When Joe Fontana addressed his nephew’s team at the postseason banquet, even he was at a loss for words. The former athletic director had been the coach for both of Southington’s previous undefeated baseball teams. If anybody knew what it takes to win a title, it was the former baseball and football legend.
So what did he say to a team that raged for 16 innings just to come away with a one-run loss in the championship game?
“This is the greatest baseball team that I’ve ever seen at Southington High School,” he said to the crowd gathered at the Aqua Turf. Then he trudged back to his seat.
People talk about great programs by listing postseason accomplishments like World Series rings or Super Bowl trophies. They talk about state titles or dynastic eras, but when it comes to Southington baseball you have to talk about the one that got away.
Almost four decades have passed since that 1976 team scrambled just short of perfection. The program has won twice since then and Southington teams have rallied for eight berths in championship games. John Fontana won twice, but ranks that 1976 team as the most talented team that he’s ever seen in 40 years of coaching.
High school teams still battled for nine inning games, and pitching staffs were stretched to their limits. There were no triple-walled aluminum bats. Batters used lumber and pine tar to chase down fastballs or slap curveballs for singles. There weren’t year-round facilities, winter leagues, or fall ball, but the team still managed to compete and scrimmage throughout the year.
Fans claim that the 76 team could probably still beat most of today’s teams in a nine-inning contest. They were that good.
“When a legendary coach like John Fontana publicly states that the 76 team was probably his best, who could question him?” said former Observer sports writer Art Secondo. “That team had the perfect ingredients for the kind of baseball team that every coach would want—defense, offense, pitching and most of all, team harmony and desire.”
On paper, it reads like a major league roster with a four-man pitching rotation and a batting order that’s peppered with .300 hitters. The hurlers were led by hall of fame pitcher Jim Koeller, and the hitters were paced by hall of fame hitter Tom Banner. Five players clawed their way onto the all-conference roster. Koeller and Rousseau played their way onto the all-state list, and Pat Desorbo powered his way onto an all-American list with seven homeruns.
“They were men. They were big guys. We had guys that were 6-foot-4 or 6-foot-5 left handed throwers,” Fontana said. “I knew that we had a good team in the beginning of the year, so I didn’t go out and scrimmage a bunch of high school teams. I scrimmaged against some college varsity teams, and we beat them all in the preseason. I remember [former University of New Haven coach] Porky Vieira told me to just leave my team there with him. We were that good. There wasn’t a weak spot on the team.”
Jim Koeller (9-0, 148 Ks, 1.13 ERA) was one of three pitchers with an ERA under 1.5. Joe Lembo (6-0) had a 1.31 ERA with 67 strikeouts. Jim Gugliotti (1.11) went 5-1 with 47 strikeouts. Al Rousseau was 5-0 in 1975, but he was relegated to a reliever when Lembo transferred from New Jersey. Still, Rousseau (1-0) was perfect every time he got a chance to throw.
“It was an incredible pitching staff. A lot of times, we took guys out of the game just to make sure that we had them for the next game,” said Fontana. “They were interchangeable. They were that good. They just loved to play baseball.”
When teams managed to reach base, they were faced with an even more difficult task. Southington’s defense was like an iron curtain. Over the course of the season, the Knights teamed up for 16 double plays. The infield faced 236 ground balls and came away with only 15 errors.
“Those guys foamed at the mouth,” Fontana said. “We had guys hitting to our fielders for an hour in practice. We’d have one guy hitting to first. We’d have one hitting to the outfield. We’d have another one hitting to short. There were balls flying around the diamond. We’d play for an hour like that, and those guys would field about 100 ground balls each day. Then, I’d go out behind the pitcher’s mound and hit bullets to short and second. We practiced turning double plays. They made it fun, and that’s why they were so loose.”
Southington’s batting lineup was just as formidable. Banner (.410) managed 18 RBI as the leadoff hitter. Tom Bussett was a .286 hitter with seven stolen bases, but he slipped just as easily into his sacrifice role behind Banner with 28 of the team’s 97 sacrifice bunts. Pat Desorbo (.347), Koeller (.333), Gary Burdette (.333), Rousseau (.329), Russ Barry (.310), and Gugliotti (.301) hit for average. Desorbo (7 HR), Gugliotti (3 HR, 2 triples, 27 RBI), and Rousseau (3 HR, 10 doubles, 2 triples, 23 RBI) hit for power. Everybody seemed to have that Midas touch at the plate. Rich Topsche was a bench player at the start of the season, but worked his way into the lineup by mid-season and finished with a .352 average.
“We thrived on getting ahead,” Fontana said. “With our pitching and our defense, once we got ahead we knew we had them. Bussett had an incredible amount of bunts. Banner would get a hit, and we’d bunt him to second. We knew that somebody would hit him in. They did whatever it took to win.”
The team hit the ground running. Koeller and Joe Lembo combined for a no-hitter in the opener as Southington surged past Goodwin Tech, 15-0. They out-scored Wilcox Tech, 18-6, over two games the following week and never looked back. Fontana shuffled pitchers in and out of the lineup like a Vegas blackjack dealer, and each one seemed to perform better than the last. At the plate, the Knights combined for a .322 team batting average. The recipe was simple. Get on base, advance, and score.
“We had pitching. We had power. We had everything,” said Fontana. “It was such a pleasure to watch that team. We could suicide squeeze with two outs. They just did things so well. It was incredible.”
Southington out-scored opponents, 178-46, during their 18-0 regular season run, and it culminated in a battle of undefeated teams in the regular season finale. Southington hosted New Britain in front of a crowd that would rival most minor league teams, but it never lived up to the hype. Gugliotti and Lembo combined for the win. Banner, Topshe, and Koeller paced the offense, and the Knights clinched the program’s third undefeated regular season and the top seed in the Class LL tournament with an easy, 9-4 win.
“That was the year that we opened up our field, and we had no fences,” Fontana said. “My uncle got some rope from the police department, and they roped off the outfield all the way around just to let people stand and watch the game. They were undefeated. We were undefeated. We estimated that there were almost 5,000 people at that game. I was looking into the outfield, and they looked like they were 10 or 15 deep. It was incredible.”
The momentum carried into the postseason. Koeller struck out 14 batters during a 4-2 win over Westhill in the opening round, buoyed by Topshe’s homerun. Koeller struck out 13 in the next round and Topshe drove in the winning run with a bases loaded double as the Knights toppled Trumbull, 5-3. Lembo struck out 12 in the semifinals and the offense countered with four doubles as a 7-2 victory over Staples pushed Southington into the championship game.
Then, the impossible happened. The unbeatable team was edged by Shelton in the finals.
Shelton’s pitcher stayed on the mound for 16 innings. He finished with 16 strikeouts during a marathon performance that threw out his arm and cost him his major league contract. Koeller struck out 15 batters in nine innings. Lembo threw another nine strikeouts in 4 1/3 innings of scoreless relief, and Gugliotti struck out another four before Shelton was finally able to score the winning run.
“The loss to Shelton was like a migraine headache that took a long time to go away,” said Secondo. “It was such a bitter defeat for John, and it was difficult for [former Observer sports writer] Jim Senich and I to talk to him later.”
“That’s one of the few times that I got on the bus and actually cried. I cried for our kids because they didn’t deserve to lose,” Fontana said. “There’s no question that that was the best team that we ever had. I’ve often said that that team is the best high school team that I’ve ever seen in the years that I coached, and we played against some great teams. Nobody had four pitchers like we did. Nobody else had a batter like Banner. You can go through that whole lineup. They were just incredible.”
That’s a major reason why the Southington Sports Hall of Fame selection committee chose the 1976 Blue Knights as one of two teams to be inducted into the Class of 2014. On Wednesday, Nov. 12, they will be honored in an induction ceremony at the Aqua Turf in Plantsville.
“Pride was the biggest thing we had,” Fontana said to the Observer in 1975. “People will never know how many players played with injuries all season long. Shortstop Tom Banner played with a painful hamstring injury, so bad that he can’t play all summer for fear it could cause permanent damage. Al Rousseau had to have a weekly cortisone shot for a shoulder problem. Gary Burdette practically had to live in a whirlpool bath to heal numerous leg injuries, and Jim Koeller played with a knee injury that will have to be operated on soon.”
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.