By John Goralski
Nobody must have batted an eye when Greg O’Connell strolled into the high school gym in 1962 because nobody could have seen the scrawny 13-year old as much of a physical threat. At 5-foot-9, the freshman forward didn’t turn many heads. At 118 pounds, O’Connell wasn’t going to push around many high school players in the paint.
But Walt Lozoski saw something in O’Connell’s size 14 shoes, and the late Blue Knight coach would not be disappointed. For his part, O’Connell started to grow…and grow…and grow…
“I was a late bloomer,” O’Connell said with a laugh. “When I entered my senior year at 16, I was already 6-foot-5 and 210 pounds with a size 14 shoe. I graduated from college at St. Leo’s, and all of a sudden I’m 6-foot-7, 235 pounds, and a size 14 shoe. Even when I became a coach later on, I always looked at my player’s shoes. You can never tell.”
On the other hand, it couldn’t have been too much of a surprise when O’Connell muscled himself into the varsity lineup as a sophomore. After all, two of his older brothers had already worked their way up as captains for the Southington team, but when he worked his way onto the floor at the midpoint of his sophomore season, he rallied for 10 points off the bench in his mid-season varsity debut. At the end of the year, he was already averaging close to double digits.
“He was tenacious, and he always knew where the basket was,” said Wayne Chopus, an upperclassman on that Southington team. “He wasn’t a gunner. He just knew where the basket was whether it was four feet away or 10 feet away.”
O’Connell might not have looked like much at his first high school practice, but he ended up as one of the best that the school has ever seen. But as good as he ended up, nobody could have seen it coming.
Sure, he held his own in pick-up games at the Bristol Boys Club in elementary school when he and his brothers were waiting for their father to pick them up after school. In Southington, he earned a solid reputation at Plantsville School as one of a small core of players that would eventually lead the high school back to prominence, but O’Connell was just a typical kid. Sports were just the normal rite of passage.
“If you were a boy and were interested in athletics, you played midget football, bitty basketball, and Little League baseball. I was no different, but I wasn’t a standout,” he said. “When I went to the high school I tried out for football, but I was nothing. Baseball was really my love, but I got cut from the baseball team my freshman year.”
Their loss was basketball’s game, and O’Connell hit the ground running. Coach Lozoski wasn’t one to promote his underclassmen, but Southington was mired in the worst season in program history. So, even though his classmates were showing success in the junior varsity competition, O’Connell was thrust into the varsity game.
It wasn’t always easy. No senior wants to feed the ball to an up-and-coming sophomore. At every practice, O’Connell was always the last man in the pecking order.
“It’s hard for a kid to be brought up to varsity as a sophomore,” he said. “It’s hard because you’re sort of leaving all your buddies behind, but the transition was easier because my brother was there. Of course, you always have those upperclassmen looking down on you. But when I started contributing, people start thinking that the little sophomore could play.”
In his junior year, O’Connell had already established himself as one of the best players in the state. He scored 28 points in the season opener and went on to score double digits in every game but one. O’Connell finished with 330 points and 224 rebounds. He broke into the top 20 in state scoring, but all that mattered was the four-year postseason drought.
The team raced out to an 8-3 start before a late season collapse dropped them out of postseason contention. Sure, the 10-11 record was better than the previous year, but that didn’t seem to matter.
“I was just crushed after that season,” O’Connell said. “I took it so badly. I was devastated. I told my teammates that it wasn’t going to happen again.”
And, true to his word, it didn’t. As a senior, O’Connell paced an 11-game winning streak to start the season, including an upset over Plainville, before Newington ended the streak. The Knights responded with another eight game winning streak that culminated in a win over Newington in the rematch.
Southington was at the bottom of the conference just a few years earlier, but O’Connell powered them to an 18-2 record and a conference title. He ranked sixth in the state in scoring (521 points) with 344 rebounds. In one game against Windsor, he broke Southington’s single game scoring record with 36 points. In the rematch against Plainville, O’Connell set Southington’s single game rebound record (27) in a Blue Knight upset. Three times, O’Connell scored more than 30 points as Southington earned a bye in the opening round of the tournament.
“It wasn’t just me. We had four guys in double figures, and for high school that’s pretty phenomenal,” he said. “We were so balanced. Even though I was the leading scorer, there were times when each of those guys were the highest scorer. We were all very capable players, and that’s what made it a good team. It wasn’t just one guy. We were all good, and we had great chemistry.”
The momentum carried into the postseason as the Knights raced past Darien and Branford before running into a buzz saw in the semifinals. The Knights held future NBA all-star Calvin Williams to just 31 points but lost, 78-48. O’Connell was named to the CIAC All-Tournament team, but it was little consolation.
“We were crushed. It was very disappointing, but nobody was to blame,” he said. “They were a good team. They had been to the state finals the year before. They were veterans, and of course, they had Calvin Murphy. He was a hell of a player, but we held him to 31 points. That was the only positive.”
It was no surprise that scouts came calling. O’Connell received interest from Quinnipiac, Central CT State College, Holy Cross, Fairfield, Sacred Heart, the University of New Haven, Southern CT State College, and American International College, but he opted for a year of prep school.
In one season with Laurelcrest Prep in Bristol, O’Connell scored 301 points (21.5 ppg) with 258 rebounds. Once again, he was named all-conference and played on the all-conference team. That spring, he returned to the mound to lead the team with a 3-1 pitching record and a .375 batting average.
“They wanted me to play football, too, but I went there for academics. I went there to play basketball and study,” he said. “That was the turning point in my life. Maybe that isn’t true basketball-wise, but academically it really helped. I improved my SAT scores by 250 points.”
The following year, O’Connell earned a full scholarship to St. Leo University in Florida. He scored 223 points as a freshman and 284 points as a sophomore before averaging double-doubles for the next two years. By the end of his career, O’Connell had collected 1,264 points and still ranks third in school history for career rebounds (818) and single season rebounds (320), but it didn’t come easy.
“As good as I thought I was, I quickly realized that I knew nothing,” he said. “It was like a whole new world. I had to deal with more competition, and the practices were grueling. My defense at Southington was terrible because Coach Lozoski told me not to foul out. At St. Leo, I had to play tough defense. I had these kids from Chicago city leagues, so we had to battle.”
His efforts drew the attention of NBA scout and future New York Knicks Coach Red Holzman, but a torn meniscus forced him out of the NBA and ABA camps. That’s when O’Connell turned to coaching. Over the next 23 years, O’Connell would build Springstead High School from a new program into a Florida power with 366 wins and 18 tournament titles at the district and regional level.
For his efforts, he was named as the Nature Coast Coach of the Year five times to earn Nature Coast Coach of the Decade honors in the 1980s.
“In the first few years, we didn’t even have a gym. We used to practice outside or in the cafeteria. We used to use the clock as a reference point for the basket when we were working on blocking out and things like that,” he said. “I had some great kids, blue collar kids that worked hard. We had some good teams, but it’s hard to win state championships in Florida. You have to win three district games. Then, you have to win three regional games. Then, you have two state games.”
With his dominance at the high school, college, and coaching levels, it’s no surprise that members of the Southington Sports Hall of Fame selection committee have named O’Connell as a member of the Class of 2014. On Wednesday, Nov. 12, he will be honored in a ceremony at the Aqua Turf in Plantsville.
“I always thought that Greg was one of the best players in our town,” said Chopus. “Someone asked me once, if they ever had a basketball hall of fame in this town, who would get in? My first name was ‘Greg O’Connell.’ He was that good.”
To reserve tickets, contact Jim Verderame at (860) 628-7335 or Val DePaolo at (860) 620-9640.
To comment on this story or to contact sports writer John Goralski, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By John Goralski