By JOHN GORALSKI
Southington already had a long, successful sports legacy when the first Observer rolled off the presses in December of 1975.
The town’s history goes back to the fall of 1910 when Lewis High School was one of three new teams to join the 16 established programs in Connecticut. Southington football teams rallied to the highest winning percentage in the state in the 1940s (.782), 1950s (.737), and 1960s (.828).
But the mid-1970s marked a turning point in Southington’s storied histories. More championships have been won in the last 40 years than ever in town history. New programs exploded onto the scene. More Southington High School graduates went on to capture headlines at the collegiate and professional levels than ever before, and the town grew from a small, Cinderella program into one of the largest powerhouse programs in the state.
We were there to enjoy the ride.
Here are some of the highlights:
Southington athletics was about to take a huge leap in the late 1970s as the town’s rapid growth spilled onto the sports fields.
Prior to 1975, Southington teams had rallied to a pair of baseball state titles in the 1950s and another one to kick off the 1960s. Golf had earned its first state title in 1965, and football had amassed nine undefeated teams and 12 Awards of Merit from the CIAC in the era before title games.
But Southington began their rise as an athletic powerhouse as new sports began to pepper the landscape.
The Blue Knights continued to dominate the small schools, led by a baseball team that rallied into the state championship game in 1976 before losing in a 15-inning dual against Shelton, 2-1.
The Blue Knight wrestling team was just starting their second varsity season when we published our first issue, but by 1978 the team had rallied to its first (and only) state championship.
The 1970s also saw the rise of Southington’s female dynasties. In 1978, the Lady Knight softball team captured its first state title. In 1979, they did it again. Were were there to capture each game.
It can be argued that the 1980s were Southington’s golden age. The small town program swelled into one of the bigger school programs in the state, and the Knights began to pick apart those bigger, established schools. When the dust finally settled on the decade, Southington teams had rallied for 15 team championships with four other teams losing in championship contests.
Softball led the way, claiming seven out of 10 state titles in the 1980s. The Lady Knights finished as champions in 1981, 1982, 1983, 1985, 1986, 1987, and 1988, and the 1983 team set a national record for earned run average that would stand up for two decades.
But the Southington girls were almost as dominant during the winter with five girls basketball titles in 1982, 1986, 1987, 1988, and 1989. The Lady Knight hoopsters almost won five in a row with a second place finish in 1985 that sparked their winter dominance.
The boys teams weren’t about to be left out of the conversation. The Southington High School boys cross country team out-distanced everyone in the northeast in 1984 as they dominated the competition to claim the school’s only Class LL championship which was followed up with the program’s only state open title.
The golf team broke a 22-year drought with a division one title in 1987, and Ed Fernandes became the town’s first individual golf champion.
The 1984 football team surged to an undefeated regular season to earn their first berth in a state championship game. Mounting injuries hurt the Knights as they fell to Glastonbury, 23-17. Baseball seemed to dominate the entire decade, but fell one victory short of state titles in 1987 and 1988.
The 1990s were a great sequel to the previous decade as the Lady Knights continued to dominate softball and basketball. Softball captured four state titles in 1990, 1993, 1997, and 1999, and they nearly snatched a fifth title with an extra-inning loss at the 1998 championship game.
Girls basketball picked up where they left off with second place finishes in 1990 and 1991, followed by back-to-back titles in 1992 and 1993. The girls rallied to one more championship game in 1996, but a loss to NFA in the title game signaled the end of the dynasty.
But the biggest story was the meteoric rise of baseball in the 1990s. Forget about state titles, Southington grad Rob Dibble opened the decade with a World Series championship with the Cincinatti Reds in 1990. The former Southington ace dominated for the Reds, earning the 1990 NLCS Most Valuable Player award.
The high school teams surged as well with baseball state titles in 1994 and 1999, along with a second place finish in 1997. Then, Southington’s American Legion baseball team managed to score the town’s only state title during the 1993 summer league.
The football team returned to glory as a state power when it rallied to its second championship game in 1994, but the third time was the charm as Southington rallied to their first title game victory in 1998 with a win over NFA. The Knights returned to the final game the following year, but wrapped up the millennium with a loss to Greenwich in the 1999 Class LL championship.
Southington continued to bask in the national spotlight at the turn of the century as SHS graduate Carl Pavano scored a World Series ring with the Florida Marlins. His victory moved Southington into a unique position of being the only high school in the state to graduate two athletes with World Series rings.
Unfortunately, the Blue Knight boys teams couldn’t match Pavano at the high school level. Blue Knight wrestlers were edged by Danbury for the state title in 2000 and 2001. Football lost in the title game in 2005 and 2006, and boys volleyball was edged by Staples in the championship round in 2007, 2008, and 2009. Even golf fell just short of a state title with a second place finishes in 2006 and 2007, but Matt Riccio managed to scramble for Southington’s second individual golf title with the lowest score in 2007.
Once again, the Southington girls continued to dominate, but new sports were beginning to rise. Softball lost in the championship game in 2002 and 2003 before scoring a state title in 2004 by breaking a national record set by another Lady Knight team in 1983.
But the 2000s saw the rise of new programs. Girls soccer scored the sports only state title in 2002, and the girls volleyball team scored their first state title in 2009.
But the story of the decade was held by a new dynastic rise. This was the decade owned by the Southington gymnasts. The Lady Knight gymnastics team rallied for Class L titles in 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008 before being edged in 2009. They boasted two state open individual champions, and the team rallied for New England titles in 2005, 2006, and 2007. When the decade was finally over, Southington held almost every state and regional record for individual scoring and team scoring.
Southington gymnasts carried their momentum into this current decade as they rallied for Class L titles in 2013, 2014, and 2015 and finished as runners up in 2011 and 2012. When the state open became a team competition, the Lady Knights finished as runners up in 2010, 2013, and 2015, but they weren’t the only team to establish a dynasty this decade.
Softball is threatening the current state record for consecutive wins as the girls rallied for undefeated state titles in 2013, 2014, and 2015. They almost scored a third title in 2012 when they lost to Amity in the championship game. The Lady Knights can boast more titles (17) than other programs can boast about appearances at championship game (Seymour, 16; Coginchaug, 15; and Amity, 13).
In addition, the Lady Knight volleyball team fell just one victory short of their second title in 2011.
The boys continue to battle for titles, too. The decade began with a boys volleyball title in 2010 that marked the second fastest rise to a state title of any Southington varsity program (second only to wrestling). The boys almost did it again in 2014, but fell to Ridgefield in the final game.
Football returned to the spotlight with the program’s first back-to-back titles in 2013 and 2014. This past fall, they nearly scored a third title with an undefeated run that finished in the quarterfinals. Along the way, the team set the longest winning streak (31) in program history and nearly toppled the longest undefeated streak (33) in school history.
Baseball returned to the spotlight with postseason runs in 2011, 2013, and 2014 that ended in the championship game, even though most Southington fans would argue that a controversial call in the 2011 state championship game stole the trophy from the Blue Knights.
Few towns can boast about more success over the past four decades in as many programs. Few can match the dynasties across sports and genders. We can’t wait to see what the next 40 years might bring.