Basketball immortality

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Cheney has seat in Connecticut Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame

Before Gail Strumpf Cheney was patrolling the sidelines as the Woodland girls basketball coach, she was making a name for herself as a player at Masuk High School and Fairfield University. For her accomplishments as a player, Cheney was inducted into the Connecticut Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame this month. –RA ARCHIVE

HAMDEN — Rebecca Lobo, Jennifer Rizzotti, and Kara Wolters are among the most famous players in the history of Connecticut women’s basketball. Earlier this month, a familiar local name joined them.

Woodland girls basketball coach and former Fairfield University star Gail Strumpf Cheney was inducted to the Connecticut Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame on April 11 after her outstanding career both at Masuk High and Fairfield.

Cheney, who currently lives in Naugatuck, was one of seven individuals honored in the 25th class of inductees.

“I was taken aback,” Cheney said about her finding out she was going to be inducted. “I never would have expected it so I was in awe over the whole thing. Some of the people who have been inducted in the past have been incredible, standout players at UConn. It was such an honor.”

Cheney was an all-state basketball and softball player at Masuk, where she attended from 1994-97. She helped lead the Panthers to a 99-3 record during her four years, including four South-West Conference championships, a 26-0 sophomore season that ended in a state title and New England’s No. 1 ranking, and a state runner-up finish her senior year.

Her 1,063 rebounds and 402 blocks at Masuk are school records, and she’s No. 6 on the school’s scoring list with 1,218 points. In her senior season, she was named a Street and Smith Honorable Mention All-American.

Cheney chose to attend Fairfield University, where she started every game of her four-year career and had success that she didn’t necessarily envision.

“I don’t think anybody can really assume that they’re going to have success,” Cheney said. “I knew that if I worked hard I could make an impact. That’s one of the reasons I went to Fairfield, because I wanted a lot of playing time.”

She was the MAAC Rookie of the Year in 1998, MAAC Player of the Year in 2000, and was named to the All-MAAC First Team during her last three seasons.

She is still the program’s all-time leading scorer with 1,873 points, while ranking second in rebounds (1,106) and third in blocks (244). She is one of only four Stags to rack up more than 1,000 career points and rebounds, and was enshrined in the Fairfield University Athletic Hall of Fame last year.

Cheney’s favorite moment of her basketball career came during her senior year when Fairfield earned an at-large bid to the 2001 NCAA tournament, an extreme rarity for a mid-major women’s team.

“That was so amazing because it was so unheard of,” Cheney said.

She graduated from Fairfield with a degree in communications, but played professionally in Germany and Birmingham, Ala., until 2004.

Cheney didn’t stay away from basketball for long, though, as she became the head coach at Woodland in 2006 and led the Hawks to the Class M state tournament in each of her first five years at the helm, coaching 1,000-point-scoring post players Sam LaCroce and Heather Framski.

“I wasn’t done with basketball,” Cheney said. “I feel like everything I’ve learned from my coaches has been so valuable to my development in basketball and in life, and I wanted to share those things.”

Cheney took last season off after the birth of her first child, but she hopes to return to the sidelines next winter — but she said her players won’t have to call her Coach Hall of Famer.

“It’s something I never would have expected,” Cheney said. “I’m totally humbled by it.”