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Goals for Ledyard, Montville coach Tim Strong include community service

Ledyard — The administration at Ledyard High School was looking for a new freshman boys' basketball coach and Tim Strong was a candidate. The team was increasingly successful under head coach Dave Cornish. Strong was an unknown entity, not a "friend of a friend of a friend," athletic director Jim Buonocore would later recall of the process.

"There was something about Tim that struck Dave and I," Buonocore said. "It made us say, 'Let's talk to him again. You know what? He's our guy.' He came in and he sold himself to us."

Strong is now the head boys' cross country and head boys' track and field coach at Ledyard and, having coached under Cornish for several seasons, has moved on to serve as the head boys' basketball coach at Montville High School.

Such an impression he left on Cornish and Buonocore that the duo rooted for Strong last season, his first at Montville, as Strong's Indians won the Eastern Connecticut Conference Division IV championship, Montville's first regular-season title since the 1976-77 school year.

Strong is also very much community-minded, currently in the midst of spearheading a drive for winter coats, hats, gloves and scarves.

And it is there, really, with Strong growing up on Pembroke Avenue in Norwich, where Strong is most at ease.

Strong's series of community-based projects this year has included a set of billboards to honor the Class of 2020 which was so affected by the COVID-19 crisis, a pizza giveaway to Norwich Free Academy and Norwich Tech seniors, a back-to-school event to distribute backpacks filled with school supplies and one day in his old neighborhood where Strong provided the ice cream truck.

The coat drive is just the latest undertaking for the 32-year old coach who in the last school year won ECC division titles in two different sports at two different schools.

"I've always liked to give back, especially to Norwich," Strong said this week in Ledyard, where he is mid-cross country season. "I love seeing other people happy. Whether you're coaching, doing a community project, working, I feel like every day you learn something about yourself.

"Just to put things in perspective, nothing's ever going to be perfect, but right now times are really tough (due to the pandemic). Many people have helped me in need, helped my family in need. I'm at a point in my life where I'm very fortunate — not tons and tons of money, but good resources, a community. I wish I could name everyone that's helped me."

***

It was Strong's friend Shawn Lewis who helped him come up with the idea for the billboards.

Strong counted 52 graduating seniors in 2020 whom he had coached in middle school, high school, or through the Norwich Recreation Department or travel basketball. As coach of the Montville boys' basketball team, Strong witnessed what his players went through with having their season cut short, as the bulk of the state tournament was canceled in March due to the rapidly spreading virus.

He immediately thought not only of his kids, but the boys at Old Lyme High School, who were favored to win a state tournament title, and the unbeaten NFA boys' basketball team.

Strong's empathy immediately went to seniors throughout the region.

"Imagine being a kid in your senior year and the season stops short?" Strong said. "The principal called me down to her office (at Montville) and told me I had to break this to my team, the season was over. That was the last time we were together.

"I started thinking of some projects."

There were four billboards in all.

The first, honoring all the senior athletes Strong had coached, read "Thanks for all the memories Class of 2020" and was outside Falvey's Motors on Thames Street in Norwich. The second, featuring the logo of every ECC school, plus local Connecticut Technical Conference schools, read "Congratulations Class of 2020" and was featured near Bella Notte's, also on Thames Street.

The third billboard, close to Dairy Queen on the west side of Norwich, had the logos of NFA and Norwich Tech, with the words, "Congratulations Class of 2020. The only impossible journey is the one you never begin. Take pride in how far you can go — but don't forget to enjoy the journey." The final display, near the city's old YMCA, was a tribute to Norwich middle schools, highlighting all of their logos, with a similar phrase about enjoying the journey.

Strong took donations via a gofundme page for the billboards. He also received donations for the pizzas which he distributed to the Norwich high school seniors on June 10. Strong gave away 500 large cheese pizzas — with several going to the workers at Backus Hospital, the Norwich Police Department and to the employees at Stop & Shop — and also raised money for 10 scholarships, awarded to local scholar-athletes.

"Not many coaches do the stuff he does like that," said Ledyard grad Simon Reichert, an Iowa State freshman and formerly a cross country runner for Strong at Ledyard. "It's good to see. He sets a good example for all his athletes he coaches."

"When Tim does things like that, it seems like that's stuff people should do, but that's not always how it works," said NFA graduate Xavier Marquez, now a freshman member of the football team at Monroe College in New Rochelle, N.Y., and one of Strong's scholarship recipients. "I love Tim. He's becoming an icon in Norwich in my opinion. He inspired me." 

***

Strong's sense of community came from Pembroke Avenue, where he played games like basketball, kickball, manhunt and hockey (with makeshift sticks), rode bikes with his friends and always looked forward to the arrival of the ice cream truck.

"Where I grew up is so important to me," said Strong, who held the backpack giveaway in his old neighborhood at the home of Mary Cook, with many of the athletes he coached willing to help with the distribution of the bags and with his other projects.

Strong learned the value of hard work from his parents Timothy, a groundsman for the Diocese of Norwich, and Stacey, a school bus driver, both of whom came from large families.

"They did incorporate that you should be happy for whatever you have," Strong said of his parents. "You want something, you go out and work for it."

While many of Strong's friends went to NFA, he chose Norwich Tech, partly because he loved basketball — he is a longtime Lakers fan — and was not confident enough to try out for the team at NFA. He played basketball and ran cross country, his best sport he said, at Norwich Tech.

When his high school career was over, he knew he wanted to stay involved in basketball somehow. He had no idea it was going to be through coaching.

He began as a volunteer coach at the Norwich Rec Department and then, working as a paraprofessional at the Integrated Day Charter School in Norwich after receiving his degree from Thames River Community College, Strong helped to establish boys' and girls' cross country, basketball and outdoor track at the school. He coached all of them, holding boys' and girls' doubleheaders in each season.

Strong currently works for Montville Public Schools and Sound Community Services in New London.

He's got more projects to come and his goal in coaching is to win a state title (any sport will do).

He thanks Buonocore and Cornish profusely for taking a chance on hiring him to coach at Ledyard.

"Without them, I wouldn't be where I am today. I wouldn't have been a coach in any capacity," Strong said. "They made it tough to walk away."

"Tremendously hard-working," Buonocore said. "He puts athletes first and foremost. Whatever decision is in front of him, you know the athletes' best interest will come first. ... We obviously made the right decision. He's got the appropriate balance of high school athletics, but within that concept also the development of student-athletes and the development of human beings. He cares about the kids and the kids know it. We're fortunate to have him. We're happy to have him."

v.fulkerson@theday.com

 

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