Hall of Fame: The balancing act–Andy Liseo was hard to take down on the field and on the mat

Liseo wrestling

Andy Liseo grapples with an opponent during one of his high school matches, above. Liseo is Southington’s only three-time Class LL champion.

By JOHN GORALSKI
EDITOR

Andy Liseo spun around the first Bloomfield defender like a ninja warrior, bouncing off two fingers to keep his balance, and slipping through a pair of linebackers at the line of scrimmage. Liseo ricocheted off the next defender to find some open space on the sidelines…and it was off to the races.

The 74-yard touchdown run was the longest of Liseo’s football career, and—like everything else—it didn’t come easily. The senior running back had to avoid seven tackles to find the end zone, but the seven points were all that mattered to the senior captain.

That’s how former Blue Knight football coach Jude Kelly remembers his star running back. There were very few 1,000 yard rushers during Southington’s passing era, but Liseo was one of the best.

“He didn’t have a lead blocker, but he was really good at reading his blocks to get that extra yardage,” said Kelly. “When we were throwing the ball a lot, I don’t think that people really understood how important that running game was. People were always worried about the pass, but he made them have to defend him as well. That opened up a lot of things for the passing game.”

Kelly still argues that, if Liseo was a little bigger, he could have been an impact player at the collegiate level because nobody had better instincts for avoiding a tackle. Liseo ran like a wrestler and wrestled like a linebacker, but one theme ran throughout his two sport high school career.

Nobody had better balance, and nobody could take him down.

“The best way I can describe him is to say that you always knew what you were getting every time,” said Kelly. “He was a hard guy to take down. There were kids on our team that were faster or quicker, but he just had that natural sense. He knew exactly when to cut, when to put his head down, and when to drive for a couple of extra yards.”

Former Blue Knight running back Andy Liseo finds some open space during a game in the early 2000s. Liseo was a breakout runner during the fabled air raid era.

Former Blue Knight running back Andy Liseo finds some open space during a game in the early 2000s. Liseo was a breakout runner during the fabled air raid era.

Liseo was a running back during Southington’s air raid era, a time when the Blue Knights spread five receivers across the field. Running backs were treated as second class citizens, glorified blockers, but Liseo shattered that mould.

He understood his role. He happily plunged into the defensive line without a blocker time and time again. But if there was even a sliver of light, Liseo would make you pay.

“I was more of a power runner than a speed guy,” said the diminutive, 160-pound running back. “My favorite play was ‘Atlanta A-gap,’ right up the center.”

Liseo hit the ground running with the Knights, averaging over 6 yards per carry every single season. In three years, Liseo carried the running game with 2,873 yards on the ground and 37 rushing touchdowns. As a junior, he topped 1,135 yards. As a senior, he averaged almost 8 yards per carry.

Southington was known for its passing game, but Liseo forced coaches to stay focused on the run.

In fact, when Bloomfield took that early lead in October 2004, Liseo’s longest run turned the tide. The Blue Knights tried to win the game in the air with 30 passes to five different receivers, but it was Liseo’s 199 rushing yards that meant the difference in the game.

“It wasn’t like he was running 80 or 90 yard touchdown plays every time to get that yardage,” said Kelly. “He was running up the middle for four yards, five yards, eight yards. Very few of them were huge plays.”

Liseo just seemed to relish the battle, and that mentality carried into the winter where he made his biggest impact on the Blue Knights. Liseo entered the wrestling program in the shadow of his hall of fame brother, Larry—just Southington’s second state open champion—but it didn’t take long for Andy to steal some of the thunder.

In his rookie season, he battled into the varsity lineup to medal at the Class LL championships as a freshman. As a 152-pound sophomore, Liseo captured his first Class LL title. But he was just getting warmed up.

“Andy probably had the best balance and core strength of anybody that I ever had,” said Blue Knight wrestling coach Derek Dion. “He was just unflappable. You could get him into some bad positions, but he’d just keep wrestling through them and end up on top.”

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Right from the start, Liseo was nearly impossible to take down. His balance was extraordinary, and he had natural ‘hips.’ No matter how opponents attacked, he could always move his body into the right positions. He often faced larger, more experienced opponents, but he never backed down.

Liseo was absolutely determined to do whatever he could to help his team, impress his brother, and do his part to get a Southington win.

“I had to keep motivated and worked hard,” he said. “Early on in my sophomore year, I lost two matches that I was winning. I ended up running out of gas and losing. I never wanted to feel that embarrassment again. Losing is one thing, but losing because you didn’t put the effort in is the worst. I never wanted to feel that again.”

And he never did. By the start of his senior year, Liseo had earned the respect of high school coaches from Connecticut to Maine. He was considered a pre-season favorite to capture a state open title. As he dispatched opponent after opponent in dual meets and weekend tournaments, wrestling fans became more confident that Liseo could break through as Southington’s first New England champ.

But what most fans didn’t know is that Liseo was battling through injuries throughout much of his senior year. He jammed his thumb during a duck-under move at the start of the season. A couple weeks later, he jammed it again.

With fractures and dislocations that would have sidelined the most fearsome warriors, Liseo continued to charge ahead, beating the best the conference had to offer during dual meets and collecting titles during weekend tournaments.

“We taped his thumb to his fingers, so he had to essentially wrestle without thumbs,” said Dion. “His body positioning was excellent. His balance was excellent, and his defense was just perfect.”

Despite the setback, Liseo went on to capture his third Class LL title as a senior (his second at 160 pounds) and entered the state open tournament as a favorite to win it all. During an early match, he reinjured his thumb, but even that didn’t stop him.

He couldn’t do any top wrestling with just one usable hand. He had to settle for takedowns and escapes to move on in the tournament, but Liseo still managed to grapple his way into the semifinals.

It took a questionable call to end Liseo’s heroic run.

With one hand, Liseo battled Northwestern’s Chris Marks into overtime. Marks took a 3-2 lead into the final period, but Liseo regained the lead with a takedown. Marks managed an escape to tie the match, and the two battled through the rest of regulation and two scoreless overtime periods in a stalemate.

“Andy was really better than him,” said Dion. “Give him two hands, and it wouldn’t have even been close.”

Then, the unthinkable happened. With six seconds left in the sudden-death, triple overtime, Marks scrambled for an escape, and Liseo shifted his hands to stay on top.

The referee whistled an escape. Marks went on to capture the state open title. The crowd was stunned. Without the referee’s call, Liseo would have broken the tie with his defense to win the match.

“I was holding his ankle. How is that an escape?” he said, shaking his head as if reliving the call. “That’s going to hurt forever. He tech-falled in the finals and made it to New Englands. My heart broke, and I crumbled.”

Hall of FameThe ruling still bothers Dion, too. “There were two or three officials that came up to me afterwards and thought that Andy should have gotten reaction time,” said the coach. “The officials didn’t even think that kid got away. Andy grabbed his ankle. He should have been state open champion…I still think he had it. I still think he won the match, but I’m probably more than a little biased.”

Even without the state open title, it was easy for members of the Southington Sports Hall of Fame selection committee to name Liseo as a member of the Class of 2016. He was a break-out runner during Southington’s air-raid passing attack, and he was the town’s only three-time Class LL champion.

A questionable call couldn’t sway the committee.

“He was everything that anybody could ever want out there,” said Dion. “His skill level was second to none. He would wrestle heavier guys. When he was younger, he would wrestle much more experienced guys and older kids. He could really go with anybody. He was just an excellent wrestler.”

As for Liseo, he said he just wants to be remembered as a good teammate and a hard worker.

“I really want my family and Coach D to get a lot of the credit,” he said. “Those wrestlers that came before me really laid down the foundation for any of my success. I also had a lot of really good practice partners, like Jeremy Seeger. Jeremy is a never-give-up kind of guy, and he forced me to never give up.”

On Wednesday, Nov. 9, Liseo 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) 620-9460, ext. 104.

To comment on this story or to contact Southington Observer editor John Goralski, email him at JGoralski@SouthingtonObserver.com.

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