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Strecker leaves Lancers in a better place

Waterford — There was a season not long ago when John Strecker's team finished the high school season 0-10. And you know those football coaches. Compulsive, obsessive, competitive. Imagine the persistent pangs of the 2017 offseason, reliving all the winless nights.

It was 3-7 the next year, a strand better, but still 3-17 over two years. Oy. Now consider that at the time, virtually every other athletic program at Waterford High was contending for/winning state championships.

If ever anybody had reason to curse, whine or quit, Strecker was the guy. Yet he never did. He got creative. Ingenious, even. And the recent news of his retirement cannot pass without acknowledgement that one of the most loyal Waterford guys of them all happily sustained Jimmy V's "Don't give up; don't ever give up" anthem, leaving us inspired on his way out.

Let the record show that Strecker's ingenuity allows the following sentence to be written: John Strecker leaves Waterford High as the only football coach in the 65-year history of the school to win a playoff game. Patience can be bitter, as the old line goes. But the fruit is sweet.

Strecker coached the Lancers for 25 years, the last six as the head coach. The program has been awash in Streckers — John and brothers Mike and Paul — through several presidential administrations. No other surname is more synonymous with the program.

Nobody ever captured the plight of the program before the glory of the 2019 season better than assistant coach Tim Lineburgh, who was standing inside the Francis X. Sweeney Fieldhouse the first day of basketball practice after the winless season. Lineburgh, who could challenge Strecker on the loyalty-o-meter to his school and town, is also an assistant basketball coach.

Lineburgh, still feeling the sting of 0-10, looked on to the court at what would become a state championship team. He shook his head. A  peculiar reaction, perhaps, to a season of promise. Lineburgh was chafed because he saw the kids choosing to play basketball, knowing none played football, ticking off all the positions they could have dominated on the field.

Football just wasn't a cool thing in the 06385 at the time. Basketball, baseball and lacrosse? Booming. Football not only wasn't winning but carried the injury/concussion stigma. Dead program walking.

Until it wasn't. Because Strecker, from the morass of 3-17, got creative. In the offseason of 2018,

Strecker invited Dr. Stephanie Alessi-LaRosa, the new head of Sports Neurology for Hartford Healthcare, to the auditorium for a seminar to educate the public about concussions. Whether through coincidence or cause-and-effect, more kids decided to play for the Lancers in 2019.

During the season to make things more fun, Strecker implemented "decorum" drills aimed to properly shape the behavior — and establish an ethos — for the entire program. "Decorum" had many tentacles, not the least of which was practicing how to celebrate a touchdown.

Strecker did not want his players celebrating on the field. So every Tuesday, they practiced celebrating off it. They would run a play, score a touchdown and quietly hand the ball to the official. Then they would sprint off the field and celebrate on their own sideline — away from the other team and the officials — in all the creative ways they wanted.

There was the double bicep pose, mic drop, posing for a picture (remembering they needed one guy to take the picture), fishing, the rowboat, tug of war and bowling, where one kid pretended to roll a bowling ball at his teammates who fell down like pins.

It was hilarious, ingenious and utterly practical. Not sure you could ever see high school kids having more fun, all while practicing a great lesson. John Strecker made football fun again at Waterford High, rewarded with a 10-2 season and the program's first and only playoff victory.

Sometimes, things just end the right way.

He will be missed. And your humble narrator didn't always feel that way. There were times things were, shall we say, a bit tense between us. But under the category of "this, too, shall pass," we figured things out. Strecker actually became a go-to quote, frequently finding the humor in various situations.

The personal favorite came from the 2019 Thanksgiving Day game that ended with a one-point win in overtime. Tremendously entertaining.

"I told Rudy (East Lyme coach Rudy Bagos) at the start of overtime that we should throw everybody out of here and make them come in and pay again to see the finish," Strecker said.

Here's wishing Strecker a happy retirement. Hope he's not a stranger around the field he roamed for 25 years. He left the program in a better place.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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