By JOHN GORALSKI
The former Lady Knight coach shook his head and laughed as he talked about one of his earliest memories of Leslie Dunn at a softball camp in the 1980s. Every year, Joe Piazza would dare his campers to beat him in pushups. It would serve as a lesson about off-field work in the era before weight rooms and personal training.
Piazza remembers the look on the girls’ faces as they tried…and failed. He remembers the satisfaction he felt as a young coach when he drove home his point, and he’ll always remember coaxing Dunn to the front of the line, and the shy, withdrawn pre-teen dropping to the ground before him.
It didn’t take long to realize his reign was over.
“Leslie really bought into that stuff from the time she was young,” he said with a laugh. “It didn’t take long and she was able to bang out regular, men’s pushups better than anybody. It came to a point where she could out-do me, and at that time I was in pretty good shape.”
That year it was the coach that learned the lesson. Take Leslie lightly, and you’ll be sorry. It’s a lesson that many others have also learned.
“She was very, very, very quiet. To get her to say ‘boo’ took an effort, but she really led by example,” said Piazza. “She was a great leader because she accepted stuff like that without questioning it.”
And she proved that actions speak louder than words.
“As a young girl, I was very shy, and I think softball helped me get out of my shell,” she said. “I really liked the outfield and the running. That’s where I felt most comfortable.”
Dunn wasn’t a vocal leader, but Piazza didn’t need that on a squad that was peppered with vocal leaders. What Dunn brought was an unequaled work ethic and a laser-like focus. Sure, other players could talk the talk, but few could walk the walk with Southington’s softball superstar.
As the shy and reserved middle child of four with a father that was a former baseball star at Naugatuck High School, Dunn didn’t fit the mold of a high-octane superstar. In fact, when her family moved from one side of town to the other, from a neighborhood littered with kids to a new development with hardly a neighbor, it might as well have been the moon.
Dunn said that it was softball that helped her through it. It was there that she was most comfortable.
She drifted easily from infield to outfield, from shortstop to center field. At the plate, she was unstoppable, and when she reached the high school as a sophomore, there was already no question that she was a varsity starter. Softball helped her fit in.
“I found my voice in softball with the new kids in the new building,” she said. “I think I got attention for it…in a really positive way.”
She did whatever as asked of her. As a freshman, she was a sort of utility player in the infield before settling in at shortstop as a junior. But when Southington graduated a core of veteran outfielders, Piazza asked her to move to center field as a senior. She never hesitated. In fact, that’s where she really wanted to be.
“She had a great arm. She was fast, smooth, and knew the game,” said Piazza. “I think that really solidified our team. If a ball was hit into the gap, you knew that 99.9 percent of the time she was going to be able to get there.”
Piazza said that, with Dunn’s knowledge of the game, she was able to take charge of the outfield. That left him able to concentrate on the infield, and Southington rallied for the No. 2 seed with a 19-1 regular record.
The Knights surged into the postseason, outscoring opponents, 42-9, in the opening rounds before edging Westhill, 4-3, to win the Class LL title. Dunn was at the center of the charge.
“It was a great group of people, a great group of girls,” she said. “Go back six years, and we were all playing together in those camps. We were like a family. It wasn’t like we all hung out together, but on the field we were a family.”
Dunn was at the center of that family. She was the anchor in the outfield, but she made the most noise at the plate. In her senior season, she went 36-for-79 (.468) in 24 games, collecting 29 RBI, five doubles, three triples, and a homerun. Her .462 career batting average shattered the previous school record (.440) by more than 20 points.
“Any time there was a situation where you wanted somebody up at bat, you would have wanted it to be her,” said Piazza. “Even though there were a lot of good hitters on her teams, she was the one you wanted to be up.”
But Dunn wasn’t just a one-sport phenom. At DePaolo Junior High school she tried her hand at volleyball between seasons. By the time she reached the high school, she had developed into a strong middle player. Naturally, she was an outside hitter. She was undersized in the middle, but that was where she was needed.
So, like she did on the softball field, Dunn played wherever her coach needed her to play, and it didn’t take long before college scouts began to show interest in her for two sports. Colleges were already scrambling for her softball skills, but Dunn was just as promising at the volleyball net.
UConn actually recruited her in both sports, and volleyball won the early tug-of-war.
“When I went up there, I really wasn’t planning to play softball,” she said. “I was a volleyball player.”
On the other hand, it didn’t take long to notice that Dunn’s size would be a handicap at the division one level, and she’d probably be relegated to the bench. So when UConn’s softball coach came to her in the fall with an opening in her roster because of an injury, Dunn leapt at the chance.
She played in the fall, and she managed to work her way onto the field in the spring of her freshman year for some limited at bats. As a sophomore, she was no longer a fill-in for injury. She was an everyday player and a big part of the Husky roster as they battled to Big East regular season championships in 1994 and 1995 and Big East tournament titles in 1995 and 1996. In her junior year (1996), UConn rallied to an NCAA tournament regional title.
“It was exciting. I think there’s an adventurous side of me, and I loved traveling all over the place,” she said. “It was hard to juggle sports and academics, but being an athlete is a big thing at UConn. I got a lot of attention for that.”
After her freshman season, Dunn never dipped below .219 at the plate, finishing with a career batting average of .233 with 82 hits, 41 runs, 22 RBI, and 11 extra bases. She was only caught stealing once in her final two seasons, and was named an all-American scholar-athlete as a senior.
Still, despite her individual and team success as a division one athlete, she said it couldn’t compare to her state title as a Lady Knight.
“We won the Big East championship—and that was awesome—but it was never quite the same,” she said. I would chose winning with childhood friends any day. It was our families, too, and all the memories and vacations when you’d travel to Massachusetts to play. College is more grown up and more of a business.”
So it was no surprise when Southington’s athletic director called her after graduation to try to recruit her as a coach for the up-and-coming volleyball team. When Rich Heitz took over the program the next year, Dunn proved instrumental to his transition.
“She knew the culture, so she was very helpful to bounce things off of as I tried to understand the culture and where we wanted to bring the program,” said Heitz. “Being a former division one athlete and a multi-sport athlete in high school, she knew what it took to be successful on and off the court.”
Soon, she married and took on the name Carlson, but in her heart she was still the same shy, determined kid that led by example. Heitz and Carlson formed a formidable duo, and for 13 years she was the constant on his staff.
Carlson’s freshmen and junior varsity teams rallied to a 192-15 record with seven undefeated seasons. More importantly, her players went on to capture Southington’s only varsity championship in 2009.
“I loved watching the kids grow. That’s the best part,” she said. “They go from not even being able to get the ball over the net as freshmen to a state championship? That was so memorable, and when they came in as freshmen they weren’t a group of kids that came in with all those skills. It was a lot of fun.”
Heitz said that her coaching was instrumental at every level, and the feedback that she gave him about his players was priceless as the program began to emerge as a state power.
“Nobody could pull the wool over her eyes because she knew what it was like to compete at the high school and college level,” said Heitz. “Leslie is extremely compassionate and understanding. Being a former athlete, she’s been there. As a teacher, she has a keen sense for some of the things that they have to deal with, and she’s very sensitive to all the obstacles that they’re dealing with.”
Few Southington High School athletes have been as successful in multiple sports in high school, college, and fewer still have gone on to such success at coaching. So it’s no surprise that members of the Southington Sports Hall of Fame selection committee named Dunn-Carlson as a member of the Class of 2017.
“A lot of it seems like it was a lifetime ago, a girl that I forgot that I was,” she said. “I have a sense of pride in Southington. I’m a product of the town. I was raised there, and I was able to give back to the community. . This is really nice.”
On Wednesday, Nov. 8, she 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.
“I’m glad to hear that she’s getting into the hall of fame,” said Heitz. “When you coach with somebody for 13 years, it’s more than just a coaching assistant. She deserves this.”
Piazza agrees. “She was probably one of the better true hitters that we’ve ever had,” he said.
To comment on this story or to contact Southington Observer editor John Goralski, email him at JGoralski@SouthingtonObserver.com.