By JOHN GORALSKI
She was just a teenager at the time, but Val DePaolo can still remember that break from practice in the early 1970s. She was lapping at the water fountain outside the gym at St. Thomas Junior High School when she felt a shadow fall across her back. The future state basketball hall of famer stiffened.
When she turned, Kathy Conway standing, arms crossed and waiting. Sure, DePaolo was Conway’s star. Even at half speed DePaolo paced the team during practice drills, but Conway wasn’t there to heap praise. She was there to talk about her leader’s lack of effort.
“I felt this shadow over me. I looked, and she was standing there,” said DePaolo. “I can’t remember the exact conversation, but, boy was she really upset with me. She told me that in no uncertain terms.”
The Lady Knights were still a few years from their meteoric rise when a fresh-out-of-college Conway arrived at St. Thomas Junior High School in 1963. Loudmouthed critics were still laughing at the prospect of blue chip female athletes. It would be almost a decade before Title IX mandated sports equality, but Conway didn’t need the law. She had a vision.
That’s why the coach was ready to make her point by the water fountain even if it meant losing her star player.
“This was an extension of the classroom. It was important,” she said. “If we were going to do this, we were going to do it right. I think you have to approach coaching like that. You’re teaching them something that’s forever. It’s not just for the moment.”
Conway was demanding. She was focused, and she was serious. But that’s because she understood what was at stake. She had grown up as an athlete in Southington, relegated to field hockey and simplified versions of basketball while her male classmates were tearing up headlines on varsity fields.
It wasn’t until after graduation that she got her first taste of serious competition. As a freshman at Central Connecticut State College, she was introduced to a fledgling basketball club. In her sophomore year, it became the school’s first varsity team. The women still had to share their practice space with the school’s gymnasts. Their competitions were played in empty gyms, but for Conway it was eye opening.
Her coach turned her back to the empty seats and barked out instructions with fierce determination. A wide-eyed Conway hung on her coach’s words as she spoke about the future, the sport, and the possibilities. Conway was part of a team, part of a movement, and her coach was opening doors.
“She was spectacular. She told us exactly what she wanted, and we had to really work hard for her,” Conway said. “She told us, ‘Don’t get discouraged. Some day little girls will come to see big girls play.’ I’m so happy that I lived to see that come true. When I see attendance at college games today, I can’t help but think that I wish she was alive and well to see it.”
So, when Conway returned home after graduation, she was ready to take up the charge. When officials at St. Thomas Junior High School asked the young teacher to organize a cheerleading squad, Conway rolled up her sleeves and jumped in.
Soon, the cheerleading club exploded into four varsity teams. At the time, the school still had segregated gym classes, but Conway didn’t let that stop her. She began a town-wide tour of Southington churches, recruiting young talent from the public schools. Soon, families flocked to the school to take advantage of the unique opportunity for Southington girls.
“After a while, more and more kids started to see the programs that we had there, and they started coming because of those programs,” Conway said. “By the time we got up and running, we had a lot of great kids coming through the door. The more that they came through, the bigger the talk was. Word was getting out that you could go to St. Thomas and try new things.”
Conway threw herself into extra curricular activities with the same passion that she brought to the classroom, and the programs began to blossom. First, it was cheerleading. Then, it was basketball. Soon, the young coach was balancing the responsibilities of two winter teams as she rushed from basketball practices to gymnastic meets. Finally, she spanned all three seasons with the start of the town’s first junior high school volleyball team in the fall.
No matter what the sport or what the season, Conway demanded a full commitment from herself and her athletes. Critics be damned. Conway was out to prove that female sports could compete, and—sure enough—they did.
“She used to make us play against the boys…She gave us so many opportunities and really started to change that thinking. We had worth. We were athletes, and that’s important,” said DePaolo. “I couldn’t do gymnastics to save my life, but I remember those gymnastics shows that she used to put on. Those girls were so good that we were really in awe. I used to be in the stage crew just to be involved in it. It was so ahead of its time.”
In practice, Conway stressed fundamentals. Whether it was a practice, scrimmage, or game, she urged all-out effort. Soon, she began to sculpt those raw athletes into future high school superstars. A wave of St. Thomas graduates began to sweep onto Southington High School rosters. Freshmen hit the ground running, and Southington’s great boon of the 1980s was upon us. Conway’s former players were leading the charge.
Neighboring towns were just starting to cut their teeth with female sports, but Kelly Hart, DePaolo, and Bolduc were becoming household names.
Some were natural talents. Others, like Bolduc, were forged in the gym at St. Thomas. Bolduc was a role player, at best, with Conway’s basketball Tigers, but she remembers being treated as if she was the most important girl in the gym.
“Kathy Conway was a game changer. She never made me feel like I wasn’t good enough. She let me know that I could get into the game at any time, and I was a valuable team member,” said Bolduc. “It was very exciting, and if you can make your worst player better, then I think that’s what makes you a great coach. She wasn’t a coach that just flittered around the best players. She was down in the trenches with all of us.”
Conway’s efforts paid off right away, and it didn’t take long to assert the team’s position in the region. Conway’s no-nonsense style, her equal demands for the first string and the bench, began to pay dividends as St. Thomas teams began to squash regional competition.
From 1973 to 1984, Conway’s basketball teams charged to a 157-31 record. By the late 1970s, the Tigers had become so dominant that the school was kicked out of the New Britain Catholic Schools conference. Despite the setback, Conway refused to let up.
Winning was just a byproduct of what she was trying to accomplish, and the life lessons of confidence, discipline, and teamwork demanded 100 percent effort.
“I told them that, if they had the talent, they owed it to the rest of us to do their best. A lot of times, when the girls would come off the basketball court, I’d tell them that they’d better thank the second string,” she said. “I wanted to build that team idea into them, and some of the girls—their dedication was just awesome. Even some of those who didn’t go on to play in college were awesome at the time. They really gave their all.”
In the classroom, junior high school lessons are meant to create opportunities for high school success. For Conway, sports had the same purpose. Players like Bolduc and DePaolo continue to credit Conway for setting a firm foundation.
“At the high school, we had a lot of tough coaches, like Joe Piazza and all the others, but it all started with Kathy Conway. If I didn’t have her at St. Thomas, I don’t think that I would have played basketball at the high school,” said Bolduc. “She groomed us for that next level. I think what Kathy Conway did for us made those high school coaches’ jobs a lot easier.”
Conway brushes off the credit, but said that she enjoyed seeing her former athletes winning high school championships and earning college scholarships.
“I always said to the girls that I would teach them the basics and, once they got to the high school, they’d teach you everything else you needed to know,” she said. “There were some boys that were not happy that the girls were all winning championships. I remember one of them telling me that it was no big deal. They were just playing other girls. I remember asking him why our girls were better than other girls but our guys weren’t better than other guys? They would say, ‘You know what I’m saying.’ I would say, ‘No. You have to go out and practice more.’”
Conway would have been happy to stay in the background, honing the skills of future varsity stars. But when St. Thomas shifted its focus toward elementary school education, an opportunity opened at Southington High School. The coach was forced to give up basketball, cheerleading, and volleyball, but she threw herself into the Lady Knights gymnastics team with the same fierce determination that had become her calling card.
“I always joke with Kathy that every time she came into my office, I had to hide the check book,” said former Southington High School Athletic Director Dr. Robert Lehr. “I knew that she was after something for her teams, and I loved that about her. She was always pushing for her girls, and she wanted nothing but the best for the people on her teams…If there’s a prototype for a gymnastics coach, she was the perfect one. She really knew the sport, and she really knew the kids.”
Once again, Conway’s passion led to success. From 1989 to 1992, her teams rallied to four conference titles. Her roster swelled to 15 to 16 girls. Her athletes ran the gamut from girls with raw talent to former youth gymnasts and a growing influx of club-level athletes. Once again, Conway focused on each athlete no matter where she fell in the spectrum, from bench player to superstar.
“They gave me their best, and I was so proud of them,” said the coach. “I think that, today, as a coach you need to be more technical. I’ve always thought that, especially in gymnastics. I never had that feeling of flying through the air. I knew basketball and volleyball, but gymnastics was always a challenge. My head always had to be in it.”
Conway’s experience with gymnastics was limited. She was a spotter in the gym during her college days when basketball players and gymnasts practiced side-by-side. At St. Thomas, she spent the summers at coaching clinics and seminars. Even though she had not been a gymnast herself, her coaching talents were quickly recognized at the state level.
Southington was still a decade away from becoming a state power on the beam and the vault, but Conway’s teams set the foundation. When the 1991 team rallied to a third place finish at the state meet, it was the best finish at the time for any Lady Knight team. Conway was enlisted by the CIAC gymnastics committee, and she served at the state level until 2005.
“She was in the forefront of women’s sports, and thank goodness that there are people like her,” said Lehr. “Look how strong women’s athletics is now, and it’s because of people like Kathy. She knew how to manage kids, and she was a superior coach.”
It’s no surprise that members of the Southington Sports Hall of Fame selection committee have named Conway as a member of the Class of 2015.
On Wednesday, Nov. 11, she will be honored in a ceremony at the Aqua Turf in Plantsville as Conway becomes the first female coach to enter the Southington Sports Hall of Fame.
“I am so glad that she’s the first woman coach to get in there because she should be,” said Bolduc. “But whether she’s a woman or a man doesn’t matter. She could have coached boys and got the best out of them. Whatever was sent her way, she could make you better. For me, that’s the standard for a coach. She could coach great players, average players, and bad players. She could get them all to the next level, and that’s what a great coach is.”
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 Observer editor John Goralski, email him at email@example.com.