While passing through the gates of Southington Sports some Athletes have left an indellable mark. This page is dedicated to them and the supporters who helped them along the road to Southington Sports Inmortality. Thanks to John Goralski for all his help.
1978 Southington High School Wrestling Team
No team has done it faster. No team has quieted more critics. It was just four years since Coach Bob Wittneben had rolled out mats in a small closet at the high school, but his Southington High School wrestlers climbed their way to the top of wrestling world.
The tight knit group upset a couple of teams in the regular season to capture their first undefeated season in program history. In just four seasons, the team was able to collect its second straight conference title. Jon Smith and John Sperry captured individual titles. Seven wrestlers scrambled to the medal round in the field of established, powerhouse programs. Three athletes went on to finish second at the state open championship, and the Blue Knights were crowned as the 1978 Class LL champions.
Southington has fielded a number of talented teams in the three and a half decades since, but none have come close to the success of the 1978 team. The team rallied to a 17-0 regular season record and the program's only state title.
“They established wrestling in this town,” said Wittneben. “They dedicated themselves to it, and it set the standard going forward. Here we had guys with limited wrestling experience, and they gave everything they could every time.”
2005 Southington High School Gymnastics Team
There has been a lot of debate over the years about which football team was the greatest in town history. There are a number of different softball teams that can make arguments about their own supremacy. But when it comes to a Southington team making a lasting impact on a sport, no team can match the success of the 2005 Lady Knight gymnasts.
“If you equate what we did to other sports, it would be like winning a football game by 50 points…at the state championship,” said Knox. “I don’t think that there can be an argument. I don’t think you can debate it at all. What that team did was unprecedented, and I don’t think we’ll ever see something like that again.”
In a sport that's decided by hundredths, the Lady Knights shattered the previous state record by more than five points. In a meet where winners and losers are separated by fractions of a point, the Lady Knights captured a state title by a 13-point margin before going on to shatter the record at the New England championship meet.
Four scores count in each of the four events, and that saved opponents from even more embarrasment. If Southington's next four scores in each event were grouped to form another team, they would have finished second in the state. Their scores didn't even count for the Lady Knights, but they would have beaten the second place team by more than five points.
Southington gymnasts earned five Class L titles. The girls went on to claim three state open individual titles and two New England titles, and Southington launched yet another sports dynasty
Skeptics laughed when Bob Wittneben rolled out wrestling mats in a small room at the high school. Critics scoffed as he tried to woo student-athletes at an assembly in the gym. Southington was already established as a football, baseball, and softball power when Wittneben came to town in the early 1970s, but it didn't take long for Wittneben to quiet his critics.
Over his short tenure with the Knights, Wittneben's teams rallied to an 87-30 record, which still ranks third in winning percentage (.744) among Connecticut coaches with fewer than 100 victories with two undefeated seasons, two league championships, and one state title. It took just four seasons for Wittneben to craft a Class LL title in wrestling.
“He wasn’t just able to teach the kids to wrestle,” said Blue Knight assistant coach Jack Alkon. “He was a very good motivator. He was always positive. He didn’t have to berate the kids. He didn’t have to intimidate them. He just has a strength that is contagious.”
If that was all he did, Wittneben would have earned his place in Southington's Sports Hall of Fame, but Wittneben joined the coaching staff in baseball and football. He organized booster clubs in three sports, and went on to a 15-year career as a Connecticut wrestling official.
Few families have dominated a sport like the Solomons have dominated wrestling, and Brian Solomon was the one that launched the dynasty. He was the first to place at the Class LL championship, and the first to go on to college. He was the first to win the New England championship in college, the first to be named as an all-American, and the first to claim academic all-American honors.
Brian Solomon set a standard that few athletes have been able to match. At Western New England College, Solomon rallied for a pair of New England titles in wrestling. He set records for the program in each season and was named captain for his final two seasons. He was a three-time MVP for the program. He was a two-time all-American and finished second in the nation at the 1984 NCAA D-III tournament.
“Brian is probably the most intense kid that I’ve ever, ever coached. Man, was he focused. He was focused academically. He was focused off the mat, on the mat. He worked hard and really took it to task,” said former WNEC coach Bob Skelton. “I would tell him something on a Tuesday, and on Wednesday night he’d be doing it in a match like he was doing it his whole life. He made me look good for a long time. He was doing stuff on the mat that just blew me away.”
Solomon is already a member of the Western New England University Hall of Fame (2002) and the New England College Conference Hall of Fame (2007).
Southington opponents never knew what hit them when Ernie Blue took the floor in the winter of 1971. The Blue Knight basketball team was struggling to be competitive. The offense was having a hard time staying in games, so first-year coach Ed Nardi unleashed his senior captain.
Nobody was ready for what happened next.
Blue shattered Southington's single game scoring record by nine points with 45 point effort on opening day. His 43-point effort later that season still stands as the second highest effort in program history. He faced double and triple-teams for the rest of the season, but averaged 22.6 points per game. With five games left on the schedule, Blue became just the second player in Southington history to break the 1,000 point barrier. When dust settled on the season, Blue had collected more points in his three-year career (1,155) than anyone else in school history. To this day, he is the only Blue Knight to top 1,100 points.
“He was an intense player, and we weren’t used to anybody like that,” said former sports writer Art Secondo. “Ed Nardi was an outside shooter when he played. We had a few other scorers, but nobody like Ernie Blue. He just popped up in Southington and started shooting.” It didn't stop at graduation. Blue went on to earn a spot in Mattatuck Community College's Sports Hall of Fame as the 9th ranked scorer in school history. Blue led the team in scoring for two years as the first substitution off the bench. He was first team all-league in 1973 and a member of the College's undefeated team in his freshman season.
Southington softball launched one of the state's greatest sports dynasties with their first of 15 state titles in 1978. Four years later, the girls basketball team raised the bar for the sport with their first of seven titles in just over a decade. It was long before Title IX and at a time when men's sports were all that mattered. If it wasn't for Jim Senich, nobody would have known.
“Jim Senich was probably one of the first writers in the state that felt like the female athlete deserved as much ink as the male athletes got,” said former Lady Knight softball coach Joe Piazza. “When he was the sports writer and the editor of The Observer, he went out of his way to feature female athletes in his columns as much as the males, and that was new.”
On the airwaves or in print, there are few people that have championed Southington sports as much as Senich. He just seemed to love it, and he seemed to treat every article and every game like a wide-eyed kid at a World Series game.
He honed his skills as a sports freelancer in Greenwich covering everything from college basketball, professional softball, NY Giants preseason camps, to yacht clubs. At the same time, he bounced around the dial on radio stations from Bridgeport to Greenwich and Bristol, but it wasn't until he stepped into the studio at WNTY in Southington that Senich found a home. Later, he continued that passion as a sports editor for the Observer. He covered Southington's first and only cross country title. He wrote about the Knights' only golf championship, too. He followed baseball teams, football teams, and wrote columns that changed the sports landscape. He took on the board of education to force them to hire an athletic trainer.
He was recognized by Connecticut coaches and received a national award. He was inducted into the Southington High School Baseball Hall of Fame, the CT Scholastic and Collegiate Softball Hall of Fame, and the CHSCA Hall of fame, and he won a New England Press Association Award for the best sports column in 1983.
Nobody knew about Joe Testa when he wandered into soccer tryouts at the beginning of the 1974 season. The Knights were struggling to stay afloat in their fifth season as a varsity team. After flirting with .500 in each of their first two seasons, the Knights had fallen back to reality with three dismal seasons punctuated by a three-win season in 1973.
Testa came from Italy, where soccer reigns as king, but Southington was a football town, and soccer was struggling to stay afloat. That was all about to change.
“We had been building the team up for a few years, and we were just starting to gel better,” said former Blue Knight soccer coach Dan Murawski. “He was really the crowning touch. His skill level was fantastic, but he was just a very gifted player. I just can’t say enough about him.”
Testa helped put the Blue Knights on the map as the team's first 10-goal scorer. He sparked the offense to their first 10-victory season. With Testa at the reins, the Knights rallied to their first conference title and their first trip to the postseason. When the dust had finally settled on Southington's sixth varsity season, Testa was named as the program's first all state player.
It didn't end at graduation. In recent years, Testa has brought his passion and success to a number of area teams, and in just his second season at Wilcox Tech, Testa's team earned their first 10-win season this fall. Here he goes again...
She launched herself across the vault like an acrobat. She spun around the bars until fans began to get dizzy then skipped across the beam like a tightrope walker with nerves of steel. But when Kristy Dougan danced across the mat and flashed a wide smile at the judges, she just made it look easy.
If the 2005 Lady Knights were the most dominant team that the state has ever seen, that would mean that Dougan was the queen. Records fell like confetti. Opponents weren't in the same class, and Dougan was the leader. As a sophomore, Dougan pioneered the Knights. She rallied for the all-around title at the Class L meet. She went on to claim the top spot at the state open and the New England championship. Southington gymnasts have set the standard for high school gymnastics, but Dougan still ranks as the only one to capture the triple-crown. Nobody else has won all three titles in the same season.
“If you made a mistake, Kristy took advantage of it,” said former Lady Knight gymnastics coach Byron Knox. “One of the things that Kristy brought to the team was her consistency. She didn’t have that high-flash, super dynamic routine, but she made you work if you wanted to beat her. She was the epitome of good defense. She wasn’t going to give anything away.”
Even injuries couldn't stop her. In her junior and senior seasons, injuries kept Dougan from the all-around competition, but the Southington acrobat was still the one to beat when she entered competition. In three seasons, she scored six Class L titles, three state open titles, and five medals at the New England meet. In addition, she was an all-American diver in the winter with one Class LL title and two state open championships.
Dougan still holds the gymnastics record in beam (9.825) and the school's diving records for six dives (227) and 11 dives (374.75).
Lenny Clements (Posthumous)
The Clements name has become synonymous with Southington football. One reached the NFL. Multiple generations have led the team in scoring, but Lenny Clements might have been the best. He could beat you with his defense. He could beat you with his kicking. On the ground, in the air, or as a passer, Clements would make his mark.
He set the pace for the 1960s with four varsity seasons, and in 1962 he led the state in scoring.
“We ended up 8-1 that year, but if he didn’t play for us we probably would have been 1-8,” said former Southington High School football coach Joe Orsene. “He was that good. He punted, and he received the punts. He kicked off, and he received the kickoffs. He played defense and offense for us. He led the state in scoring that year. He did everything.”
Clements scrambled for 1,559 all-purpose yards. He rushed for 1,022 yards and averaged 6.5 yards per carry. He caught seven passes and three interceptions. He threw a trio of passes and scored 18 touchdowns, converted eight extra-point attempts, and was named to the Class B all-state roster.
Clements earned letters in basketball and track, but he was unforgettable on the gridiron. In the East vs. West all-star game in his senior year, it was Clements that scored the winning touchdown. Nobody was surprised.
As a sophomore, Meghan McNicholas batted left handed to manufacture the winning run in the softball state championship game. As a midfielder, she helped marshal the Lady Knight soccer team to a pair of conference titles, and in basketball McNicholas still holds the record for career assists.
McNicholas was any coach's dream. She'd score if that was needed. She'd play a role if it would help, or she'd step in if someone was hurt. All that mattered to McNicholas was winning as a team.
“She told me that, whatever I wanted her to do, she would do,” said former Lady Knight soccer coach Winston Thompson. “She was that kind of athlete. I loved her attitude, her desire, and her dedication. She was able to handle just about everything that would come at her.”
It usually paid off. McNicholas was named to a pair of all-state rosters in soccer as she helped the Lady Knights rally for a pair of conference titles in two MVP seasons. She was listed on three all-state rosters in basketball as the Knights rallied to three championship games before winning the title in her senior year. She had two all-state seasons in softball as the Lady Knights rallied to a championship title in 1990.
McNicholas went on to capture four letters with a full scholarship to Assumption College where she is ranked in the top 10 for assists.
n just his second time running the varsity race, Mike Ryan set a school record in the 1500m. He ran distance races in all three seasons at the collegiate level and went on to compete in six Ironman competitions after college graduation. He's run up the Empire State Building. He's run with the bulls, and he's escaped from Alcatraz in three different triathlons.
But as good as Ryan is when it comes to competition, he's best known for his work with others. As an eighth grader, Ryan had his sights on the NFL. For the past 20 years, he's served as the head trainer and physical therapist for the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Southington Sports Hall of Fame would not be complete without listing Ryan among their ranks.
“Mike’s an outstanding distance runner. He’s been a very successful trainer. He’s represented our town very well, and he’s an outstanding human being,” said former SHS trainer Bob Mastrianni. “He hasn’t forgotten where he’s come from, and there aren’t a lot of people that have attained what he’s attained that have that sort of memory.”
For decades, Ryan has been a leader in professional sports as a trainer, an advisor, an author, and a consultant. He has served on NFL committees, established protocols, and has earned an avalanche of awards in the NFL and the state of Florida.
In softball, there is no position that's more important than pitching. That is, unless Paige Kopcza is in the field. For three seasons in the early 1980s, Kopzca proved that hitting and fielding is as important as anything you can do in the circle.
Nothing seemed to scare the Southington native, and no competition was too much to handle. In her youth, Kopcza was one of two girls to claw their way onto a Little League roster. In neighborhood games, she could out-score, out-battle, and out-perform any of the boys. She broke her leg, but battled back to the lineup. Doctors found lingering damage in her knees, but they couldn't keep her off the diamond.
It was no surprise that her high school coach actually benched a returning player from a championship team just to make room for Kopcza as a sophomore on his opening day roster. The shortstop was in a league of her own.
“She was probably my first shortstop that could go deep into the hole behind third base, backhand a ball, plant her back foot, and throw the ball across the diamond to first base,” said former Lady Knight coach Joe Piazza. “It’s not something you see that often. You probably don’t even see it a lot at the high school level now because it takes a lot of strength. Back then, it was almost unheard of.”
At the plate, she was just as tough. She batted .357 as a sophomore, .494 as a junior, and .446 as a senior. At the time of her graduation, Kopcza had set a new program record for hits (98). She went on to UMass where she led the team in seven different categories over a four year career.
Four weeks after Ryan Glasper returned to the Boston College defense after a preseason injury, the Eagles defense jumped up 40 spots in the NCAA rankings. Without their injured captain, Boston College was ranked dead last. By the end of the season, they had climbed to 34th out of 119 teams.
Glasper had a way of making everyone around him better, but that wasn't news to Southington fans. Glasper transferred to Southington High School from a neighboring town, and it didn't take long for the young athlete to introduce himself to Blue Knight fans. On the gridiron, he could score from any position. On the basketball court, he could keep anybody else from scoring a basket with his state caliber sprinting that he used in the spring.
“He was probably one of the most gifted athletes that I’ve ever coached,” said Southington High School basketball coach Bob Lasbury. “It wasn’t just his physical abilities. He brought an unbelievable passion and intensity to our team.”
Glasper still holds Southington's record for longest punt return (92 yards), longest kick-off return (98), and longest play from scrimmage (97). Over three varsity seasons, Glasper scored five special teams touchdowns, scrambled for 4,017 all-purpose yards, and earned a 118.9 quarterback rating with the Knights. He led the defense for four years in college and went on to play for four professional teams in the CFL and UFL after a tryout with the NY Giants.
Blue Knight coach Jude Kelly wanted to show colleges what his senior quarterback could do, but the Knights rarely threw the ball in Kelly's first years. So the coach did what any sane coach would do. He turned the cameras on Otis during the pre-game warm-ups, and added that footage to the film.
Otis never complained. He was a role player on his high school team even though he wanted to throw bombs. He found himself pushed to the side when his college team brought in a new staff, but Otis settled in a small town in West Virginia to play out his college eligibility, and lightning struck.
Two record-breaking seasons thrust him in the spotlight. Hard-fought workouts earned him a tryout for an expansion NFL team, and Otis landed smack dab on an NFL roster in one of the most unlikely paths to the professional leagues that anyone has ever taken.
He always had the arm. Otis proved that with a javelin throw (221'10”) that still stands as the best in program history, and his potential earned him a scholarship to West Virginia University. Otis never got a chance to play but transferred to Glennville State College. Over the next two years, Otis turned heads.
Otis played just two seasons but still ranks in the top three for career offense and touchdown passes (34). He threw for 5,986 yards in two seasons and played himself onto the Baltimore Ravens staff for a one-year stint.
“Even if the NFL never came knocking, I would still be sitting here talking about Glennville with a grin on my face,” said Otis. “That was the best way that I could have finished my college career—bar none.”
Scott Mackie roamed the outfield for two College World Series, and ESPN began coverage each year that followed with replays of Mackie's jaw-dropping catches. The former Blue Knight could hit with the best of them, but in the field nobody could touch him.
In fact, he struck out three times when University of South Carolina scouts visited the Blue Knights to take a look at their all-state outfielder, but it never even phased their interest.
“He was a hell of a player. There’s no question,” said former Blue Knight baseball coach John Fontana. “He was probably the best fielding outfielder that I’ve ever seen in high school. Could he hit? Yes, he could hit, but when you saw him play ball in the outfield he was extra special.”
Mackie was no slouch at the plate. He led the Knights for two years at the plate. He hit .338 as a sophomore, .309 as a junior, and .396 in his senior year. He played four years in South Carolina which culminated in a .329 batting average in his senior year. Mackie had 152 hits, 31 doubles, and 84 RBI, but it was his outfield that really set him apart. Mackie had 16 assists in high school and anchored South Carolina during their postseason run in 1985.
Thanks to John Goralski for his help bringing The Southington Sports Hall of Fame to life. Also for his dedication to capturing great Southington Sports moments.
Look for John's sports coverage weekly in The Southington Observer.
John grew up in Southington, and attended the local public schools. A graduate from Southington High School in 1987 John went on to UConn where he graduated with a bachelor's degree in English. He worked in the insurance industry for over a decade before turning to a writing career. He began working with the Southington Observer in 2004, and has served as a sports writer and photographer since that time. As a Southington journalist, he's have won more than 12 Excellence In Journalism Awards from the CT Society of Professional Journalists and has been the receipient of three Better Newspaper Awards from the New England Press Association. John currently lives in Southington with his son Jack.
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