FITCHBURG, Mass. -- Tyler Strange first started dribbling and shooting with his father when he was three years old. Not too long after, he was running alongside the old man during weekend pickup games at Leominster's Assembly of God church, begging to jump in with guys in their late 20's, some early 30's.
"I wouldn't be able to hit the rim obviously, but I'd be out there trying to shoot, trying to dribble," he recalled, smiling. "Guys would be mad, but hey, I was just trying to get a run with them."
By 12, he was a regular on the court in those games, able to hold his own -- "they started picking me for teams," he laughed -- and so a sensation was born along Route 13.
Or so it seemed. Strange transferred to Ashburnham's Cushing Academy after a promising sophomore season at Leominster High, only to transfer again to the Notre Dame Prep campus in Fitchburg last fall and land himself square off the bench. Year one proved to be some growing pains for the 5-foot-10 point guard, coming in as a sub on a roster that lacked in big men.
Year two, though, has bode well for the senior. That was on display Wednesday night in the Crusaders' 99-62 win over CJEOTO Academy of Somerset, N.J., at St. Bernard's Activity Center, which improved them to 13-3. The flashy guard connected for eight assists in the win highlighted by dominating performances from Khem Birch (22 points, 12 rebounds, five blocks) and Myles Davis (7 of 10 three-pointers).
Over one particular five-minute stretch in the second half, Strange racked up four such dimes in dazzling fashion, and added a nifty teardrop to finish it off. First, he drove to his left and skipped a no-look bounce pass to Jamir Hanner, who missed the one-handed slam but picked up a shooting foul. Then, following an air-balled Kadeem Jack hook shot from the baseline, Strange connected with Davis on back-to-back three's on the drive and kick.
His next two assists-- both in transition -- were to Birch, an old summer league teammate of his, first on an alley-oop in transition that the 6-foot-9 slasher slammed home; Strange followed that up on the next fast break down with a behind-the-back dish off the dribble that Birch laid in.
Strange capped it off with one of his more beautiful plays of the night. Starting from near the scorer's table at midcourt, Strange took a step right and crossed to his left, charging hard from the left wing and lifting the ball underhand over two defenders for his final basket of the night.
"It's hard to be outta control with my foot back there," laughed head coach Ryan Hurd. "And that's really it. We focused on it, and he finally understood that it's more fun to play our way."
He then continued, "The key for him -- for us -- is that he's never looking to get his. He takes such pride in running the team, and making sure that everybody's getting the ball distributed to them. And at this level, that's so rare it's ridiculous. We benefit from it in ways I don't even think he knows. But if you have a basketball mind, you see it right away."
Strange thinks the improvement comes as "just a matter of playing the game", but also credits his familiarity with Birch, whom he first befriended two summers ago when the two both played for the eXpressions summer traveling team. In fact, when he first heard Birch was transferring into Notre Dame from up the road at Winchendon School, Strange wasted no time reaching out to him.
"Knowing your teammates gives you an extra edge, where they're going to be, how they move, how they shoot," Strange said. "And that's the thing, we've been setting up at practice every day at Notre Dame -- open gym, everything, just to get a feel for the guys. We play 35 games, and you really close to each other, and know where everyone is on the court."
Yes, at Notre Dame, players have access to the gym all the time, and are encouraged to take advantage. In Hurd's first season back in 2007-08, he recalled Terrence Jennings and Kim English coming in as late as 1 a.m. on Saturday night for a game of one-on-one, up to 100 points -- "Those are nights I'll never forget, and they'll both be rewarded with NBA contracts at some point," Hurd said.
As for this group?
"These kids, they're following in that mold," Hurd said. "They love to play, and when you have a team that loves to push each other, good things are going to happen."