murder of his math teacher, Colleen Ritzer. Chism is now on trial for that murder, in which prosecutors say he followed Ritzer into a bathroom, killed her, and dragged her body out of the school in a recycling barrel.
But in the hours after the incident, Chase said the team was simply worried about the well-being of their friend, a new kid from out of town who they had welcomed as one of their own.
“For the kids on the team, one of the most difficult things that I was trying to manage and help them with was the idea that, initially, we thought we had a missing person case,” said Chase. “We just had no idea where this new kid was, he’s a new kid from out of town. He was welcomed in as a member of our community, our soccer family right off the bat, and we had found out he was missing, and that’s all we knew.”
Chase said he was texting and calling Chism, while keeping in touch with 15 or 20 of his players who were out looking for their teammate until about 1:30 a.m. He said it wasn’t until the next morning that they heard about the tragedy at the school, and the story started coming together.
“Then we had to deal with that whole emotional turn,” said Chase. “These guys are realizing, ‘Oh my God, I was out last night looking for someone who didn’t want to be found,’ and all the emotional stuff that came with that for them. At 15, 16, 17 years old…I was having a tough time managing it, and I can only imagine what they were going through.”
The team met at the school with grief counselors, and Chase said he also met privately with the team to make sure they prioritized their own well-being over their sport.
“One of my messages to them was just to make sure you take care of yourselves,” Chase said. “Soccer is way back on the list as far as I’m concerned anyway. I love the sport, I love coaching, but for these guys, as high school students, family’s gonna be first, school’s gonna be second, and soccer’s gonna be third, fourth, or fifth.”
He said he told his players his phone was always on, and they could call him whenever they wanted.
“You gotta look out for each other,” Chase said. “You gotta make sure you’re eating, you gotta make sure you’re sleeping, all these things you need to look for—after a traumatic event, there’s certain things that you’ve got to be aware of.”
Chase said he felt that year’s group of players were one of the tightest he’s ever had. He described how they ate dinner together three or four times a week, and how their closeness resulted in an outpouring of support for one another in the wake of the tragedy. He said it mirrored how the Danvers High community came together after Ritzer’s murder, likening it to the way Bostonians came together after the marathon bombings.
And when the team was finally able to take the field, they joined up with the girls’ soccer and field hockey teams for a loose practice that saw the kids having fun and laughing again.
“These guys, they’ve overcome a lot,” said Chase. “All the kids at Danvers High did.”