By KEVIN ROBERTS
The story of the 1999 Southington softball state championship team is equal parts family, resolve, and redemption.
The Lady Knights had to overcome the near-death experience and uncertainty surrounding their head coach, then they had to bounce back from some tough early season losses. Southington entered the postseason at 16-4 and as the No. 9 seed, but pitching was a question mark, and there were some great teams along the way.
The Lady Knights easily took care of Norwalk and Cheshire in the first two rounds of the Class LL state tournament, then beat top-ranked Newington 3-2 in the quarterfinal. The Indians had defeated the Lady Knights twice during the regular season.
In the semifinal against Stamford, Southington survived by a score of 5-4, and this is where the redemption part of the formula enters the picture. Senior center fielder Nicole deFau threw out the game-tying run at the plate to end the game, and it was significant because senior catcher Diana Janik was able to make the catch and apply the tag.
In the final against Amity, the Lady Knights unleashed one of their top performances of the season in a 6-0 victory. Southington finished 21-4, and head coach Joe Piazza had his 13th state championship.
“That was probably the best game that Wendy Urso ever pitched in her life,” Piazza said. “It was one of the best games we played in that season. We just put everything together in that game. Against a good team like them, we didn’t make a mistake, we got key hits when we needed them.”
“We dominated from start to finish,” said deFau, a Southington Sports Hall of Fame member, Class of 2015. “We scored in the first inning and never looked back.”
June 12, 1999 was extra special for the town as a whole as Southington baseball won its Class LL state championship earlier that day at New Haven’s Yale Field. The Lady Knights were at that game cheering the baseball team on, but Piazza had to give them a reality check.
“They did a little bit of celebrating, then you kind of have to bring them down,” Piazza said. “You have to say, don’t forget, we’re playing Amity. They had beaten us a lot, and they’re a good team.”
After what Southington softball overcame in 1999, Amity stood no chance.
For starters, Piazza was lucky to be at any field with his players, let alone Falcon Field in Meriden for the state championship contest. Piazza was just lucky to be alive.
Jan. 21, 1999 was a frightening day for Piazza, his family, and his Southington softball family. Piazza’s brain aneurysms burst while he worked out at the high school, and there was concern that he wouldn’t make it. Piazza spent the majority of January and February in the hospital or recovering at home. He knew going back to teaching wasn’t an option, but he didn’t want to give up coaching.
“Are you crazy?” Piazza’s wife told him. “You can’t do that.”
Players came by the house to check up on him, and to see if he would be back. Piazza was uncertain, but later got clearance from former athletic director Bob Lehr and the administration.
“It was extremely difficult [not knowing if Piazza would coach], but the most important thing was coach’s health,” deFau said. “It helped that we were a veteran team (six starters were upperclassmen). We had already played for Piazza for several years and could channel what he had taught us.”
Southington also had assistant coaches John Bores and Ron Piazza to run the show while the coach recovered.
“I had great assistant coaches,” Piazza said. “I had John and Ronny. They could run all the drills. I didn’t have the strength to do a lot of that stuff.”
Senior Heather Brousseau began the 1999 season with a bang when she blasted a solo home run in the first inning of a 12-0 opener against Bristol Eastern.
The 1999 season was anything but easy after that. Southington was an unheard of 2-2 after losses to Bethel and Westhill, which were sandwiched around a 2-1 win over Bristol Central.
“The beginning of the season didn’t go the way we wanted,” Piazza said.
Southington won five straight games to get to 7-2, but saw that streak end with its first-ever loss to Newington. The Lady Knights led that game 6-0, only to see the Indians come storming back for a 9-6 final. Southington ripped off seven straight wins to get to 14-3, but lost again to Newington, this time in convincing fashion by a score of 6-1.
“They weren’t happy [after the second Newington loss],” Piazza said.
The Lady Knights closed the regular season with two straight wins and finished 16-4.
“Going into the tournament, we knew we were a good team,” Piazza said.
Southington blasted Norwalk 27-7 in the first round, then dispatched next-door neighbor Cheshire 13-0 in the second round. That set up a third game against top-ranked Newington and star pitcher Lindsay Windish.
“She had one of the best changeups I ever saw to this day for a high school pitcher,” Piazza said.
The Indians led 1-0 with two outs in the top of the sixth inning and were four outs away from a third straight win over the Lady Knights and a berth in the state final. Southington strung together four two-out hits, none bigger than the RBI single from sophomore Jess Salvatore and the two-run single from senior Gretchen Anderson.
“She wasn’t expected to do the stuff that a Heather [Brousseau], or a Stacey Shreder, or a Nikki deFau, or any of those guys,” Piazza said of Anderson.
Anderson came up big, however, and the Lady Knights led 3-1. They held on for a 3-2 victory.
“That was like the monkey off their back,” Piazza said.
It didn’t get any easier in the semifinal against Stamford. Southington surged ahead early but Stamford cut the margin to 5-4 in the seventh inning and had a chance to tie the game. DeFau snuffed it out with a tremendous throw from center field on a two-out single. Janik caught the ball and tagged out the runner to end the game.
“I remember needing to end the game right there,” deFau said. “[Stamford] had all of the momentum on their side. I had to range to my right quite a bit as the ball was hit to left center and soon as I let go of the ball all I could think was, ‘Please catch the ball, please catch the ball.’”
In the Class LL 1998 state final, Janik wasn’t able to handle a throw from deFau on another play at the plate. Lyman Hall beat Southington 1-0 that game. The play in the Stamford game was eerily similar.
“It brought back the nauseating memory of the way we lost to Lyman Hall the year before in the state championship game,” deFau said. “However, when Diana caught the ball and slammed down the tag I think we sprinted off of the field and onto the bus as fast as we could. Redemption! We weren’t going down that way again.”
Southington was in the final, but its pitching was in flux. The Lady Knights had alternated between the senior Urso and sophomore Meagan Blaszczyk during the regular season and postseason, and Piazza asked Ronny Piazza who should start. Ronny, who worked with the pitchers, said Urso should pitch.
“She’s a senior, I got confidence in her,” Ronny said to the head coach. “If she’s hitting her spots, we’ll be OK.”
Southington was more than OK with Urso, who scattered seven hits, struck out four and walked none against Amity. On offense, Brousseau, deFau and Shreder combined for six of the seven Lady Knight hits. DeFau was named MVP after collecting three hits, two runs scored and two RBI.
“The thing I remember most from the 1999 team is what it means to truly be a team,” deFau said. “We were not a team of superstars with an overpowering pitcher. We were a solid team of role players—all of whom had to do their job in order for the team to succeed. We were not bulletproof, as we showed early in the year, but when we all did what we did best we could not be beat. It was a great life lesson.”
Southington’s players were motivated to win their own state championship that would be talked about by Piazza and others for years to come.
“He was like a proud papa bear talking about his cubs,” deFau said. “He cared more about his players and allowing us to be the best we could be and if we won a state title, well, then that’s not a bad confirmation that he did his job. So were we trying to win one for him? No. We were trying to win one for each other so we could be one of his stories he told in years to come. And we did want to make Papa Bear proud.”
So it’s no surprise that members of the Southington Sports Hall of Fame selection committee have named the 1999 Southington softball state championship team as a member of the Class of 2018. On Wednesday, Nov. 7, the Lady Knights 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.