By Ken Morse, Citizen’s News
With the high school sports season canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Citizen’s News is highlighting longtime coaches at Naugatuck and Woodland high schools who patrol the sidelines during the spring. This week, we shine the spotlight on Naugatuck High track coach Ralph Roper.
NAUGATUCK — There haven’t been many things over the years that have tripped up Naugatuck High track coach Ralph Roper. The nearly three decades of coaching close to a 100 athletes a season or the 40 years of service in the military haven’t presented an obstacle that he could not navigate.
Unlike other sports kids play growing up like baseball or soccer, many athletes are introduced to track and field events — especially jumping and throwing events — for the first time in high school. There is a real short window of time to get a team acclimated to cover the 18 events and put athletes in a position to be successful.
“There is not a whole lot of time to pull that off,” Roper said. “The season goes very quickly and you need to plug them into roles where they can be successful. So, I usually start with an obstacle course that incorporates it all — running, throwing, jumping — so you get an idea who can do what.”
The results speak for themselves. Since Roper took over as head coach in 2002, the boys track team has a 180-30 record and won seven Naugatuck Valley League titles in the outdoor season. The girls team has posted a 162-49 mark, with two NVL championships.
The teams have also been successful during the indoor season. The boys have won 10 NVL titles and the girls have seven championships.
Roper brings a diverse background to his role as a head coach, which allows him to get through to his athletes on a myriad of levels.
A native of Panama, Roper was raised in Brooklyn and moved to Naugatuck in 1992. He served eight years in the Army before serving with the 411th Civil Affairs Battalion stationed at the U.S. Army Reserve Center in Danbury.
Roper has served in Belgium, Italy, France, Hungary and Croatia. He was deployed for eight months to Bosnia in 1996 and 12 months to Baghdad in 2003-04. He retired from the military in 2018 as a full bird colonel, one step away from general.
Roper also knows what life is like in the corporate world. He previously worked as a senior analyst programmer for data warehousing at the then-Crompton Corp. He is now an administrator assistant at Hillside Intermediate School.
“Being the head coach I need to reach these kids on so many levels,” Roper said. “If I need to go corporate I can do that, if I need to go inner city — I grew up in Brooklyn — and if I need to go military, then the bear comes out of the cage.”
Roper has been putting the pieces in place on the track for close to 20 years as head coach with his trusted assistant coach Bill Hanley, who also coaches cross country at Naugy, by his side.
“Coach Hanley and I have been together longer than some folks have been married,” Roper said. “He is really a funny guy, but has a passion for distance running and a love for the sport and these kids that goes beyond track. He’s also very involved in their studies and helping them become good people.”
Roper said he’s been blessed to have Hanley at his side all these years.
“He is a big reason for all of the success we have had,” Roper said. “He is not only part of this team and my coaching staff, he is family, having seen my kids grow up and come through this program.”
Roper’s daughters, Jessica (2002), Whitley (2007) and Regina (2014), and his son, Ralph (2010), came through the Naugatuck track program.
“I was very proud of their commitment and success,” he said.
It was actually another well-respected Naugatuck coach, former boys soccer coach Art Nunes, that started Roper on his coaching journey.
Nunes and Roper worked together at Uniroyal. Roper would run 5 miles every day, and the two men got to talking. Nunes put the idea out there that Roper should go lend his experience to the track team.
So, in 1993, Roper joined a staff that included Keith Raczkowski, Vinny Gruszkiewicz and Alan Strauss. Roper took over head coaching duties in 2002. Along with Hanley as his assistant, a long list of former track athletes have volunteered to help coach the team.
“A lot of the success that athletes like Amanze Williams, Muad Hrezi, Dan Schumacher, Fejiro Onakpoma and Rosa Moriello — all state champions — had was because of the dedication and hard work put in by our volunteer coaches over the years,” Roper said.
“Matt Basile worked tirelessly with Amanze in the jumps, and by the time he graduated, Amanze was on his way to UConn on a track scholarship and an All-State and All-New England champion.”
The longtime coach talks all the time about getting more bang for your buck, and putting everything in place to run the operation and complete the mission. It’s clear that Roper’s demeanor and coaching style not only breeds success on the track, but has rubbed off on his athletes.
“I hear the kids out there mimicking the things I say and it makes me smile,” Roper said. “I like to have fun. I like to keep it light. I try not to let it get too regimented from my military background. Then you hear one of your kids say, ‘You need to stop messing up coach’s operation.’ It’s then that you know you have made a difference in their life.”