Wilton Villager

Tyler's Tournament -- Ugolyn basketball event celebrates the love of the game



March Madness has arrived a month early in Wilton. Especially if you happen to be a player, coach, volunteer or just a fan of the Tyler Ugolyn Memorial Valentine's Basketball Tournament, being held at Our Lady of Fatima School from Jan. 29 to Feb. 13.

"It runs 16 straight days," said Sarah Fair of Westport, who, along with her husband Matt, serves as co-athletic director at the K-8 Wilton school. "This year we have 45 teams, mostly Catholic schools within the Bridgeport Diocese."

The tournament is broken down into six divisions: Boys and girls varsity for seventh and eighth grade, boys and girls junior varsity for fifth and sixth grade, and boys and girls junior-junior varsity, for third and fourth grade.

That adds up to a lot of basketball.

"Last Saturday we had 21 games," Fair noted. "The gym was packed, too."

"The first game Saturday started at eight in the morning and the last game was not over 'til eight at night," added Bill Coupe, a Wilton resident who's also involved with the tournament.

This is the 11th year of the popular tournament, but only the second under its new name.

"It used to be called the Valentine's Classic," said Fair, who's been involved with the tourney for the last half-dozen years. "That's what it was originally called and it always runs the first two weeks of February. "But last year, we re-named it the Tyler Ugolyn Memorial Valentine's Basketball Tournament."

Tyler Ugolyn was a 1993 graduate of Our Lady of Fatima from Ridgefield, who tragically lost his life in the World Trade Center attacks on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. He was only 23 and a recent graduate of Columbia University, where he played basketball.

"He worked for Fred Alger Management, a money market firm in the Twin Towers," Coupe said. "Ridgefield actually now has a Catholic school, St. Mary's, but it didn't back when Tyler was growing up. So his parents sent him to Fatima because it was more of a regional school."

Ugolyn certainly made quite an impression on the hardwood during his time there.

"Our pastor, Father (Michael) Palmer, is a huge basketball fan," Coupe said. "He used to be the pastor at a parish in Bridgeport, so he knows good basketball players, and he said Tyler Ugolyn was by far and away the best basketball player to come out of Our Lady at Fatima."

He wasn't the only one Ugolyn impressed. The 1997 Ridgefield High School graduate was a two-time All-FCIAC Central Division selection and, as a senior, was a McDonald's All-American and a Street & Smith's top 250 recruit.

Ugolyn went on to enjoy a stellar career at Columbia, where the Lions' annual start-of-the-season basketball tournament known as the Columbia Classic was renamed the Tyler Ugolyn Columbia Classic in honor of the former shooting guard.

His impact in college, however, went even beyond the basketball team.

"He started a group called Columbia Catholic Athletes," Coupe said. "It was an organization of athletes at Columbia who were motivated by their faith like Tyler was. He used to also run clinics for underprivileged kids in places like Harlem while he was at Columbia."

In that vein, the Tyler Ugolyn Foundation was established by his parents, Diane and Victor Ugolyn, who still live in Ridgefield, and his younger brother Trevor. The Foundation's primary purpose is to support youth basketball through skills clinics and the refurbishing of courts.

In fact, several courts nationwide have been renovated and funded through the Foundation and named "Tyler's Courts" with a plaque installed at each court bearing the words "I just love playing the game," a quote attributed to Tyler while in high school.

What's more, in September the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., where Tyler was born, announced it was partnering with the Foundation to refurbish one of the local YMCA courts.

"And every year, wherever the college Final Four is held, the Basketball Hall of Fame refurbishes a court in that city through Tyler's Foundation," Coupe added.

Closer to home, Ugolyn's former school on Danbury Road is also doing its part to keep his memory alive through its annual basketball tournament.

"It's all about kids and school spirit and that's what Tyler was all about," Fair said. "He was a very spirited young man."

Fair and her husband have four children, three of which - their eighth- and sixth-grade daughters and a son in fourth grade -are all playing in the tournament. Their second-grade daughter will be eligible to play next year.

"It's really a family-oriented tournament," Sarah Fair said. "We get a lot of people who come back every year and comment how much they like it. There's great sportsmanship, real good competition, and great food. We have the best kitchen in Fairfield County.

"All the work that goes into it - and there's a lot - is all done by volunteers. We get a lot of support from parents."

That includes herself and her husband, who volunteer as the school's co-athletic directors.

"Matt and Sarah do most of the administration work for the tournament," Coupe pointed out. "They do all the referee scheduling, too."

"This is our major fund raiser for the year and all the proceeds go to support athletics at Our Lady," Fair said. "It allows us to keep running boys and girls basketball, girls field hockey, and a co-ed cross-country team. This is such a great boost for the school."

Adding to the excitement, the Our Lady of Fatima teams in the tournament are doing pretty good so far. Both the boys and girls varsity teams, as well as the girls JJV team, all entered play this week still undefeated.

"So far we're holding our own," Fair said.

Coupe's two children - a sixth-grade daughter and an eighth-grade son - also attend the school and are playing in the tournament.

"I never knew Tyler personally," he said, "but Sports Illustrated featured him in an article in their post 9-11 issue. I finally put two and two together and figured out the kid I just read about attended the same school my kids go to."

Fair also never knew Tyler, but "I met his parents last year," she said. "They came to the tournament and Mr. Ugolyn spoke to the crowd about Tyler's spirit and competitiveness. We're hoping they return this year.

"It's just a great tournament," she concluded. "It's fun for our school and fun for the kids."