NAUGATUCK — New Naugatuck High head girls basketball coach Gail Cheney has found success on the basketball court ever since she was old enough to hold a basketball. It didn’t hurt that she had two legends of the game helping her along the way.
As a freshman at Masuk High School, Cheney, whose maiden name is Strumpf, looked to follow in the footsteps of her sister, Dionna. She found instant success, averaging 15 points and 15 rebounds per game, under one of the state’s greatest high school coaches of all-time, David Strong.
Strong compiled a 704-156 record with three state championships over 42 years of coaching. He is also a member the National High School Coaches Hall of Fame.
Under Strong’s tutelage, Cheney became an All-State player by her senior year and helped Masuk to a state title in 1995. During her time at Masuk, the team went 99-3. Cheney still holds the school’s career records in rebounds (1,063) and blocked shots (402), and is sixth all-time in scoring.
Cheney went on to play at Fairfield University under coach Dianne Nolan. Cheney thrived with the Stags. She graduated as the school’s all-time leading scorer with 1,873 points and also had 1,106 career rebounds.
Cheney would later return to Fairfield as an assistant coach for another legendary master of the court, Joe Frager.
Frager, the former Seymour High girls coach, compiled 208 wins and three state titles with the Wildcats. He went on to coach at Southern Connecticut State University and led SCSU to the 2007 Division II national championship. Frager then moved on to Fairfield University, and averaged 19 wins per year in his first ten seasons.
“Playing for coach Strong was one of the best opportunities I ever had in my life,” Cheney said. “Even coach Frager at Fairfield. These guys were legends, and it not only helped me become the player I was but helped me to understand the coaching aspect of the game as well.
“Coach Frager was such a strategist. He showed me things about the game that I never really looked at it like that before. He gave me an understanding of the game that I use in my own coaching style now.”
“I try and use what I have learned from everyone I’ve played with and the coaches I’ve had to help me to formulate my coaching style,” Cheney added.
After college, Cheney played professional basketball in Germany and in the National Women’s Basketball League for the Birmingham Power.
In 2006, Cheney became the head coach of the Woodland girls basketball team and guided the Hawks for five seasons.
The Hawks made it to the state tournament in all five seasons under Cheney, including the Hawks’ best season in 2010-11 when they finished 18-7 and advanced to the NVL semifinals and the Class M quarterfinals.
Cheney left after the season in 2011 to give birth to her first child, Madeline, and she and her husband, Mark, now have a two-and-half-year-old son, Blake. There is plenty of family support at the games and away from the court with grandparents Diane and Frederick Strumpf of Beacon Falls.
When she got back on the sidelines, Cheney coached for one year at Sacred Heart Academy before becoming an assistant under Frager at her alma mater for two seasons. Last year, Cheney came back to the NVL to guide the Oxford Wolverines.
“I really enjoyed being part of collegiate basketball on the coaching end, but the travel was just too much trying to raise a family in the process,” Cheney said. “It was like ten months out of the year and I would be gone for the whole month of July, it was really a major commitment. I do miss it, but raising two kids, it was just impossible.”
When the position at Naugatuck opened Cheney jumped at the chance with Madeline in the Naugatuck school system.
“I loved coaching at Oxford, they have a great staff there,” Cheney said. “But when this opened up, my daughter goes to school in Naugatuck and I wanted to make this a home for me and my family, so it was only natural to take this opportunity.”
Cheney has guided the Greyhounds to a 6-2 record — the team’s best start since Naugatuck began 2013 at 4-2.
Naugatuck picked up win number five Saturday with a 52-43 victory over Westhill. Alyana Sosa led the way with 15 points, and the Greyhounds got solid production from Hailey Russell (10 points), Mia Rotatori (8 points), Hailey Deitelbaum (8 points) and Alyssa Peterson (6 points).
Sosa led the Greyhounds again with a game-high 18 points Tuesday in a 44-41 win over Ansonia. Alyssa Roberts added eight points, and Rotatori and Shannon Burns had five points each.
The Greyhounds will be at Watertown on Friday.
There may be some stiff challenges ahead for Cheney as she tries to lead the Greyhounds back to the top of the NVL, but she has seen her share of success in her career and embraces the opportunity.
Correction: An earlier version of this story reported Gail Cheney played at Fairfield University under coach Joe Frager. Her coach when she played at Fairfield University was Dianne Nolan. She later worked as an assistant coach on Frager’s staff.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated from the version printed in the Jan. 12 edition of the Citizen’s News to include information on games played through Jan. 10.