Tim Strong, who led the Montville High School boys’ basketball team to its first Eastern Connecticut Conference regular-season title in 43 seasons in 2020, was named the head coach at East Lyme on Wednesday, announced in a press release from athletic director Steve Hargis .
Strong replaces Jeff Bernardi, who left at the end of the 2022 season to coach 11-time state champion St. Joseph of Trumbull. East Lyme is the defending ECC Division I tournament champion. Bernardi coached the Vikings for eight seasons, winning the regular-season Division I title twice and the league tournament last season over rival Waterford.
“When the job was open, I was interested,” Strong said in a telephone conversation. “I kept telling myself I didn’t think I’d leave Montville. It wasn’t an easy decision. I think East Lyme, after talking to Mr. Hargis and the rest of the committee, they already have a great foundation, a great program, some kids I’m connected with through the AAU world.
“To be fair, career-wise this was the hardest decision. I’m celebrating it but it’s still bittersweet.”
Strong coached at Montville for three seasons, winning two ECC Division IV regular-season titles. Montville was 23-31 during that time but with extenuating circumstances, as all three were affected by COVID-19. The 2020 season, in which Strong’s team was so triumphant, was canceled prior to the state tournament. The ECC then split the 2021 season into North and South divisions, with Montville placed in the South with the perennial juggernauts of the league.
In 2022, Montville started 0-5, missing several players and coaches due to illness, before rallying to finish 8-14 overall, 6-2 in the division to tie Putnam for the title.
Strong says it’s a situation which will always cause him to wonder “what if?”
“All three years we did well but I think we could have done even better,” Strong said.
East Lyme also played the role of the underdog last season, finishing third in the ECC Division I standings behind New London and Norwich Free Academy before upending NFA (54-51), New London (49-46) and Waterford (48-35) in the ECC tournament, winning the championship game at Mohegan Sun Arena.
Hargis believes Strong will fill Bernardi’s role ably.
“Tim brings demonstrated leadership and success in developing athletes to perform at a high level,” Hargis said in the release. “He is extremely knowledgeable about the basketball X’s and O’s, but equally as important he will support our academically-based athletics program.
“We believe that this unique combination of skill sets will continue to grow the winning tradition of East Lyme High School basketball.”
Strong, a graduate of Norwich Tech and Thames River Community College, is the coordinator of the AXS program at Sound Community Services, focusing on life skills education for homeless and transitional youth. Strong is also the head boys’ volleyball coach at Norwich Free Academy and the head men’s and women’s cross country coach at Mitchell College.
He is the director of the Rose City Intensity AAU program.
Strong intends to pop in to see his team at its summer league venue Monday.
“It’s a big responsibility, ECC Division I competition,” Strong said of taking over at East Lyme. “Jeff Bernardi has already done such a great job building a program. I’m excited. East Lyme is going to be my home for a long time coming. It starts now.”