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Middle school sports return to Norwich

Norwich — Coaches’ whistles screeched and sneakers squeaked in gyms at the city's two middle schools last week, as dozens of students competed for the 15 roster spots on the boys' and girls' basketball teams at each school.

Students, parents, school staff and athletic leaders at local high schools welcome the sounds, as they signal the return of competitive sports in city schools for the first time in a decade.

The sports, along with many other after-school activities, had been eliminated due to budget cuts. Some grants restored limited after-school programs but not interscholastic sports.

Now, middle school sports, along with music, art and other after-school programs, have been restored courtesy of federal COVID-19 recovery grants designed to address social and emotional learning needs.

Norwich middle school athletes took the field for the first time in September to play competitive soccer and run cross country against schools from surrounding towns.

“I went to every single game,” new soccer mom Enika Albina said. “I was cheering. I was a cheerleader. A lot of the other parents would laugh, because it was the first time my son was playing a sport.”

A sixth grader at Teachers Memorial Global Studies Middle School, her son AJ Gomes, 11, has mild cerebral palsy and wears a device on his right leg to help with movement. Albina admitted she was “scared” for her son at first due to the risk of injury and that teammates might not accept him or might bully him.

She laughs now at that fear.

Players rallied around AJ, she said, cheering him on. The boy’s 4-year-old brother, Amir, who has autism, was so enthusiastic, the preschooler was honored as team mascot, with his own jersey.

AJ received the Coach’s Award as an outstanding player. While AJ did not make the Teachers’ basketball team, he was in demand. Both the boys’ and girls’ basketball coaches wanted him as team manager. The girls’ team won, Albina said, and AJ will learn to keep score and videotape the games.

“I am so very proud of him,” she said.

Brother and sister Mckiel and Kamya Strong, students at Teachers’ Memorial, had played pick-up basketball for years, and got excited about school sports.

Kamya, 12, a seventh grader, said her friends urged her to try out for soccer. Mckiel, 13, an eighth grader, saved himself for basketball. He made the team last week. Kamya loved soccer and now is trying out for girls’ basketball.

Kamya credited her soccer coach, Ari Santiago-Sullivan, for pushing everyone to try their best despite the challenges.

“When I made the soccer team, I was happy,” Kamya said. “You have all your friends around to pump you up to score a goal. We won a few games, lost a bunch, but we definitely got better. My coach, she pushed us to make sure we had confidence, because the teams we were playing played before, and we never played before.”

Starting from scratch

Norwich hired longtime New London educator, coach and youth advocate Louis Allen as the middle school athletic director.

Allen said he loved the chance to build a program from scratch. He consulted with local high school athletic directors to find coaches, worked with Norwich Free Academy and Norwich Recreation Department as partners and launched soccer and cross country in the fall.

Norwich joined a middle school league that includes New London, Groton, Montville, Ledyard, Waterford, Groton, Salem and Franklin.

“They’re just hungry to do something,” Allen said. “The sad thing is there was not enough resources to do this. It takes time, and money to travel. The teams we play against have long established programs.”

Jayden Blanchard and Lobsang Chodak, both 11 and sixth graders at Kelly STEAM Middle School, played soccer and will be basketball teammates.

Jayden, who played soccer for the first time this fall, said he wasn’t scared to play against experienced teams. Norwich lost 10-2 to Groton, but he said the team was thrilled after beating Waterford 3-2, the team’s only victory.

“We got better,” Jayden said. “I really wanted to play sports. I played basketball since I was 4. I’m way better at basketball.”

Lobsang said he has played soccer since he was 7 and is new at basketball. “Right away I knew would go out for sports. I like soccer a bit more, but I was excited about basketball.”

Johan Dip, 13, an eighth grader at Teachers, played soccer for the first time. 

"I thought it was pretty cool they started sports. The last time they had sports, my brother was in school and he’s 21,” he said.

At the boys' tryouts at Kelly last week, Allen and coach Ryan Morse, physical education teacher at Kelly and a former after-school coach, organized the 60 boys into several lines for shooting and rebounding drills. The two coaches took notes before Allen blew the whistle.

“Something’s wrong!” Allen shouted. “I blew the whistle and people are still talking! ... Everyone can listen. The other team can’t stop you from listening.”

After an hour, Morse told the students he had to do any coach’s toughest job: cut 45 students to field a team of 15 boys. He recalled when he was a student at Kelly, coaches just pinned the list on the wall and let the students find their names, or not.

Morse pledged to speak to everyone who did not make the team, urge them to play on Norwich Recreation teams and work on skills. He told sixth and seventh graders to try again next year.

Allen added a stern word of caution to those selected: The coaches would not stand for any teasing, bullying or harassment by players against those who did not make it.

“That’s grounds for cutting,” he told the players.

Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow said of the dozens of students trying out and the coaches' leadership was "exactly what we had hoped for.”

“Last year, when I talked to kids, they would say, ‘There’s nothing for me here. No sports, no clubs, nothing for me here. I want to go to a school where there’s something going on,'” she said they told her.

Stringfellow, who comes from a sports family, pledged to sustain sports once the multiyear generous federal grants evaporate.

“Belonging to the school team, having school pride, it gives them something to work for,” she said. “It gives them motivation to go to school. If that’s something that gets them here, connects them, make them feel they are part of something more than themselves, that’s great. There’s not much that’s positive about COVID, but this is positive.”

Stringfellow praised Allen as the best choice to build the program due to his decades of experience, devotion and many contacts in the region.

“We’re just so grateful that he was willing to come to us and do this startup. Startup is different than taking over a program already established,” she said.

Allen said ithis past summer, he met with NFA Athletic Director Roy Wentworth. NFA coaches quickly offered support, sponsoring a clinic for the middle school cross country team and planning future clinics.

“They have helped find coaches and they are collaborating on planning and holding a sports fair for students to showcase different sports available,” Allen said of NFA.

Allen also has been working with St. Thomas More coach Jere Quinn on sports clinics. He said all athletic directors in the region have been supportive of Norwich’s new sports program.

The city Recreation Department has provided information on its sports and possible collaboration with the schools, including a weekend basketball program for middle school students.

“We are looking forward to future collaboration with the rec department and supporting each other’s programs and making more efficient use of our resources,” Allen said. “We are truly thankful for the tremendous support that they have provided us.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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