By Jon Goralski
Who knows what was going through that knobby kneed hitter when he trudged to the plate in the early 1980s. Scouts had little information on the tiny preteen that glared at him from the pitcher’s mound. Maybe he thought it would be easy to face a young girl on the mound. Maybe he was worried about what everyone would say if he didn’t get a hit.
Dawn Lantiere nodded calmly at the catcher as he signaled her first Little League pitch. The batter dug in. The fans leaned forward in their seats, and Lantiere delivered her first memory to Southington fans.
It wouldn’t be the last.
“I have to be honest. I was afraid at first when I got up against those boys, but my father kept encouraging me,” Lantiere said with a smile. Three decades have passed since her first pitch, and it’s still a topic of conversation when she runs into former teammates and opponents. “After about a year or two, I learned not to be afraid. After a while, there were some people that were actually afraid of me. That was pretty funny.”
From the very start, Lantiere was a fighter. Whether it was in backyard pickup games against her older brother and the neighborhood boys or on a pitcher’s mound in the Western Little League, she always seemed to hold her own. Southington was in the middle of its first housing boom. It would be a few years before town organized travel leagues or camps for local girls, so Lantiere did what she had to do. Until the time she was 12 years old, she rolled up her sleeves and took on the boys.
Usually she won. When the Observer ran a short list of Little League all-stars in 1982, a 12-year old Lantiere was the only girl on the list.
“I still get harassed sometimes by the boys, but it’s actually pretty entertaining because we’re so much older,” she said with a laugh. “When I run into someone I pitched against in the Little League, they’ll remind me if I struck them out or they got a hit. It was almost like they were all my brothers. They helped to toughen me up, and they looked out for me. It was challenging. At times I was the only girl, but I loved the competition.”
Lantiere comes from an accomplished athletic tradition. Her father has already been inducted in three halls of fame. Her older brother went on to play baseball at the collegiate level, and her sister was an accomplished dancer. It would be easy for the young woman to get lost in such a field of athletic talent, but right from the start Lantiere proved she could hold her own.
“She is probably in the top eight or 10 players that played during the time that I was coaching,” said former Lady Knight softball coach and assistant basketball coach Joe Piazza. “She was a great kid, a good, hard-working student, and she did well all the way through. It wasn’t just at the high school. She was good at St. Thomas, and she was good at college.”
There weren’t a lot of options at the time for promising female athletes, so Lantiere cut her teeth in organized sports against the boys in the Western Little League. It wasn’t until St. Thomas Junior High School that Lantiere was introduced to other female standouts, and that set the stage for all the followed. Right from the start, they cleared room in the lineup for Lantiere as a catcher for hall of fame pitcher Tracy Ciosek.
“It was fantastic. I wasn’t really a catcher, but I just wanted to play. If you put me anywhere on the field, I was happy. I didn’t care what I was doing. I just wanted to be in the lineup,” Lantiere said. “It was such an awesome experience because Tracy was such a phenomenal pitcher. I had a lot of great teammates, and we had a lot of fun. It was a good team. It was almost like a family, and that’s where I met all my friends. That’s where I met those girls that I’d play with at the high school.”
Lantiere wasn’t in that first wave of students to kick start the Southington sports dynasties, but it was clear that she could hold her own when she first arrived at Southington High School. When the girls basketball team rallied for their first back-to-back title in her sophomore year, former Lady Knight basketball coach Joe Daddio credited Lantiere and a few others for their bench contributions.
“Dawn was a really good basketball player. She was a pretty good rebounder and a pretty good shooter for her size,” said Piazza. “She was one of those Joe Daddio clones. She was a great defensive player and had a heart that was twice as big as her body. She just worked and worked as hard as possible.”
The Knights went on to win three straight titles with Lantiere in the lineup. As a senior, she scored 8.7 points per game, anchored the defense, and rallied for double digit scoring in the quarterfinals, the semifinals, and the championship game.
“You just learned to be a better player by being near those girls that were incredible,” she said. “Everybody had something to offer, whether it be shooting or rebounding. Shooting foul shots was sort of my thing. I practiced them all the time because I knew it was so important. It can be the difference between winning and losing games.”
Of course, it was in the spring that Lantiere made her biggest impact. The former Little League all-star stepped right into the starting lineup as a sophomore. The softball team was coming off their second straight title that spring. The team was in the middle of a two-year winning streak, but Piazza shifted around his veteran infield to insert Lantiere at shortstop.
“When she came up, it was just a matter of finding a position. She was coming into that team that had won, at that time, 28 or 30 straight games, but she was solid as a rock for us, fundamentally and defensively,” Piazza said. “She was not afraid of anything. You could hit a ball at her as hard as you wanted to, and it didn’t make any difference. She could go into the hole to get a ball and had a really strong arm. She took charge on pop-ups in the infield. She just sort of stepped in, and she was in there for three years.”
“It was very challenging, but I love the challenge,” she said. “Coach Piazza trusted me in that shortstop position, and that’s where I wanted to be. I felt like I could help the team, and I accepted that role. Sure, I knew it would be difficult, but I was there to be competitive. I worked hard to get on that field, but I would have been happy playing anywhere. He had the faith and confidence to put me there, so I wasn’t going to let him down.”
Right from the start, she was an impact player. Lantiere rallied for a .410 batting average as a sophomore, and the Knights rallied to their third straight title. As a junior, Lantiere was named as a team captain where she led the team to another state title with a .377 average. Southington finally lost a title run in her senior year, but it wasn’t because of their shortstop captain. Lantiere led the Knights with a .403 batting average and was named to the all-conference and all-state rosters.
“When we lost in softball my senior year, people kept coming up to me and asked me if winning five out of six championships bothered me,” she said. “Are you kidding me? I had five state championships with great people. I was playing with my friends and my teammates. Sure, we were disappointed, but we developed great relationships that molded us into great adults. It was such a great part of my life that I wouldn’t trade for anything.”
It was no surprise that college scouts came calling for Southington’s prized infielder. Lantiere received interest from UConn, UMass, and the University of South Carolina. She opted to head south.
“It was an extremely tough decision, but it was time for me to break away and get away from home,” she said. “I really wanted to go to UConn and represent Connecticut, but I also felt that it was time to move away and try something different. I wanted to challenge myself, and it was extremely challenging.”
It turned out to be a great decision. A series of injuries thrust her into the starting lineup as a freshman, and Lantiere never left the starting rotation. She moved to first base as a junior and played 246 games over the next four years. She still ranks in the top 10 in six different career categories, including career walks (79), walks per game (0.32), at bats (741), and sacrifice hits (35). She led the team in walks in her junior year (28), and that’s ranked seventh all-time for a single season. Her 14 sac hits in 1990 still ranks seventh all time for the Gamecocks.
“I played a lot, and I stayed on that field,” she said. “I took a lot of pride in all the hard work that I did throughout my career. I wanted my family to be proud, and I just wanted to play.”
It’s no surprise that the Southington Sports Hall of Fame selection committee chose Lantiere as a member of the Class of 2014. She’ll join her father, Mike (Class of 2010), as the first father-daughter inductees. On Wednesday, Nov. 12, she’ll be honored in a ceremony at the Aqua Turf in Plantsville, along with her 1986 Lady Knight softball team.
“I am so thankful for my family, especially my father. He was always there for me right from the start. He really guided me from an early age when he played with my brother and I in the yard. He was hard on me, but if it wasn’t for him and his love and guidance I wouldn’t be sitting here today,” she said. “I’m humbled. Just being a part of that group makes me feel blessed. To be put in the same category with such great athletes is amazing, but I was only as good as my teammates. I wouldn’t be here without them.”
To reserve tickets, contact Jim Verderame at (860) 628-7335 or Val DePaolo at (860) 620-9640.
To comment on this story or to contact sports writer John Goralski, email him at jgoralski@ southingtonobserver.com.
By Jon Goralski