By KEVIN ROBERTS
Former Rockville baseball coach Art Wheelock knew he was in trouble when he watched the Blue Knights file onto the Yale field for the 1999 Class LL championship game.
Southington’s players didn’t stop to drink in the atmosphere. Nobody stopped to wave to a fan. The Blue Knights marched in single file like soldiers into battle with their eyes locked on their target.
“About a week later, I ran into him,” Fontana said. “He said when our team walked in, and they were single row—now we didn’t do it on purpose—single file coming from the bus and walked through, he said ‘we’re in trouble.’ Every one of our players never looked left or right. They had their bag, hats were on, and all they did was walk straight right to their dugout. They looked like coal miners going to work. He said, ‘We’re in trouble. This fricking team’s got a purpose.’”
Wheelock could have predicted Southington’s 4-0 win before the first pitch was thrown. He could have forecast Fontana’s second state championship. The Blue Knights went 19-1 that season, with only Newington gaining a victory over them. Rockville didn’t stand a chance.
“I knew it was a very hard-working team,” Fontana said. “I didn’t know how good they were going to be.”
What Fontana learned was that he had was a unit that could beat an opponent from any spot in the lineup. The Blue Knights two terrific starting pitchers in Dan Mascaro and Joe Albino, and the defense was solid as well.
Fontana emphasizes that this was his best “team.” That sometimes draws the ire of Southington baseball fans because of the abundantly rich history of the Blue Knights, but the 1999 club represents the word “team” more than any other group during Fontana’s 41-year career.
Were there any future major league players on the team? No. Was it the most talented team? No, but it was a complete team that would wreak havoc over a 20-game slate in 1999.
One great example of the team concept came in that state title game against Rockville. Leadoff batter Joe Lopa came to the plate in the second inning with Southington ahead 2-0. Lopa, not the most widely known name from this great Blue Knight squad, ripped a bullet of a two-run single to put his team ahead 4-0.
In the first inning of that game, Mascaro helped his own cause with a two-run double to give Southington a 2-0 lead. Two runs would have been enough for Mascaro on this day, but then Lopa came up with his big hit, and then the game was really over.
This team had some major accolades and accomplishments that came their way. Four members of the 1999 team are in the Southington Baseball Hall of Fame. They are Mascaro, Jay Maule, Brian Rinehart and Tony Cekovsky. On April 26 at Beehive Stadium, Southington shut out New Britain 5-0 and Fontana picked up his 600th career victory.
Mascaro wasn’t on the same level talent or stuff wise as Rob Dibble or Carl Pavano before him, but he was incredible for the Blue Knights in 1999.
“Mascaro was probably one of the best high school pitchers this state ever saw,” Fontana said. “Nobody walked off of him, unless he walked you on purpose. Then he’d pick you off for fun.”
The Southington ace went 12-1 with a 0.92 ERA over 76 innings for Southington. He only surrendered 10 earned runs and 50 hits, while striking out 91 batters with only 17 walks.
“He was the littlest guy you ever saw, but you put the fricking mitt right there, the ball went there,” Fontana said. “He was unbelievable.”
Southington’s No. 2 starter was Joe Albino, and he was no slouch, either. Albino was a perfect 5-0 with a 1.02 ERA over 33 2/3 innings. He allowed five earned runs on 19 hits, struck out 37 and walked 13.
Cekovsky and Greg Dresko were each 1-0 to round out Southington’s 19 victories on the season.
Offensively, the Blue Knights were a scary bunch. Behind the plate was Ed Reinhard, who could have been a major league player if not for two bum knees. Reinhard was an absolute rock behind the plate defensively.
“Never, never had a passed ball,” Fontana said. “He would block it with his face if he had to.”
Reinhard had tremendous power and once tied a National Federation of High Schools record with home runs in six consecutive at bats.
At first base was a mountain of a man in Glenn Parciak, who also caught and once played right field for a sick Dan Bruetsch. Fontana said Parciak looked like a guy that was working for a cement company.
“When he hit the ball, forget it,” Fontana said.
Second base was occupied by Brian Rinehart, another great player who had issues with injuries. Rinehart missed nine games due to torn meniscus cartilage.
Southington’s shortstop was the magician Matt Denorfia, brother of major leaguer Chris Denorfia.
“Matt was a great shortstop,” Fontana said. “He made major league plays. Great arm, could go in the hole.”
Lopa was the team’s third baseman. In the outfield, there were the Bruetsch brothers, Dan in right and Jay in left.
“[Danny] played the outfield, he could hit like hell,” Fontana said.
The same went for Jay Bruetsch, who batted cleanup and led Southington with six home runs. In center field was another great player, Jay Maule.
“He could hit like hell, and he was a hell of a player,” Fontana said.
Maule led the team in average (.477), runs (28), hits (31) and triples (4). Mascaro led the team in RBI with 29, but he had teammates Jay Bruetsch (26), Maule (24) and Parciak (23) right behind him. Mascaro and Parciak each hit four home runs, and Mascaro also had eight doubles.
Want further proof of the depth of Southington’s lineup? Here are the batting averages 1-9: .315, .477, .409, .442, .458, .320, .375, .342 and .314. The .314 average belonged to No. 9 batter Scott Gianoni, who counted five doubles and one triple among his 11 hits.
Southington’s dominance can also be described in the season’s total stats. The Blue Knights outscored their opponents 190-30 over 20 games and recorded nine shutouts. In 12 of those 20 games, Southington’s defense was errorless.
The Blue Knight offense scored double-digit runs 10 different times. Southington ended two games via mercy rule on grand slams. Parciak did it to Bristol Eastern in a 14-2 season-opening win on April 12, and Albino walked off in a wet 13-3 win over Newington on May 3.
Five RBI was a common end result for individual players. Dan Bruetsch homered twice and drove in five runs against Platt on April 30. On May 17 against New Britain, Albino and Denorfia each drove in five runs in an 11-5 victory. Albino smacked his second grand slam of the season in that victory, and Denorfia also homered.
Southington’s lone blemish in the 1999 regular season was a 4-2 loss at Newington on May 21. Mascaro allowed a grand slam and took his only loss in that ballgame. Fontana and his players weren’t happy with their play in recent games, or that game for that matter.
“This could be the best thing to happen to us,” Fontana told The Southington Observer after that May 21 game. “I kept telling these kids they are going to get burned if they kept playing this way.”
The 4-2 loss dropped Southington to 13-1. One good thing that happened in that Newington game was Rinehart returned to the every-day lineup after being out for nine games with knee problems that started during the annual April vacation trip to Florida.
What the Newington loss did was show the Blue Knights was that they weren’t an unbeatable machine. Their opponents found that out the hard way over the final six games as Southington wouldn’t lose again.
“They had an object ahead of them, and they were going to finish that,” Fontana said.
After completing the regular season with a record of 15-1, Southington opened the Class LL state tournament as its No. 2 seed. The Blue Knights got a first round bye, then knocked off No. 15 Norwalk 8-0. No. 10 Windsor was next, and Southington squeaked past with a 2-1 victory.
“Windsor, Barry Chase was coaching them,” Fontana said. “He had a hell of a team, thought he was going to win, but Albino shut them down.”
Southington picked up the eventual winning run in the bottom of the sixth inning when Gianoni RBI’s single to right center plated pinch-runner Josh Landeen.
The Blue Knights played No. 6 Naugatuck in the semifinals and ran into some trouble. Some sloppy defense helped give the Greyhounds a 3-1 lead against Mascaro, which lasted until the bottom of the sixth inning. Southington scored five times in the bottom of the sixth inning and won the game 6-3, clinching a spot in the state final against Rockville.
“When I look back, those were tough teams that we beat in the tournament,” Fontana said.
Mascaro was dominant in the final, and a pair of two-run hits paced the offense on the way to the second state championship under Fontana. Mascaro threw a three-hitter and struck out 12 in his complete-game effort.
Fontana and company celebrated a championship that many doubted the Blue Knights could win in the preseason and even during the regular season. Southington proved its doubters wrong with a performance worthy of all-time recognition.
So why is the 1999 Southington baseball team being inducted into the hall of fame?
“As a unit, together, they were unbelievable,” Fontana said. “They were a great team together. There were average players that were made really good by their fellow players working with them. They knew they were going to win from the beginning.”
So it’s no surprise that members of the Southington Sports Hall of Fame selection committee have named the 1999 Southington baseball team as a member of the Class of 2018. On Wednesday, Nov. 7, the team 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 staff writer Kevin Roberts, email him at KRoberts@SouthingtonObserver.com.