By JOHN GORALSKI
Rob Dibble was already claiming headlines with the Cincinnati Reds when John Fontana welcomed his pitchers in the spring of 1994, and scouts were already clamoring around Dibble’s successor, senior right hander Carl Pavano.
Of course, pitchers were always a pre-season story during Fontana’s first three decades with the Knights. Southington had at least one first team all-league pitcher in 30 out of 32 seasons. They had two first-teamers 26 times.
What Fontana didn’t have was a championship ring.
“The town, and everybody, kept saying that I wanted to win, but it really never bothered me as much as it seemed to bother everybody else in town,” said Fontana. “I always strived for perfection from our kids, and we just wanted to win a lot of games.”
But it definitely bothered the players, and this group had something to prove. Pavano was the fire, but his teammates were the steel, forged into a weapon during the off-season.
“We knew we were good based on what was coming back, and as a unit they were great,” said the former coach. “I mean, Pavano was Pavano, but if you took any other guy out of the lineup, I still couldn’t tell you that we’d be as good as we were. Everybody during the year contributed. You know?”
It was a team in every sense of the word. The previous summer, they all stayed in town, rallying for Southington’s only American League state title. During fall baseball, nobody defected to various leagues. Even in the winter, they could be found pitching or batting after school.
When spring finally sprung, the team was already in full bloom.
“That unity is so important, and all of those kids stayed together. That was great for us,” Fontana said. “Baseball’s played all year round. If your kid is good, he’ll play the high schools season. He’ll play during Legion, and he’ll play in the fall. In baseball, you don’t need AAU. Our kids were playing together year round.”
Still, the early spotlight fell on Pavano as he clawed out wins in the early season. Southington’s ace needed extra innings to out-last Platt. He hurled a one-hitter to dispatch Bristol Central, and he held off New Britain until Southington could rally in the late innings. But he wasn’t alone.
Pavano struck out 186 batters over 91 innings. He rallied to a 12-1 record and a 0.62 ERA, but when he was resting Southington never missed a step. Bob McKee (0.62 ERA), Jason Tarigo (0.00), and Gary Sweezey (1.24) combined for a 9-1 record and a 0.66 ERA.
Sweezey earned a 3-0 record despite posting the highest ERA in the bullpen, but he was throwing fastballs in the low 90s and was catching the attention of major league scouts.
“They were all good,” said Fontana. “Bobby McKee was really good, but even those other guys could have been stars in any other year.”
Defensively, the Knights were solid at every position. Dave Danko was described by Fontana as a catcher that would “block a ball with his head if he had to,” and that set the stage for the rest of the infield.
Mike Aparo was a tough defender at first base. Brendan Firetto, a tall and lanky infielder, covered a lot of ground at second base. Jason Tarigo could stop anything at third base, and Dave Marek was the anchor at shortstop.
“They may not be names that people might know through the years, but as a unit they were one of my toughest,” said the coach. “Even when nobody else believed in them, these guys believed. They were the ones that told me that we were going to win.”
The outfield was littered with athletic leaders. Chris Maggipinto, Scott Cowell, and Gary Burdette were tough defenders, but they were even tougher behind the plate.
“They just wanted it, and they could fly in the outfield to get any ball,” Fontana said. “They were a hell of a defensive outfield, but boy could they hit. They were so close-knit.”
As a group, the Knights went .346, hammering out 213 hits, including 61 extra base hits, and 131 RBI. Tarigo (.469), Pavano (.435), and Maggipinto (.406) led the way, but Cowell (.387), Jake Hamm (.362), McKee (.346), Marek (.325), and Firetto (.313) each hit over .300.
“We had a lot of different guys that contributed to the team,” said the coach. “They could all bunt—even if they had two balls and two strikes. These guys were well-drilled and well-schooled.”
Southington out-scored opponents, 126-46, in the regular season. The Knights opened the season with a 6-0 record and finished the year with a 14-game winning streak. The only blemishes were mid-season losses to Bristol Eastern and Newington, but Southington won the rematch both times.
Each game drew a contingent of major league scouts, and night games drew as many as 500 fans.
“I’m not putting down any other team that I had, but baseball was so powerful back then,” said the coach. “As strong as this team was—in any other year they would have gone undefeated—even they lost a couple games. It wasn’t easy. We had to come from behind. We had to win, 1-0. They never gave up, and they never believed that we weren’t going to win.”
Of course, the battle-hardened team was ready for the postseason. Southington gave up three runs in four games, but not a single one of them was earned.
After a bye in the first round, Southington rebounded from an early deficit to outlast Xavier, 3-2.
Pavano was locked in a pitcher’s duel against Norwalk in the quarterfinals. Pavano managed a one-hitter on the mound and scored the game-winning hit in the ninth inning to get the 1-0 win.
McKee silenced Bristol Eastern’s bats in the semifinals to put the Knights ahead in the season series with a 1-0 victory that sent Southington to the championship game.
Pavano didn’t have his best stuff in the championship game, but it was enough to get a 4-1 win over West Haven. Then, the celebration began.
“The kids went nuts,” Fontana said as he leafed through an old scrapbook, stopping at a picture of Southington players and fans in a pile underneath the scoreboard. “I remember standing in the back of the dugout and watching those kids enjoy themselves. Even the people in the stands went ballistic. It was great to see that.”
Now, fans will have another chance to celebrate that victory. The Southington Sports Hall of Fame selection committee chose the team as a member of the Class of 2016. On Wednesday, Nov. 9, they will be honored in a ceremony at the Aqua Turf in Plantsville.
It won’t be the first time that the team was celebrated. After the title, Pavano was named first team all state and drafted by the major leagues. Sweeney signed a contract with the Dodgers, and Southington was ranked as the top team in the state and the region.
Pavano and Merrick represented the state in Connecticut’s all-star victory over Massachusetts at Fenway Park.
“Across the United States, there’s something like 24,000 or 25,000 high schools,” said Fontana. “You never see any from the northeast, but here they were. A lot of it had to do with people looking at Pavano. They would ask, ‘How good is the team?’ Then, they’d see us winning and winning—even without Pavano. They were good.”
Now, they’ll earn their place in the hall of fame as one of Southington’s top teams—as if that was ever in question.
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 Observer editor John Goralski, email him at JGoralski@SouthingtonObserver.com.