Hall of Fame: Good things come in small packages; The 1957 SHS football team proved that quality is better than quantity

The 1957 Southington High School football team didn’t have enough players at its first practice to field two separate squads, but the team managed to survive a grueling schedule of larger schools and a state-wide influenza epidemic to finish as one of just two undefeated teams in Connecticut and a Class B champion. Front, from left, B. Gary (manager), B. Heath, J. LaPorte, J. Petrocini, T. Farr, R. Bohlman, P. Brooks, R. Romano, L. Orsini, G. Gray, F. Kenefick, P. Fazzone, W. Marek, J. Gura. Middle, Coach Walt Lozoski, J. Carbone, W. Snowman, J. Gladke, A. Kenny, E. Rich, A. DellaBitta, D. Laribee, P. Gregorretti, L. Orsini, N. Furrow, J. Bagdanski, G. Orr (manager). Back, R. Sidorik, J. Kelly, T. Goodemote, R. Cusano, D. Dobratz, F. Adams, J. Fontenelle, M. Salzillo. (1958 Chronicle Yearbook courtesy of the Southington Public Library)

By JOHN GORALSKI

EDITOR

It’s hard to imagine what a scout would have thought if opponents scouted preseason practices in 1957. In the first two weeks of practice, Southington couldn’t even field a full offense and defense to scrimmage on their dusty field behind what’s now Derynoski Elementary School.

The late Walt Lozoski was more recruiter than coach at the start, but the roster swelled to 33 by the first day of school. The future hall of fame coach told reporters he was “hopeful,” but admitted having a lot of “new men” and warned fans that his squad was “green.”

They didn’t look “too bad” during a preseason scrimmage with Farmington, but Lozoski said he was doubtful about how his team—smaller in size—would match up to some of the bigger teams on the schedule, especially a big, veteran East Haven squad that loomed as the season opener.

“Some of the boys have a real desire to play football. I hope it rubs off on some of the others,” Lozoski told a Southington News reporter in early September. “We’ll know more by the end of the week. And next week we’ll have a good idea who will be playing.”

Rain delayed the opener, and that gave coaches more time to prepare, and when the team arrived in Middletown on Sept. 28, Woodrow Wilson High School never knew what hit them. The small, Class B Southington team still lacked the numbers of their Class A opponent, but it’s quality—not quantity—that wins football games.

“The 1954 team was always considered our best football team, but I’ll tell you. Nobody ran the single wing [offense] better than the ‘57 team,” said future hall of fame coach Joe Orsene, who was still Lozoski’s assistant in the fall of 1957. “Believe me. It was a dream to watch them play.”

Southington took a 7-0 lead into the half at opening day, but they exploded out of the break with two quick scores. By the time the smoke cleared on the 28-7 win, a handful of Southington players had reached the end zone, including a 48-yard passing play and an 80-yard touchdown run.

Southington’s co-captains were Peter Brooks, left, and Ronald Romano, right. (1958 Chronicle Yearbook courtesy of Southington Public Library)

“We were all about team play. We were all like brothers,” said Walt Marek, a junior in 1957 and one of two all-staters to emerge from the squad. “We all looked out for each other, and we just went out and played together. We wanted to win. We worked hard, and that was about it.”

Southington hosted Seymour in early October, and the locals took a 33-0 lead before Seymour could even muster a first down. By the time Seymour moved the chains in the closing minutes of the third quarter, Southington’s starters had already left the field.

Three interceptions led to three separate scores, and Southington cruised to a 33-13 win. Southington’s defense was a cement wall, but it was their offense that put opponents on their heels.

“No one ran the single wing like that team. No one,” said Orsene. “I don’t care if you talk about Princeton—and they were still a single wing team back then.”

Southington’s line featured co-captain Ronnie Romano at tight end, and Marek at left end. Ed Rich and Tom Farr were tackles, and Larry Orsini and Bill Heath were starting guards with Fran Kenefick at center. Peter Fazzone, Dave Kitson, Dave Larabee, Joe LaPorte, and Wayne Snowman came off the bench, and Southington’s front line mowed over everything in its path like a herd of buffalo stampeding across the Great Plains.

That enabled the backs to do their thing.

All-state quarterback Pete Brooks (co-captain) dealt the football around like a sidewalk magician swindling wide-eyed tourists. George Gray was a fierce blocker. Halfback Dick Bohlman seemed to always be running through enormous holes, while fullback Jerry Petrocione danced, twirled, and leapt through any crack in the defense. Everyone did his part.

“Nobody could spin like Petro,” said Orsene. “He used to practice in the halls of the high school. You’d see him coming down the hall, and he’d all of a sudden to a quick spin just to keep in shape. That’s the kind of team we had.”

Even the runners off the bench, like Norm Furrow and Jim Gura, entered the fray, and everyone in the backfield contributed scoring throughout the year.

Then came the true test, and it wasn’t any opponent. In 1957, an influenza epidemic swept through the state, and cancelations became commonplace as every team struggled to field a team. Shelton was forced to cancel in mid-October, and the game was never rescheduled. Branford canceled the following week.

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In late October, an anticipated match-up between the state’s only undefeated teams—Class B Southington and Class A Darien—was canceled because the locals were so hard-hit by the flu that they only had 18 players at a mid-week practice.

Still, as they say in the theater, “The show must go on.”

When Southington and Crosby found themselves with no opponents on Oct. 19, the teams scheduled a contest. Southington roared to a 34-7 win, and Crosby’s only score came in the fourth quarter when Southington’s defense deflected a pass and it happened to fall into a Crosby receiver’s hands.

Southington was never in any danger of losing.

Orsene said that a mid-season game against Middletown to kick-off November still stands out as Southington’s biggest win. Torrential rains threatened the field, but Middletown coaches never picked up the phone when Southington called for a delay.

“They wanted to play us in the rain,” said Orsene. It may have been Middletown’s only chance to win the David and Goliath match-up. “It was pouring. By the end of the game, there were no lines on the field. The score was tied with about four minutes to go, and they had the ball.”

At the goal line, it was Southington’s defense that saved the day, holding Middletown out of the end zone even though nobody could see the line of scrimmage. Middletown hit the line on fourth down. Southington players didn’t budge.

“There were no lines, so you couldn’t measure, but Jack O’Brien was the official,” said Orsene. “He just waved ‘nothing.’ In other words, we stopped them on the line. You couldn’t measure, so you had to go by the pack of players. It was a dead stop, so we got the ball.”

Southington turned to the “buck lateral,” and blew open the 7-7 tie. Southington earned their victory with three long runs. Bohlman ran for 55-yard and 75-yard scores, while Brooks broke one open for a 44-yard touchdown. Southington came away with a 20-7 win that catapulted the locals into the state headlines.

“It was one of those days where we were fortunate to get the ball at the end and score,” said Orsene. “We were a much better team, but the weather was terrible. In fact, (Southington’s trainer) Doc Gura wanted to call the game at the half because it was raining so hard.”

The win paved the way for Southington’s final stretch. A 24-7 win over Class A Meriden erased any doubts. Meriden’s only score came after a third quarter fumble after the game was well out of reach.

Plainville posed the biggest challenge the following week when the Blue Devils held a 7-6 lead after three quarters of play. It took a trio of touchdowns in the fourth quarter secured a 26-14 Southington win.

The game scheduled as the season opener was now the finale, and East Haven never stood a chance. This was the game that worried Lozoski during the preseason, but a lot had changed since then.

Marek scored three touchdowns with a fourth on an interception return. Gray and Petrocione had one-yard plunges, and Brooks reached the end zone on 65 yard and 45 yard carries.

There were no championship games, but it didn’t surprise anybody when the CIAC announced Southington as a Class B Merit Award winner, the equivalent of a state championship title.

The late Southington coach Joseph Fontana was at the helm for both the 1949 and 1954 teams—both listed among the best teams in town history—but he tipped his hat to Southington’s small squad at the 1957 team banquet.

“Their gridiron product was called one of the school’s best by Athletic Director Joseph Fontana,” the Southington News reported on Dec. 12. Even Fontana was in awe of this group that couldn’t even field a team in September but survived illness, weather, and a schedule of Class A behemoths.

That’s why it’s no surprise that members of the Southington Sports Hall of Fame selection committee have selected the 1957 Southington High School football team as a member of the Class of 2017. On Wednesday, Nov. 8, they will be honored in a ceremony at the Aqua Turf in Plantsville.

“It was a unit,” said Orsene, pointing out how every player stepped up in different moments of the season. “Ronnie Romano was a captain, but the year before he was just one of the guys that was hanging around. I couldn’t believe what a good job he did, and the players were such a tight unit. Everything about that team, I really feel strongly about.”

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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