Coach Ron Hungerford can look back 45 years and identify the moment he knew there might be a chance to build something special at Thousand Islands Secondary School (TISS).
It was the day he went in to interview for a teaching job at the Brockville high school, when he stopped by the track to take a look before going inside.
“When I came for the interview at TISS,” said Hungerford. “I went and pressed my thumb into the track before I even had the interview.
“I looked around and said, ‘You know we might be able to do this.’”
Upon his arrival, TISS was nowhere close to a provincial power. In fact the school was not even the best in their region.
That would soon change as the Pirates’ new head coach shifted the level, and perception of track and field in Leeds and Grenville.
“Cross country and track and field were not high profile until Ron showed up,” local reporter Ron Smith says. “He turned the TISS Pirates into a real track dynasty.”
Since Hungerford arrived at the school, the team has only lost two regional championships and holds a 39 year win streak. Including three straight OFSAA championships.
In 1976 however, before TISS became the track and field powerhouse it is today, their new coach arrived at the school and found something much different than the team he left behind at East York Collegiate Institute.
“I had 14 kids show up the first day,” said the coach. “I took them through a warm up and said ok we are going to go to Memorial Park and have a little run.
“They said ‘We can’t do anymore we’re all done in.’”
One of his athletes, Josh Jonker, remembers the tough practices, but also the coach leading by example at each one of them.
“He always did the workout with us,” Jonker said. “He would never tell you to do something if he wasn’t willing to do it himself.”
With the team seeing coach Hungerford’s drive, the student-athletes were able to buy in quickly and their development took off, while pushing them to greater heights.
“He’s got this tireless work ethic that you just want to do better,” Jonker added. “Not only for yourself, but because you see how much effort he’s putting into it.
“He’s such a strong leader, but he does it in such a soft way.”
The nonstop work of coach Hungerford drew in other coaches and together they worked on recruiting athletes to his teams, but his ability to build teams always came from his nonstop energy.
“He was keen and enthusiastic,” said Smith. “He had a way of pulling people into him.”
A part of the coach’s legacy in high school track and field is one of the meets he has left behind. With top level athletes on his team, Hungerford had to find a way to compete against the best. His solution; the McDonald’s meet, now the Hungerford-Burnbrae Classic, which has lasted over 40 years.
The meet is now a marquee event in high school track and in its initial years drew schools from Toronto, Quebec, and the United States. To this day it still attracts over 30 schools, with coach Hungerford still announcing every year.
Once his imprint was made on TISS’ track and field team in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, his legacy was cemented in the region. For the Brockville and Area Sports Hall of Fame, there was not much of a debate upon his retirement in 2001.
“He changed those sports (track and cross country) over the last 30 years so much,” said Smith, who remains as one of the voters. “He raised the bar at all the schools.”
A decade later, he would reach a new height when TISS hosted the Ontario Federation of Schools Athletics Association (OFSAA) Track and Field Championships in 2012.
With the Hungerford Classic as a display of consistent volunteers, a new track surface, and the quality of facilities to host, Brockville was given a chance to host the provincial meet. Something never before done in the small town.
From early in his career at TISS, the ultimate goal of hosting the provincial title seemed distant, but always was a possibility.
Since his retirement, TISS has gone on to continue their tradition of excellence the school has promoted since they first opened in 1965. Currently the Men’s team has won three consecutive provincial titles despite the consistently declining enrollment.