Before the high school sports year begins, we would like to take a few weeks to look back at some of the most memorable sports streaks Naugatuck High and Woodland have to offer. This week, we look back at Naugatuck’s 64-game baseball winning streak.
NAUGATUCK— Nearly 50 years ago a group of kids formed a brotherly bond as they experienced a moment in time that would mold their lives. Since then, they have gone their separate ways — some to places like South Carolina, Boston, Baltimore and Florida while others remained in the place where it all happened.
Yet, they are still connected by a bond that brought the entire borough of Naugatuck together over a stretch of three spring seasons that has gone down in the history as the streak.
From 1970 through 1972, the Naugatuck High School baseball team amassed a winning streak that reached 64 games and attracted national attention. At the time, it was thought to be the second longest scholastic baseball-winning streak behind Waxahachie, Texas at 65 in a row.
It was later found out that Archbishop Molloy of Briarwood, N.Y. held the mark at 68. The Homer Trojans of Michigan set a new mark at 75 wins in a row in 2005.
The Greyhounds actually came within one pitch of stringing together 86 wins in row.
Naugatuck faced Lyman Hall in the 1969 state championship game. Jim Hankey took a no-hitter into the ninth inning and had two outs and a 3-2 count on the final batter. The next pitch was called a ball.
The two sides battled to a 2-2 tie in 15 innings before the game was called for darkness.
After rain delays over the next few days, the two teams finally met again, but, according to CIAC rules, the game had to start over in its entirety. The undefeated Greyhounds would go on to lose, 3-1, in 10 innings.
“That pitch will forever be etched in my brain,” said Hankey, who went on to pitch two years at Post University. “It was one that got away, but we made up for it the following year against Stamford Catholic.”
Naugatuck started the following season with an 8-5 win over St. Bernard of Montville on April 8, 1970, and the streak was born.
The Greyhounds capped the 1970 season by rallying from down 3-1 in the bottom of the ninth to beat Stamford Catholic, 4-3, in the 1970 state title game — their first state title since 1963 — and finish the season 22-0.
The 1971 season ended the same way, with a 22-0 record and another state title.
As the streak grew, so did the crowds and the pressure.
Naugatuck played five games in six days to end the 1972 regular season, and three of them went extra innings. Naugatuck beat Hamden, 3-2, in 12 innings for win number 57 in a row.
In win number 58, the Greyhounds beat Notre Dame of West Haven, 8-5, in 15 innings on a Steve Thomas bases-loaded triple. Win number 62 was a 3-2, 15-inning win over Ansonia as 3,000 fans crammed Nolan Field.
“By the time game day rolled around we had done so many situational drills there was no way we could lose,” said Dave Mowrey, a co-captain at the time. “We had a lot of close calls but we never panicked. Even in a game against Wilby that went 11 innings. Jimmy Arline struck out 21 batters, and we won 6-4 in 11 innings.
“We made the plays we needed to, and coach (Ray) Legenza covered the basics like no one I have ever seen. He had us prepared to succeed.”
The streak’s roots stretch back to 1964 when a team from Peter J. Foley Little League won the league’s first District III championship. It picked up steam when St. Francis grammar school won the 1967 New England Parochial Championship.
Hankey threw all 20 innings in a 3-2 win over St. Cecilia in the Parochial League state playoffs. Bill Hicock, Dave Mowrey, Tony Campbell and Gary Fratesi were all members of that St. Francis team and went on to help mold the streak at Naugatuck High.
“It all started with coach Legenza,” Hankey said. “He made good athletes great. He had us mentally prepared, and we did have some exceptional athletes. Tommy Sommers was without a doubt the best centerfielder I’ve ever seen. Then Mickey Fortin took over when Tommy graduated. It seemed like every time someone graduated we never missed a beat.”
Legenza coached the baseball team from 1953 through 1975, going 376-86. He was named the 1971 National High School Baseball Coach of the Year, and the field at Naugatuck High is named in his honor.
“Coach Legenza was the backbone of the team,” said Kevin Cyr who took over at second base when Roger Swiderski graduated. “He was a strict disciplinarian and had no favorites. He treated everyone the same, and you better know the count even if you weren’t playing because you would be doing pushups behind the dugout.
“He would discipline the whole team, having us run sprints, and here he was in his 50s out there leading the way running down the field. He was truly an amazing man and taught us respect and to be the best person you can be.”
Legenza is remembered for his attention to detail. His situational practices would go on for three hours, and he made sure his team was ready for whatever came their way.
“He would even question me during games,” said former Naugatuck assistant coach Joe Bojko, who took over as head coach in 1976 and led the Greyhounds to their last state championship in 1977.
Naugatuck had its share of players during the streak. John Caneira went on to pitch for the California Angels, and Rick Montoni was an All-American and led the team in home runs at the University of Miami.
Tommy Keating, Mike Armonaitis and Rich Rydzik formed a stellar infield.
The list of players who took part in the streak goes on like a who’s who. There was Ernie Bessette, Vic Zollo, Bob Kunces, Phil King, Dave Yackowski, Wayne Palladino, Bob Mitchell, Lou Pisani, Dave Welch, Tommy Lynn, Billy Grabowski, Fred Dlugokecki, Steve Thomas, Bob Woodfield, Bernie Palmer, Bill Lawlor, Jeff Hedman, Rich Schiaroli, Gary Hoppe, Art Nitowski, Greg Mencio, and on and on.
“We had athletes who played three sports. They were very much competitors,” Bojko said. “I’m not sure we will ever see a streak like that again, not in this day and age. I played for coach Legenza when we won the state championship in 1963, and he was certainly one of a kind.”
Legenza also showed another side of him that players came to respect. This rough-and-tough coach, who also led the football team from 1953 through 1967, one day stunned his baseball players.
“We were on our way to a state playoff game, and he had Marty Lucas, our driver, stop the bus,” said Rob Dibble, one of the key batters in a very potent lineup. “He waved to this homeless guy, Pete, and told him to get on the bus and took him along with us.
“Pete would be at every home game, and we are playing for a state championship with the streak on the line and coach Legenza made sure we picked up Pete so he could be a part of it. That’s a side of coach Legenza that people don’t know about.”
All good things must, eventually, come to an end. The streak ended on June 6, 1972 in the state semifinals with a 4-2 loss to Shelton at Yale Field in front of 6,000 fans.
Naugatuck went on to win 22 straight after losing to Shelton and compiled a 105-2 record from 1969 to 1973.
History was made. For the players who were part of the streak they will forever be connected by a glorious run that will never be forgotten.