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    Thursday, April 18, 2024

    Mike Nystrom: The Face Of His Place

    Groton — And to think it began as just another night in Mike Nystrom’s happy place. Game night in Saints Country. Same pregame routine, like all the others in the last 41 years coaching girls’ basketball at St. Bernard.

    “I had no clue. No clue,” Nystrom was saying Saturday, catching a few tears on occasion, recalling the shapes and forms of a surprise celebration of his coaching career before the Saints played in the ECC quarterfinals two nights earlier.

    “I see (former assistant and old friend) Danny McGarry walk in. He was the first one. I didn’t think anything of it. And I'm like, well, he lives right down the road, maybe he had nothing to do. But then I see parents of former players. And all the former players, like aliens coming out of the woodwork.”

    They flew in and drove in from all over the country to honor their friend and former coach, a man who is The Face Of His Place. Certainly, Mike Nystrom isn’t the only face associated with The School On The Hill, right there with Jim Leone, Art Lamoureux and a select few.

    But then that’s what happens when you’ve been around for 41 years. Consider that Nystrom began coaching in 1983. In 1983 …

    A gallon of gas cost $1.24. A gallon of milk cost $2.24, ground beef was $1.05 per pound, a movie ticket cost was $2.25, and a first-class stamp was 20 cents.

    Chicken McNuggets made their debut.

    Aaron Rodgers was born.

    “The best part about Mike and his coaching tenure at St. Bernard is that he has always been about the kids, the program and the school,” said Bill Buscetto, the former athletic director at St. Bernard who was watching his alma mater in the ECC Division II Tournament semifinals Saturday at Fitch.

    “He’s never sought out the limelight or accolades about all of the wins and ECC championships he has. When you think of the quintessential St. Bernard guy, Mike Nystrom is definitely among the best ever.”

    The celebration, Nystrom said, was the brainchild of assistant coach Catherine LeBlanc and former assistant (and close friend) Beth Smith Wall. They got their old coach/old friend good, too.

    “I was pretty emotional. I was glad we won that game. I really wanted to win when all those people were there, you know?” Nystrom said. “I was really sentimental the other day, I'll tell you. And then we all went out after to Chili's like we used to do. There were 20 of us. People came from all over the country just to be there. It meant a lot. A real lot. I can probably name 30 kids that I'm still friends with.”

    The rewards for being The Face Of Your Place aren’t always obvious or tangible. Heck, there’s no guarantee they ever happen. But that’s what made the surprise sweeter.

    “I got teary eyed. At the beginning of the game, I wasn’t as focused as I should have been,” Nystrom said. “But once the game got going, I didn't see all the people sitting behind me. But during warmups and all that, I was not right.”

    And yet never better.

    Nystrom and the Saints were denied a chance to play inside Mohegan Sun Arena in Tuesday’s finals, losing 47-26 to Stonington. But Nystrom wasn’t even inside the locker room when he began talking to his team about its chances — good chances, he says— in the upcoming state Class S state tournament.

    The Saints of 2024 have the weekend off. Then it’s back to work for another run in March. And then maybe year 42 a few months down the road?

    “I’m taking it one year at a time,” The Face Of His Place said. “I'm planning on coming back next year. We have a young team.”

    This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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