By JOHN GORALSKI
Queen Street drivers must have been skeptical in the fall of 1984 to see the Blue Knights gather at the base of the Loper Street hill for the start of cross country practice.
The runners would flock around their coach for final instructions before being ushered into formation. At his signal, they’d take flight up the hill where they’d hover high above the traffic before plunging back to Queen Street on the other side of the field. For hours, they’d complete the circuit—up and down the sharp incline—long after the Queen Street onlookers had moved on from the intersection.
“Our motto that year was ‘The hills are our friends,’” said former Southington High School cross country coach Wayne Nakoneczny (Coach Nak). “The farmer let us use the field, so we would be able to run on the grass. We’d go up Loper Street, run across about 150 yards, and come down to the bottom. As soon as you’d get to the bottom, it would be right back up again. We ended up being able to do that 10 times in a row without stopping.”
Southington High School wasn’t known as a cross country power at the start of the 1984 season. Sure, the Knights were coming off a decent season, but Southington runners weren’t respected by the establishment as any sort of threat for the title.
But nobody told the Knights. Those grueling practices, trudging up and down that signature Southington hill, were about to pay off. There was no cross country course in the state that was more foreboding than that Loper Street climb, and opposing teams were going to find out quickly that they had no chance against the Knights in any race once they reached the first incline.
“The hills were definitely our friends that year,” Coach Nak said with a laugh. More than three decades have passed, but he still shakes his head incredulously as he talks about those Loper Street runs. “That’s where we would beat people—on the hills. We would blow just them away.”
It wasn’t a fluke. That 1984 season was the culmination of years of hard work. A core group of distance runners had been competing together as the nucleus of a strong St. Thomas cross-country squad. When they got to the high school, Black (DePaolo) replaced the group’s top runner, and they never looked back.
Three years later, they were still locked on their ultimate goal. When school wasn’t in session, they formed running groups to train. Their mission was to become the first championship team at the high school, and it was a goal that everyone took seriously.
“When we could, we tried to get together as often as we could to train—even when we weren’t in school,” said co-captain Tim Theriault. “There were always a couple training over here and a couple of others training over there. It was a great group of friends, and we all had that passion to do it together.”
The team also broke new ground, welcoming Southington’s first cross country girl to the mix. Kristen Stanek showed up at the first day of practice, endured the rigorous workouts of the boys team, and launched the girls program over the next couple of seasons.
“She came to me and asked if she could be on the boys cross country team. I told her, ‘Okay, but here’s the deal. I’m not going to do anything special for you. What they do, you do.’ She never complained,” said the coach. “I can still visualize her doing the workouts, even now. I can still see her sucking eggs after. She brought that attitude to the team. I think she helped everyone else on the team because, they looked at her, and they said, ‘Oh. Goodness.’”
The boys—and girl—hit the ground running. While the football team continued to steal headlines, the cross country team continued to grab wins. Quietly, steadily, they began to climb the state rankings.
The team opened with a dominant victory over Farmington, Watertown, and Bristol Eastern, followed by two perfect, 15-50 sweeps and a lopsided 16-47 win over Platt during a quad-team meet the following week. Rick Black led the way, shattering four course records over six regular season races to pace the Knights to a perfect 20-0 dual meet record.
“His practices were so intense. Sometimes, we would have practices where we sort of backed off a little bit. You have to do that sometimes, and I would really have to talk to him about it,” Coach Nak said about his frontrunner. “He wanted to run, but I’d have to put my foot down. Sometimes, you have to keep the horse in the barn some days, so that the next day you can open the door and let them run.”
And when Nak opened the door, his horses loved to run. But Black wasn’t alone. Every finish line was broken by Southington runners. Black would charge, shadowed by a small army of teammates. Theriault and junior Mike Early were fellow all-staters, but the roster was peppered by top performers.
At the conference meet Southington scored nine all-league runners even though just five finishers count for the team score. The Knights finished the first seven runners in the league race. Black, Early, and Theriault were followed by Jeff and Jerry Cavaliere, Mike Krar, and Ed Beaupre at the front of the pack, but the Knights were far from finished.
Co-captain Marty Burns and Art Mitchell weren’t even in Southington’s top seven, but they finished ahead of all but three opposing runners to claim 11th and 12th place in the conference race.
“This wasn’t just about those seven guys on varsity,” Black said about the team’s unprecedented depth. “The reality is that we had a huge amount of depth, and all the guys pushed everybody. It was a pretty amazing team. When you look at the runners that we had, any number of guys could have been the best runner on any other team.”
The truth is, when you broke down the scoring at the conference meet, Southington would have been able to field two teams that would have out-scored everyone else in the conference.
“In cross country, even more than other sports, people think that it only takes only one or two guys,” said Nak. “But if you don’t have that fifth guy, you aren’t going to win. I don’t care what you’ve got. You could go one, two, three, and four…and 50? We had a lot of guys competing against themselves because they all wanted to get in there to score…They were all really gifted, and we had some horses.”
Still, the Knights entered the postseason with one more thing left to prove. The one blemish on the regular season schedule was a second place finish at the annual Wickham Invitational race. Black still finished first, but Southington was edged by No. 1 Xavier in the first battle between the powerhouse rivals. It wasn’t a dual meet, but it still touched a nerve with the Southington squad.
At the Class LL meet at Timberlin Park, the Knights were poised for the rematch.
The Knights attacked the divisional course. Black nearly broke 15 minutes (15:01) to score first place. Early placed fifth (15:28) and Theriault finished seventh (15:36), but once again it was a team effort.
Jeff Cavalier (15:51) and Jerry Cavalier (16:07) both finished in the top 25. Mitchell (16:11) and Mike Krar (16:19) didn’t add to the team score, but both of them finished in the top 35 at the Class LL competition. Southington finished with just 48 points as a team, beating Xavier (56) convincingly to capture the Class LL title.
“I thought that we had lost to Xavier, but come to find out that those guys behind us were the ones that pushed us to the next level,” said Early. “Each one of them beat guys on Xavier that they weren’t supposed to beat. Once we won Class LLs, we knew that the state championship was ours to lose.”
And it was. This time, it wasn’t even close. For the first time all season, Black didn’t score the victory, but he still led the team with a third place finish (16:04.04) at the state open. This time, Theriault (16:11.87) came in ahead of Early (16:28.86) in the top 12. Jeff Cavaliere (17:01.09) just edged Mitchell (17:02.07) for 38th place even though Mitchell didn’t even score in the previous race.
Jerry Cavaliere (17:18.54) and Mike Krar (17:18.99) didn’t contribute to the team score, but both finished in the top 60. Southington scored 99 points to win easily over Xavier (194) and New Milford (208).
“In cross country, you can only take the top scorers, but even our second team, the junior varsity, would have been No. 1 runners on a lot of other teams. We had a huge amount of depth,” said Early. “We did something special, something that has never been duplicated in Southington. At the time, we had the lowest score in the state of Connecticut at a state open championship.”
More than 30 years has passed, and no Southington team has ever been able to duplicate the 1984 state championship run. The following year, the Knights were able to return to the state open as a team, but they weren’t able to contend for the title.
In recent years, the Knights have been able to score frontrunners at the state open, but nobody has been able to duplicate Black’s dominance in the front pack. Both a boys team and a girls team has come close, but no Southington team has even been able to qualify for the state open as a team in the new millennium…let alone win it.
“We had a bond and a mission,” said Early. “We knew that we were good—even when we were younger—because we had been running together for a long time. We just had that drive and bond where we pushed each other, pushed each other, and pushed each other to the next level.”
It’s no surprise that members of the Southington Sports Hall of Fame selection committee have named the 1984 Southington High School boys cross country team as one of two teams to be inducted into the local hall of fame as members of the Class of 2015. Simply put, they’ve done what no other Southington team has been able to do.
“To be the first at something, you have to overcome a lot of history and a lot of inertia,” said Black. “It’s not like you can say that somebody did it a couple of years ago, so we can do it, too. It wasn’t like that. It was a whole new ballgame for us.”
“It had nothing to do with coaching at that point. They had the attitude and the desire. It wasn’t cocky, but they had all the confidence in the world,” Coach Nak said. “They just rallied around this vision that they had. ‘We came. We ran. We fulfilled our dreams.’ That was their attitude. They were all great guys… and girl.”
On Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2015, the team will be honored in a ceremony at the Aqua Turf in Plantsville. 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 Southington Observer editor John Goralski, email him at email@example.com.