By JOHN GORALSKI
Pete Sepko charged toward the throwing line at Southington High School’s 1967 regular season finale, and somewhere during his approach things went horribly wrong. The high school senior had to stretch his stride to make up for his poor position, and he was forced to throw his plant foot forward in a desperate attempt to find his mark.
With his body stretched to the breaking point, Sepko just managed to touch his toe to his target. His body recoiled like a spring, and the javelin whizzed past his head like a rocket off the launch pad. The spear soared past the 150-foot mark and then past his personal best. It floated past 160 feet, 170, before it finally struck the earth.
“After we all got done, I was still out there on the field trying to figure out what I did,” he said, shaking his head in amazement after almost 50 years. “That was a big jump from 150-something to 170. How did that happen?”
Maybe it was the future coach in him. Maybe it was a puzzle he just had to crack, but Sepko spent his college years studying javelin technique at Southern Connecticut State College to try to solve the riddle. He read about new techniques from across the ocean. He honed his skills on the field, and he built his strength in the gym.
For four years, Sepko studied the event like a prized physicist searching for an unknown particle. The result? A 12-page treatise that became a sort of bible for his own college coach.
“The whole thing is about approaching and getting your left foot way out there to give you a long pull on the javelin shaft,” he explained. “You have to learn to use your whole body to throw. I learned that in college, and I’ve been using it ever since.”
His former high school coaches weren’t surprised when Sepko returned after college graduation. After all, his high school yearbook ambition was to be a physical education teacher. But they quickly realized that their former high school athlete had transformed himself into a technical pro.
Soon, the Knights were pushing out javelin state champions like they were built on a factory floor. High school coaches brag about having one 200-foot javelin thrower, but Sepko has crowned eight.
When former NFL quarterback Scott Otis set the Blue Knight record (221’10”) in 1991, it was Sepko that trained him.
“Pete was so dedicated. He really was,” said former Blue Knight coach Wayne Nakoneczny. “I remember there were times when our practice was over, everyone had gone home, and there were a few that he was still working with. Everybody else had gone home, but he would work until the job got done.”
He didn’t just work with the throwers. Soon, Sepko was breaking down technique for the shot put, the runners, and the jumpers. He was stopping athletes at the track to fix hitches in their step. He was analyzing jumps, and instructing each minute detail. He was offering tips to opposing players, junior varsity athletes, gym students, and anyone else who’d listen.
“I’ve always been that way. I can analyze people very quickly,” he said. “When I’m down at the beach and people go by me running, I sometimes stop them. ‘It’s hurting me to watch you run. For one, you’re running slowly and only on your toes. How do your shins feel? You’re going to get shin splints.’ I just can’t help it.”
Nakoneczny recognized the skill right from the start. He describes it as a sort of “high speed camera” in Sepko’s head.
“He saw things, and he seemed to record it,” said the hall of fame coach. “He saw things that other people missed because they just couldn’t catch it.”
Soon, that skill was noticed by other coaches in other programs at the high school. Sepko was demanding. He was serious about his sport, but his athletes seemed to respond and love him. When the wrestling program was in danger of folding because it had no coach, the seniors begged the track and field coach to keep their sport alive.
Sepko rolled up his sleeves and hit the mats. He enlisted help from his senior wrestlers, their parents, and wrestling experts across the community. He welcomed back former wrestlers to assist with the technical moves, and he focused on aerobic training and fundamentals. He picked apart the needs of the wrestler, and he jumped into the trenches.
“They beat the hell out of me every single day. Sometimes, I couldn’t even put my key in the door I was so beat up,” he said. “But I learned. My job was to keep them there, keep them healthy, and keep them on weight. They were the ones that taught each other. They came from a good program. I just tried to pick up what I could.”
For 22 seasons, Sepko held the reigns for a sport he never played. His only experience was a college seminar where he got manhandled by an over-sized lineman, but you couldn’t tell by watching his Blue Knights.
Derek Dion was an assistant coach in Sepko’s program, and he still marvels at the coach’s ability to lead without actual experience on the mat.
“It’s a really hard sport to coach if you haven’t done it, if you haven’t felt it,” said Dion. “He did a great job going to clinics and learning. He was always very good at getting us in very good shape. That’s one of the things I learned from him. You have to be in better shape than the other kids. He was a good disciplinarian, and he was a good influence on a lot of kids.”
During the off-season, Sepko would travel the state to pick the minds of the top coaches. First, it was NFA. Then, it was Danbury. If there was a powerhouse program, Sepko would ask them how they did it. His Knights reaped the rewards for his efforts.
In 2000, Southington almost toppled Danbury for the Class LL title, and they came just as close again the following season. At the time, Sepko’s Knights had gone five straight years with at least 23 dual meet wins. The Knights had captured two straight conference titles and boasted a 143-20-1 record during a five year stint that resulted in a pair of Class LL runner up trophies.
“He knew the nuts and bolts of coaching. Nowadays, people use computers for all that stuff, but he was always so organized. He’d write everything down and keep track of it,” said Dion. “You don’t get paid a lot for it. It can sometimes be a very thankless job, but he stepped up every year to help all those kids. He really did a lot for our program.”
It was no surprise to anyone that Sepko was honored as the Connecticut High School Wrestling Coach of the Year in 2001, and he finished as runner up for the national award in the very same year. How does a non-wrestler become a successful high school coach? The same way he excelled at the many different events on the track.
“To me, ‘coaching’ is the wrong word,” he said. “I can teach you how to jump. I’m teaching you how to throw. I teach you how to run. In wrestling, I can teach you how to do takedowns. I’m a teacher. I never did like the word ‘coach.’ To me, that’s just a rah-rah guy.”
Those weren’t just words. Nobody in Southington’s history has a more varied career. Sepko was a long-term coach for track and wrestling, but he wasn’t one to back down from any challenge. He started his career as a coach for the town’s midget football league before moving up to the junior high school and high school levels. He taught swimming for the Southington Parks and Recreation by grabbing a book and studying technique.
He even tried his hand at field hockey when the high school program needed a freshman coach. Once again, he didn’t know the sport. Once again, he jumped right in. Over a four year span, Sepko coached the freshmen, the junior varsity, and even the varsity team. He never shrank from a challenge.
“Why not?” he said. “I did learn it. I learned enough that we were able to qualify for the state tournament that year that I was the head coach.”
There was no feeder program. Even his players didn’t know the rules. All they knew was that he was the wrestling coach, so he asked his first team what that meant.
“We’re in trouble?” they replied.
“‘No.’” he told them. “‘You’re going to be fit for one, but you’re going to learn the skills that you need to learn to be successful at the freshman level. We’re going to do the best we can. We’re going to be strong, and we’re going to be able to run for the whole game.’”
And they did. During his year as a varsity coach, Southington toppled top-ranked Simsbury in the regular season. They earned a state bid and even challenged a Farmington powerhouse in the opening round. Once again, Sepko seemed to have the Midas touch.
“My job is to take somebody and bring them to the next level,” he said. “That’s a lot of pride for me when someone listens, they work hard at it, and they have success.”
That’s why it’s no surprise that members of the Southington Sports Hall of Fame selection committee have named Sepko as a member of the Class of 2016. After all, he’s still coaching after more than 50 years. He’s coached more teams to more success than any other coach in town.
When another hall of fame track coach had a grandchild that wanted to try the sport, even Nakoneczny turned to his former assistant coach.
“The proof is in his record,” Nakoneczny said. “It’s his character. He’s dedicated to the athlete, not just making him a better athlete but developing him as a person. He is committed. He is tough, and he has the ability to master technique.”
On Wednesday, Nov. 9, Sepko 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.