By Joey Partridge
It was a nice winter day at Newington High School, when one athlete’s baseball career would come to an end, but it would be just the beginning of something really special.
Mike Strong, a senior at Springfield College, is a highly decorated Div. III NCAA golfer. In a matter of less than six years, Strong went from never picking up a golf club, to shooting under par in crucial collegiate conference tournaments.
It all started back on that one day, when Strong was a member of the Newington High School baseball team, representing the Indians with pride day in and day out. Strong was a pitcher for the Indians in his freshman and sophomore years of high school.
He was living the life. He was a varsity athlete playing America’s pastime for his high school, until that one day. Strong learned that he had to have Tommy John surgery on his pitching elbow.
Tommy John surgery is a procedure that uses another healthy ligament in the body to repair a torn ligament in the elbow. It is a rising problem among baseball players of all levels. The typical recovery time is between 12-15 months and takes an emotional toll on young players.
Having the surgery between his sophomore and junior seasons, it’s pretty simple math to figure out that his junior campaign wouldn’t happen, and his senior season was in jeopardy. Strong made a very tough life decision and switched sports to golf.
Golf didn’t just come out of the blue. In fact, he did have some prior influence that got him into the sport that he is now very successful at.
“My grandpa kind of showed me the game,” Strong said. “He would take me out to golf courses around and we’d play on weekends.”
Strong had no problems calling his high school self a hack. A hack, in golf terms, is a term for bad, known as hacking it up.
“Once I started taking it seriously, that is when I made my jump,” Strong said.
After dealing with one extremely tough choice to hang up the cleats and stop playing the sport he loved, he was faced with another tough decision that many graduating high school students face, and that was college. However, this wasn’t the end of him being a student-athlete.
The newfound love of his in golf didn’t play into his school decision much, if at all.
“Springfield drew me in with their sports management program. I went in with an attitude of going there to focus on that,” Strong said.
He has always had a love for sports outside of just playing them, and Springfield College has a very good sports management program.
Just like the moment his life changed after finding out about having to have Tommy John surgery, his collegiate career would change before it even began. He received a call letting him know he could do sports management and play golf.
“Coach (Joe Eadie) called me, and I was like, ‘Oh I can play golf there too,’ so that was an added bonus for what I was trying to do,” Strong said.
In the span of a little over two years, not only did he switch sports, but he became so good at his new passion which allowed him to become a college athlete. On top of that, he became the school’s top golfer as a freshman.
“As an underclassman I was, on average, our number one (golfer), so going in I was kind of thrown into the fire expected to produce, and we were really rebuilding as a program at that time,” Strong said. “Teammate Matt Gazaille and I kind of laid the foundation for what we could become.”
Gazaille, also a senior at Springfield College, entered the school’s golf team with Strong back in 2016. However, differing from Strong, he joined in a different fashion. He was recruited to play golf.
Strong was focused on academics in picking his school, but it was the opposite for Gazaille.
“I knew wherever I went I would want to be playing golf,” Gazaille said.
That was a major connection for him with Springfield College.
Coming in with Strong, they had to adapt to playing golf at a different level and against better competition. He admits it was tough at times, but they got through it.
“As a unit we’ve all done pretty well,” Gazaille said.
With the “foundation set,” as Strong put it, Springfield looked to build on something special and become a successful program. After finishing second in the conference in his freshman and sophomore years, things were turning up, and fast.
Many people would be discouraged after finishing second twice, coming so close but unable to finish. Strong looked at it differently.
“Honestly, there wasn’t much motivation going into junior year because Babson was just that good, and they left so we knew we had a chance to win it all that year,” he said.
And that they did. Springfield College, with Strong leading the way, closed it out and won the NECC Tournament. It was finally time to celebrate after three years of hard work.
Something would be very different heading into his last year of Springfield College golf. Just one year removed from winning the NECC championship, Springfield would be in a new conference, the MASCAC.
“There were only six teams left in the NECC and the best competitor was Elms (College), so we wanted tougher competition,” Strong said.
With this move to the stronger MASCAC conference, in three years after the NCAA conference change policy, they would be eligible to get auto-bids into the national tournament. This is all a testament to what Strong and company came in and built with their play.
Not only did Springfield win the NECC his junior season, but he had something else pushing him.
“I didn’t end the season very well so that was motivation for me to come out my senior year and get back to that position and close the deal,” Strong said.
Strong went to work that summer to fix the mistakes he made and to ensure that they wouldn’t happen again.
“I was on the course every day in the summer, spending four hours either playing or hitting balls,” he said.
That type of work ethic can speak louder than words and rub off on teammates around him. Teammate and classmate Doug Shane saw the work that Strong was putting in and it inspired him to be better as well.
“He has put in countless hours on the range and putting green to lower his scoring average each and every year,” Shane said. “He plays every day in some form to get better and he practices the right way to get himself better with a great work ethic that includes no excuses.”
Joining the MASCAC conference, Springfield got a taste of the new competition all throughout the year. Just one week before the postseason, they had a back and forth battle with Westfield State where they came up just short.
With his competitive spirit and confidence, Strong wasn’t worried about running into Westfield State again the following week in the conference playoffs.
“They went into the tournament a little cocky because of the week before, but I knew we could beat them,” he said.
In their first season in the MASCAC conference, Springfield College came in and took it by storm, winning the whole thing.
“It was wire to wire, but we controlled the tempo going in. I felt that they (Westfield) had no shot and they peaked the week before,” Strong said.
After two years of second place finishes, Springfield now had back-to-back conference titles, in different conferences.
“It felt good to win in the first year in the conference, to go out and win in the fashion that we did,” Strong said.
None of this would be possible without not only Strong’s play, but his attitude. He claims he has a naturally competitive spirit, and it’s evident given all of the adversity he’s faced.
“I hate losing more than I like winning,” Strong said.
When Springfield moved conferences to face better competition, there was still one piece of unfinished business that Strong had in mind.
“I wanted Babson to move to the MASCAC with us, but unfortunately they went to some conference down south,” he said.
Babson was the sole reason that Springfield College finished in second place in his underclassman years, and he wanted to be able to beat them. Unfortunately, he was denied that opportunity, but that speaks to how competitive the lead golfer is.
Strong took full advantage of what was simply just a phone call. He was named to All-Conference teams in his sophomore and junior years, second and first team, respectively. In his senior year, he won Conference Player of the Week on three separate occasions, and was named to the All-Conference First Team. One award stands out from those, however.
Strong was awarded the NEIGA Guy Tedesco Award, given to one college golfer in all of New England who has made significant contributions to the sport, and reflects the values of sportsmanship and unselfish leadership. Even with that competitive spirit, Strong still knew that his values and sportsmanship remained higher.
“His award is a reflection on the type of people that are at Springfield College,” Shane said. “Yes, we have great athletes on the field, course, court, but these athletes are even better people, and this award is an example of the high-quality student-athletes we have on campus.”
It isn’t just Strong who takes pride in his progression in his game since he first picked up a club.
“It’s been great,” Gazaille said. “You can see the progression each year in his game.”
Gazaille credits and notices Strong’s work ethic as a huge part of his success.
“It has been a huge benefit to our team and he’s definitely going to be missed next year,” Gazaille said.
In just six years, Strong had one of the most grueling injuries in sports, Tommy John, switched to golf — and became one of New England’s best. It all started when Strong put down his baseball bat for the final time, then took advice from his grandfather, then onto receiving that life-changing phone call. There were a lot of things that happened to fall into place, but hard work and determination always wins.
Featured photo courtesy Springfield College Athletics