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Joe Yukica banquet: Raycraft built Merrimack football on discipline, character

May 21—MANCHESTER — Coach Kip Jackson brought a host of his Merrimack High School football players over to meet Joe Raycraft after the banquet.

They all wanted to thank him.

"Without you, coach, they wouldn't be here," Jackson told Raycraft.

Raycraft, who started the Merrimack High football program in 1973, received the Andy Mooradian Award for his outstanding contributions to football at the Joe Yukica New Hampshire Chapter of the National Football Foundation and College Football Hall of Fame's 37th Annual Scholar-Athlete Awards banquet at the DoubleTree Hilton on Monday night.

The Dover native and now Penacook resident coached football and served as the athletic director at Merrimack from 1973-2000 before leaving to become the Manchester School District's athletic director. Raycraft, 77, later returned to Merrimack as athletic director and coached the Merrimack Valley football team from 2018-22.

Over his first stint with Merrimack, Raycraft also coached the softball and girls basketball teams for a time and served as a physical education teacher.

"When you really look back on it, over 50 years, he's had an incredible run," said Exeter High's longtime football coach, Bill Ball, who serves on the Yukica board of directors.

Raycraft played high school football at St. Thomas Aquinas and became interested in coaching when Lou D'Allesandro, his basketball coach at New Hampshire College (now SNHU), asked him to help with the Bishop Bradley (now Trinity) football team.

Raycraft first coached football, basketball and baseball at Bishop Brady in Concord in the late 1960s but was drawn to Merrimack by the challenge of starting a new program.

"I said, 'If I'm going to stay coaching, let's find out if I'm good enough to do that,'" Raycraft said. "Because if I wasn't, I was going to find something else to do."

During his first few years, Raycraft had to teach his players the fundamentals. Soon, he had them playing hard-nosed football and competing for state championships.

Merrimack was the NHIAA Division II runner-up in 1979 and 1980.

"They played power football on offense no matter what, which wasn't that unusual in those days," said Brian O'Reilly, Pinkerton Academy's head football coach since 1978, "but, defensively, he would tune his defense to the type of team that he had."

On a frigid day at Memorial Field in Concord in 1987, Raycraft led Merrimack to the Division II title — the program's only state championship — with a 27-13 win over Londonderry.

Raycraft remembers that the chatter leading up to the game was if the Tomahawks could beat Londonderry a second time after already winning the regular-season matchup.

"It gave me some satisfaction," Raycraft said. "We still have room to make improvements but we're going in the right direction."

Merrimack lost the rematch to the Lancers in the 1988 Division II final, 14-7, and also finished as the Division I runner-up to Pinkerton in 1992 and Manchester Central in 1995.

The Tomahawks ended Pinkerton's pursuit of a fourth straight D-I title in 1995 by winning a semifinal bout in Derry, 14-11, with a last-second touchdown that capped a 15-play drive.

Raycraft said he taught his players to be competitive but also to play football how it should be played and to respect the sport. The Tomahawks were always highly disciplined and well-mannered under Raycraft, Ball said. O'Reilly noted Raycraft achieved that without being a screaming style coach.

Raycraft's son, Bill, remembers when he got his license and wanted to use the family car, he had to drive his dad from Penacook to Merrimack for 4:30 a.m. Raycraft was often at the high school before the lights were on, one of many examples of his trademark work ethic.

"I remember watching Joe and the way he coached, the way he behaved on the sidelines and certainly there was intensity but he was the kind of guy that I wanted to emulate," O'Reilly said. "Like that's the kind of a coach you want to be and I always thought about that every time I faced Joe."

Bill followed his dad's example and also became a football coach and athletic director. Bill started the football program at John Stark Regional in 2001 and at Windham High in 2008. He led Windham to the 2014 Division II championship and two other finals while also serving as the school's first athletic director.

Bill, 56, left Windham in 2019 (with a 68-23 record in football) for his current position as the athletic director at Malden (Mass.) Catholic.

"Just seeing, as I was growing up, how his former students and athletes would talk about him," Bill said, "and we might be out somewhere and run into somebody and just the respect that was given was certainly influential in what I was going to do."

Raycraft gave Bill his first coaching job as a member of his staff for the Shrine Maple Sugar Bowl between New Hampshire and Vermont senior all-stars in 1989. He also helped Bill, primarily as a scout, while Bill coached at both John Stark and Windham.

Raycraft gave Bill suggestions when Bill started coaching but never told him what to do. "He wanted me to be the voice and, looking back, it was him coaching me on how to be a coach," Raycraft said.

While he misses coaching a little, Raycraft is now fully retired. His players and staff, Raycraft said, were the main reasons he enjoyed coaching and are why he stayed in the profession for so long.

Many are thankful that he stuck with it.

"He's a trailblazer," said Ball. "He helped so many people along the way through athletics, through his own standard of excellence that he lives his life by. There's a lot to emulate there for a lot of people."

ahall@unionleader.com