If Southington was compared to an expensive and prominent automobile, athletics would be the engine. Plain and simple.
The annual induction of teams and individuals into the Southington Sports Hall of Fame reflects the outstanding records and accomplishments that justify being immortalized. Our community, since records were available starting in the early 1930s, has amassed an impressive history of athletic achievements.
While Southington maintains itself as a small New England town and has grown immensely over the past two decades and holds the distinction of numerous historical inventions, athletics has vaulted the community into prestigious respect.
Many regard the birth of athletic prowess beginning with the Fontana era. Joe Fontana, whose name would eventually embody the high school athletic program, attended Trinity College and would return to his hometown to start 47 years of coaching successful teams at the old Lewis High School and later at Southington High where he became athletic director. Fontana’s baseball teams won 190 games while losing 23. In football Fontana’s teams won 139 games and lost 38 with 14 ties.
His nephew, John Fontana, would begin his star-studded era in 1961 becoming baseball coach at SHS enduring but one losing season and winning more than 500 games and being inducted into the National HS Hall of Fame. Local teams were forced to schedule contests against larger schools.
Southington athletic success would continue into the 1940s when the football Southington Gems became one of the state’s most feared semi-pro teams. The Blue Knights of SHS would win numerous state titles with unbeaten records and the tradition continued into the 1960s, 1970s and primarily in the 1980s when the Lady Knights took home state softball titles with unbeaten records. Individual standouts among students at SHS would include girls basketball, gymnastics, track, volleyball and soccer.
During the 1980s, local bocce teams garnered notoriety with championship wins throughout New England and at the World Classic in Atlantic City. In 1969 a local Little League baseball All-Star squad won the state championship and New England title. In the 1970s, local softball teams won numerous area tournament titles and several players have been inducted into the Connecticut Softball Hall of Fame.
Other notable Southington sports highlights:
Jack Zilly, a standout football player at Lewis High went on to play at Notre Dame and also the pro Philly Eagles and LA Rams and later appeared in a Hollywood war movie with Gregory Peck.
Two former Southington High baseball pitchers appeared in World Series games and each recorded a win. Rob Dibble for the Cincinnati Reds in 1970 and Carl Pavano for the Florida Marlins in 2003. Each later would pitch for numerous teams before retiring.
Since 1938 Southington High and Lewis football teams have suffered a mere three losing seasons. Many graduates went on to play with teams sponsored by the Sons of Italy and the Gems.
The longest Blue Knight football team winning streak ended in 1966 when a 33-game ended with a 12-8 loss to Middletown. Star running back Vin Clements did not play due to a foot injury.
Southington’s Dick Galiette became one of the state’s top television sportscasters at WTNH in New Haven in the 1960s and mid 1970s.
Southington High girls softball program is regarded as one of the most successful programs in Connecticut.
Former SHS football coach Joe Orsene’s win-loss record was a remarkable 50 wins, 4 defeats and one tie.
Football star Vinny Clements starred at SHS in the early 1960s and went on to become a star player at UConn and later ran for a 100-yards for the pro NY Giants in game at Yankee Stadium against Dallas. Clements also played for the Minnesota Vikings.
John Fontana, a SHS standout in baseball and basketball, went on to enjoy an illustrious career at American College as a player and also later a basketball official before returning home to amass one of the top win-loss baseball records in Connecticut scholastic circles.
The present football stadium at SHS is named in honor of Joe Fontana. The baseball complex is named in honor of nephew John Fontana.
When Lewis High was to become Southington High, a local contest was held to select a sports nickname. It was close but Blue Knights won over the Rangers.
Before the new high school opened in 1950, basketball games were played on the second floor of the old town hall on Main Street. Football games were played at Recreation Park.
Former Thanksgiving Day rival Plainville needed 24 years to finally defeat a Southington football team.
Southington High’s Lady Knights softball program has won 17 state titles.