By JOHN GORALSKI
Colleen Klopp stepped away from her defender and called for the basketball as the clock was winding down in overtime of the NCAA tournament basketball game in 2001. Her first shot? Nothing but net. The next one? Same thing.
For fans of Quinnipiac women’s basketball team, that March madness run was a turning point in program history. In the first round, the Quinnipiac women clawed their way to the school’s first victory as a division one program. In the second round, they were giving Long Island University everything they could handle in an overtime battle.
Klopp was the secret weapon, and the former Lady Knight delivered. Quinnipiac’s Cinderella run came to an end with an 80-74 loss to LIU, but Klopp delivered eight straight points to keep fans on the edge of their seats in the final minutes of overtime.
That’s what Quinnipiac expected from their precision shooter. It’s why Klopp is still ranked No. 1 in three point percentage since Quinnipiac transitioned to the college big leagues. Nobody was cooler under pressure.
Last year, the Bobcats reached the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in program history, but the coach still points to Klopp’s senior season as the start of the meteoric rise.
“I don’t know where we would be without her,” said Quinnipiac coach Tricia Fabbri. “Not only did she help change the fortunes on the court, it paved the way for our future success. We were able to get a better player because we were winning, and Colleen made us a winner.”
For Southington fans, that comes as no surprise. From the moment Klopp (now McCaughey) stepped onto the hardcourt, she was a force to reckon with.
Her father was a teacher in the Southington school system, but the family didn’t move to town until she was a ninth-grader at DePaolo Junior High School. Colleen had already established herself as a power forward in the state’s elite AAU programs, but high school coaches saw something different in their undersized forward.
“It was actually (former Lady Knight coach) Joe Daddio that broke it so gently that I wasn’t tall enough,” she said. “So he was actually the one that started me out as a guard. Looking back, I’m very thankful, but I wanted to be in there, rebounding with all the big girls.”
As it turned out, the move was perfect. Southington’s 1980s dynasty had come to a close by the time Colleen arrived as a sophomore. But with the fellow hall of famer Jen Gombotz in the paint and Colleen at the perimeter, the Knights were ready to make another run. She still wanted to be fighting for rebounds, but coaches challenged her to run the show at guard.
“Reverse psychology was always a good thing to use against me,” she said. “If you told me that I couldn’t do something, I’ll probably try to prove you wrong.”
The proof came right away. As sophomores and juniors, the Klopp-Gombotz duo charged to the quarterfinals. As seniors, they were the ones to beat. Southington rallied to a 20-0 regular season record to claim the top seed, and the girls returned to the finals before losing to NFA in the championship game.
Southington fans still argue that the Knights would have captured the title if Klopp hadn’t blown out her knee. Southington was unbeatable through most of the season with the top two scorers in the state. Colleen was averaging 16.7 points per game when the injury struck, and if she was healthy it might have tipped the scales in the finals.
But fans hadn’t seen the last of their high-scoring guard.
“Fortunately, I had signed early with Quinnipiac in the fall,” she said. “I always joke that they had to take me because I had already committed for at least a year. I had the knee surgery in the spring, and I was successful from my freshman year in college.”
Quinnipiac never regretted the signing. Whenever Colleen was a part of a program, success usually followed. Klopp is most known for her work on the basketball court, but as a volleyball captain she helped lead the Lady Knights to the program’s first championship game appearance in 1995.
Former Lady Knight volleyball coach Chris Wanner said that Colleen could have made just as big of an impact as a college volleyball player. She played in the pre-statistics era, but her contribution can easily be measured by the team’s success. It would take almost a decade before Southington returned to the state finals.
“I think that, if she committed herself to any sport, she would have been able to play at the college level,” said Wanner. “She was a true athlete. She’s quick, she’s smart, and she’s a studier of the game. She never worried about how she compared to anyone else. She just wanted to do better than she did yesterday.”
That’s why she was such an important cog in the machine as Quinnipiac made the transition to the college big leagues in her sophomore season. She set the pace for Quinnipiac against the established programs, leading them in scoring every year. Klopp set the standard for shooting poise, and was a central figure as Quinnipiac fought for respect against the established schools.
“Colleen’s contribution to the success of the Quinnipiac basketball program can’t be overstated,” said Fabbri. “The transition to Division I was challenging, and we needed some difference-makers to say yes. As her career stats confirm, she was the scorer and shooter who legitimized us.”
Now, Bobcat games are broadcast on television and scores are reported in newspapers and ESPN, but that wasn’t the case when Klopp arrived at the school. In their first year as a division one program, UConn set a national record with a 97-point victory over the D-I newcomers.
Most players would have been demoralized, but Klopp took it as a challenge. She embraced the role of underdog and helped set the foundation for everything that followed. Quinnipiac endured the lopsided losses and empty gyms, and by the time she left the program the team had qualified for the NCAA tournament and advanced into the second round.
“Going from Southington to that was a hard transition—going from where the gym was packed and we were winning every game to a significantly losing season that first year,” she said. “That’s a nice thing to look back on with my class that went to Quinnipiac. I like to think that I was a part of that transition.”
Klopp was a floor general and a consistent performer. She still holds the school record for three-point percentage (38.9 percent) since the program transitioned to division one. Even though she played at the division one level for just three seasons, she’s still ranked 13th in career scoring (1,307) since the school made the transition.
At the free throw line, she was at her best, and Klopp is still ranked second overall in single game free throws (15).
“That was my thing. I wasn’t the quickest. I wasn’t the tallest, so that’s where I focused a lot—the fundamentals of my shot,” she said. “I knew when I got the ball, I couldn’t afford to miss very often. Then, my dad used to always tell me that they’re not called free throws for nothing. They’re free. Free points.”
They’re only free if you make them, and she usually did. Klopp did the little things right, stressed fundamentals, and always persevered.
Few players have done more to build programs. She helped rebuild the Lady Knight basketball team into a state contender. She helped lead the volleyball team to its first title game, and she helped build a division one program in college.
“I wasn’t the tallest. I wasn’t the fastest, but I wasn’t going to let anybody beat me on defense if I could help it,” she said. “I was going to work harder than you in practice, and I was going to be a good sport if you happened to get the better of us that day.”
That’s why it’s no surprise that members of the Southington Sports Hall of Fame selection committee have named Klopp-McCaughey as a member of the Class of 2017.
“She belongs in the hall of fame because she was a standout athlete, and she has the statistics to support it,” said Wanner. “Even more so, it’s the type of person she is. It was the type of teammate that she was. Despite being really successful as an athlete, she was most successful as a teammate.”
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 never comfortable getting acknowledged, so this is interesting for me,” she said. “I’m so grateful for the opportunities that Southington gave me, especially athletically. It changed my life.”
To comment on this story or to contact Southington Observer editor John Goralski, email him at JGoralski@SouthingtonObserver.com.