Mike Tyler. Passion and Dedication at Torrington High School.
By, JOHN TORSIELLO
Mike Tyler was sitting near to his second home, the track and field complex at Torrington High School. If it couldn’t exactly be called “The Track That Tyler Built”, he was nonetheless pleased to have had a hand in the design and construction of one of the best such facilities in the state.
“I was pleased to have had a hand in the track and field complex,” said Tyler, who has been coach of the THS program since 1996. “It’s great that we have the field events area out of the middle of the running track, in its own separate area. It helps with the overall safety of the athletes. I never liked the throwing events to be in the middle of the track. I’ve seen too many things happen when athletes and officials are in close quarters.”
The overall excellence of Torrington High’s track and field complex, completed several years ago, is one of the main reasons why the Naugatuck Valley League Championships have been held at the facility two of the past three years. And Torrington this year hosted its fifth annual THS Alumni Club Meet, which drew 20 schools and 36 boys and girls squads.
For Tyler, a biology teacher at THS, the moment by the track was a rare chance for him to “travel down memory lane”. “I keep thinking about all of the kids I have had over the years. I remembered that Katie Bassler was captain during my first of eight NVL Championships here at THS; six outdoor, two indoor, along with six undefeated seasons in the first decade that I coached the program. I often bring up Katie to my teams and use her as an example of what it takes to be a captain and a leader.”
There have been so many other great athletes Tyler has had the opportunity of coaching during his two decades-plus, too many to mention all of them. But more on that part of memory lane later on. Let’s talk about the coach for a bit.
Tyler, 47, grew up in northwestern Maine where, like pretty much everyone else in this region of the Pine Tree State, he became a skier at a young age. “My dad (Tim) was a competitive skier on the Eastern circuit and he got me into skiing at a young age,” said the son. By the time he got to high school (Mount Blue High School in Farmington), he maintained an interest in skiing, soccer (summers), and football like most of his friends. But there was another sport that occupied his time. He started competing in track and field at the youth level (eight years old), throwing the shot put and discus and even taking second in a state meet at the age of 12.
“I have competed or coached track and field for what seems a lifetime.” Indeed, it has been for most of his life. He galvanized his love for the sport and started to recognize coaching techniques he found useful. He didn’t know it yet but this was the beginning of developing a coaching philosophy still in use today. “In high school I competed in the shot, discus and javelin and was awarded captain of the team my senior year at Mount Blue. My coaches always valued our input and always listened to a concern or a technique suggestion from other resources.”
He began coaching a youth track program and enjoyed it. This was the dawn of a coaching journey that is still in full swing. He went on to Hebron Academy for a Post Graduate (PG) year, where he continued throwing and earned a second place in the shot at the Northeast Prep School League Championships.
Tyler walked onto the track and field team at Bryant College, but the school wasn’t to his liking and he transferred to the University of Maine at Farmington. “They didn’t have a track and field team so I turned to lacrosse, which I played for three years. It’s a great sport, like hockey without skates.” He majored in Biology and started coaching track at his old high school. Tyler came to Connecticut in 1998 to started coaching at the Torrington Middle School. He concurrently entered his Masters in Education at the University of Bridgeport and started his journey to the classroom by interning at Torrington Middle School. He has been teaching in Torrington for the last 19 years.
During summers, starting in college, he worked various jobs, such as in home improvement and a park ranger in the White Mountains for the New Hampshire Parks and Recreation Department. “I was hanging by ropes on a cliff tagging falcons, educating visitors to the park maintaining trails and doing search and rescues. It was rewarding work. I’d probably still be doing it if it paid more and I didn't feel the need to do something bigger.”
He moved to the Portland, Me. area and started coaching at Cape Elizabeth High School. He met his wife, Bernadette, a Torrington resident, on a blind date arranged my mutual friends. The couple have one son, Ashton, a student at Torrington High School who was a member of the Raider golf team this spring. The family resides in Torrington.
“The last 19 years in coaching in Torrington would not have been possible without the unconditional support of Bernie,” he said. “She always knows what to say and how to keep him on the ground, even now two decades into this journey here in Torrington. This job is not easy and a good coach takes on the emotional pressures of the team (performance and life) and helps them through it. “If the athletes know you care they will always feel valued leading to personal investment into the advancement of the team”.
Tyler has worked with several teams at THS, including the THS football program for six years as an assistant where he galvanized friendships with other familiar faces in Torrington athletics, such as Gaitan Rodriguez, Rick Dubois and Mike McKenna. When the opportunity arose to coach the THS track and field team Tyler jumped at the chance. Blessed with superb athletes and large numbers of them, Tyler was able to find success almost immediately with his squads.
“We really had some great athletes and a lot of them my first 10 years. Since that time we have always been among the top three teams in the NVL, both indoor and outdoor, but our numbers have been down a bit in recent years and that hurts us against teams like Woodland and Naugatuck. Still, we have a lot of kids win individual events and always have strong teams.”
Tyler said he’s been fortunate to have coached a number of exemplary athletes during his tenure. “Daniela Ponte (2004) was the state record holder in the pole vault and Jacob Eanniello (2004) was State Open and New England champion in the same event. I had a great 4x800-meter relay squad made up of Christina Ponte, Michelle Royals, Rebecca Wright and Michelle Loya that knocked 45 seconds from their qualifying time at the state meet, came in second and qualified to go to the Nationals in North Carolina in 2006. That was a highlight. And Lindsay Vaill went to the Nationals as a javelin thrower in 2008.” Take a look at the “wall of fame” as you walk to the track at THS and you will see so many names that made history.
“But I’ve also had kids like Samantha Wyman who didn’t look all that impressive as a sophomore but worked very hard and became a great sprinter. He mused, “It’s always fun to work with the great athlete who is almost a natural. But when you are able to work with a youngster and he or she makes huge strides and improve like Samantha did, that is very rewarding as a coach, to think that maybe you had something to do with it.”
Although he prefers a low-keyed approach, Tyler will raise his voice if he needs to get a point across. “I really don’t like to do that because it isn’t me but you do get worked up sometimes.” He added with a smile, “But I always apologize to the kids.”
He apologizes for his rare displays of frustration not so much to make himself feel better but because of his overriding philosophy that his teams “be like a family.” He said, “That is what I always felt when I was being coached by the coaches I respected the most. I’ve had some great coaches and some I didn’t care so much for. I tried to take what I liked from the best and learn what I didn’t like from the other coaches and use it all to develop my own approach. I treat kids how I would want to be treated. I’m a disciplinarian but I also want sports to be fun for the kids.”
He also adapts to the youngsters who come out for his teams. “Each class has a personality so you tailor your approach around that. Kids have changed a little since I began coaching, mostly because of social media. But they still have the same issues now that they had 20 years ago. Technology certainly has proven a plus for coaches. I can take videos on my smart phone and show my athletes what they are doing and what they need to correct. I don’t have to merely try and tell them. They can see firsthand what they need to improve upon.”
Tyler is ably assisted by a number of individuals, whom he relies on heavily for their input and work with athletes. “There are 19 events in track and field and as many as 22 if you do all of them like the decathlon and such. I’m fortunate that I have coaches that believe in our system and I empower them to make decisions on who should compete in what event. If a kid has an issue with a decision, I will hear them out but I tell them to talk directly to my assistant coaches.” Serving as assistants are Mike Schieb, Dylan Kruppa, Sammy Verbickas and Alan Kittle.
“I’m also very lucky that our football coach (Rodriquez) is willing to work with the track and field team in a synergistic way. He allows his players to compete and train with us and then go into the weight room and do their lifting for the football team. That isn’t always the case at some schools.”
It’s been awhile since the Raiders have hosted a NVL championship plaque in track and field. But with a few more athletes and a continued commitment by top athletes to compete with the squad, it’s only a matter of time before Torrington returns to those heady glory days of the early 2000’s.
“I know we will always be in the mix,” Tyler proclaimed.