By John Goralski
Some might say that the Lady Knights were so angry about losing to Shelton in the 1985 state finals that they chased them across the northeast just to get a rematch. Still smarting from the overtime loss that ended the 85 winter season, the Southington girls jumped on a bus, traveled to a small gym in upstate New York, and battled the Shelton team over and over during a summer sports camp at the US Military Academy in West Point, NY.
“I can still remember going at it with them over the whole week,” said former Lady Knight co-captain Maureen Forgione-Barmore. “We felt like we should have won the year before, so I think we were just trying to find out who we were. We really had to think about who we were as a team, what was going to work, and we had to work even harder to beat them. It became a little bit of a rivalry.”
Nobody could have predicted that the Knights were on the cusp of something special. After all, the team had just graduated a senior tandem that accounted for more than half of the scoring and most of the rebounding. If they couldn’t win with two superstar seniors, how could they do it with a small band of blue collar athletes?
The answer is: Teamwork.
“We didn’t always have the greatest group of individual talent, but we had a really great team,” said co-captain Angela Spagna-Berryman. “Everybody brought something different to the game, and that made us great. Everyone had a role. We all got along, and we played hard for each other every night. It didn’t matter. When you needed someone to make a big shot—whether it was a senior or a junior—they just came through.”
Still, few could have predicted the team’s late success because the season started slowly for the Knights. It took an overtime effort to dispatch Holy Cross in the season opener. A 47-38 loss to Lyman Hall in late December marked the lowest score for a Lady Knight team in five years, and players began dropping with mid-season injuries.
Spagna missed a few games with a hairline finger fracture. Kim Gamber was sidelined with shin splints. Tracy Ciosek continued to suffer from back pains, and former Lady Knight basketball coach Joe Daddio began patching together his lineup.
When Southington suffered their second loss in mid-January, Daddio gathered his girls to try to steady the ship. The coach told The Observer in an interview later that year that the January meeting was a turning point for the season.
“I just didn’t like the way we were playing. Maybe it was my fault. I had been switching starting lineups around. Maybe the girls needed to have their roles defined. Maybe they were confused,” he said in the March 20 edition of The Observer. “So I set the rules down: who was starting and who was coming off the bench. I said this is it. This is the starting lineup. Ever since we’ve been in good shape. I couldn’t ask for better basketball than they have played the past three weeks.”
Spagna, Jill Pelrin, and Tracy Ciosek continued to lead the starters in scoring, but the Lady Knights began to overwhelm opponents with a steady stream of players shuffling into the game. Daddio heaped praise on bench players like Tina Micacci, Kris Mach, Allison Dinsmore, Lisa Matukaitis, Kim LaPorte, and Lori Wilcox for their contributions. Kristin Wilcox was a sophomore, but she began to score. Suddenly, Southington began to find their rhythm and the only team to beat them down the stretch was a taller, well-balanced Bristol Eastern team in mid-February.
“It was just a matter of coming together,” said Spagna. “When you look at a lot of high school teams, there are just one or two superstars scoring all the points. On any given night, we could have had anybody—somebody you didn’t expect—step up and hit that game-winner. One night it was Jill. Another night it was Melinda [Silva]. We always had somebody step up and get us over the hump.”
Southington began to dominate teams down the stretch. They beat Conard by 23 points. They beat Maloney by 17 and Hall by 16. Southington cruised past Hamden, 67-30, and outlasted South catholic by 12 points. The Lady Knights beat Bristol Central so badly in their first meeting (72-5) that the Rams walked off the court in the last week of the season with Southington winning, 20-2.
“Coach Daddio had the philosophy that we would just play man-to-man defense and a running offense,” said Forgione. “We wanted to just hit the boards. He had the philosophy that it took a whole team to win, and I think that’s how we approached it.”
Southington carried that momentum into the postseason. The Knights dispatched Glastonbury in the opener, 74-31, and cruised past Bulkeley, 65-29, to get a postseason rematch against Shelton in the semifinals. In 1985, Shelton scored an overtime win, but in 1986 the Knights returned the pleasure. With a 47-45 win, Southington earned another trip into the championship game.
“We just started clicking. It was so exciting and emotional. We were on the edge of our seats,” said Forgione. “We had started playing basketball together back in the 1970s. We were probably one of the first groups to play together in town leagues or travel for the girls. We played together for so long, and this was our senior year. We were playing for a state championship, and it was really amazing.”
In the championship game, Southington rallied to an early lead before Rockville closed the gap. In the second half, Ciosek drained four three pointers and Southington earned the program’s second state title. It began a string of four consecutive state championship titles that has not been duplicated in almost 30 years.
“We had no idea at the time that it would start a dynasty, but we were always good,” said Spagna. “We weren’t the most talented team. We just had a lot of role players that knew their roles, and we played hard. We were all such good friends, and that goes a long way. We were able to come together as a team, and we all had that experience from the year before.”
It’s no surprise that the Southington Sports Hall of Fame selection committee chose the 1986 Lady Knights as one of two teams to be inducted into the Class of 2014. After all, they were the ones that started the winter dynasty. On Wednesday, Nov. 12, the team will be honored in an induction ceremony at the Aqua Turf in Plantsville.
Silva said that she wasn’t surprised that the community continues to support the team. “We always had fan support, and it wasn’t just our parents. It seemed like we got the whole student body to come out for our games,” she said. “I think it was a big deal. It wasn’t just home games. They cared about us, and that goes a long way. We got a tremendous amount of support from our community.”
To reserve tickets, contact Jim Verderame at (860) 628-7335. To comment on this story or to contact sports writer John Goralski, email him at email@example.com.
By John Goralski