BY ROGER CLEAVELAND
Editor’s note: There have been other great high school sports win streaks over the past half-century, but none carry the mystique that surrounds the 64 straight games won by the Naugatuck High baseball team from 1970 to 1972.
This is Part 3 of a five-part series on the Naugatuck 64-game streak, an unforgettable moment in Connecticut high school sports history.
Heading into the 1972 Class A state tournament semifinals in front of 6,000 fans at Yale Field just one win from tying the national record for consecutive victories, the pressure was building for the Naugatuck High baseball team.
“It all came together at once, and we were feeling it,” center fielder Bernie Palmer said. “We knew it was the 65th game, the national record was on the line, and we are playing Shelton of all teams. I remember going into the game thinking, ‘I wish we didn’t have to play these guys.’ “Against every other team we played, we went into the game as Naugatuck, and there was a bit of mystique to that. But not for Shelton. We played them so many times that they just weren’t afraid of playing us.”
In a strange, ironic twist of fate, all the good fortune the Greyhounds had encountered during their 64 consecutive wins seemed to run out against Shelton, an opponent that benefited more than anyone from the good will and great knowledge of Naugatuck head coach Ray Legenza.
When Joe Benanto became Shelton’s head coach in 1965 at age 25, he took over a program that had won only one game in two seasons. He knew that his friend Dan Heffernan, who retired as the Seymour coach that same year, had scrimmaged Naugatuck a lot each season.
He asked Heffernan to approach Legenza on his behalf to inquire if he would scrimmage Shelton going forward. Legenza obliged very generously.
Within a few years, the Greyhounds and Gaels were scrimmaging 7-8 times each preseason. Legenza taught Benanto about the game, and through their actions the Naugy players taught their counterparts the effort, focus and discipline required to play elite baseball.
“We never played during the regular season, and we never met in the playoffs for the first 10-12 years that I coached,” Benanto said. “It wasn’t until that one time that we played in that unique situation.”
By 1972, Shelton became very good. The Gaels went into the semifinal against Naugy with a 19-1 record and a ton of confidence. Then they played sound, fundamental baseball to beat the Greyhounds, 4-2.
The heartbreaking loss for Naugy was a bittersweet win for Shelton. Even 50 years later, Benanto has mixed feelings about it.
“The first thing that comes to mind is that it was unfortunate we had to break the streak,” Benanto said. “I felt bad for Ray and the Naugatuck players. I think we were very close to that program. We would have liked for them to break the record.
“Of course, it was very gratifying that our kids had risen to that level where we could compete with anybody in the state.”
Left-handed pitcher Kevin Bailie, all 5-foot-7 and 135 pounds of him, kept the Greyhounds off balance with his offspeed guile. He pitched no-hit ball for five innings as the Gaels took a 2-0 lead on a suicide squeeze bunt by catcher Rich Norko and a sacrifice fly by Bailie.
Naugy responded with an RBI single from Greg Mencio in the sixth en route to loading the bases. Benanto then called upon his most dominant pitcher, Greg Biercevicz, to make a rare appearance in a season he pitched very little due to a sore arm.
He threw one pitch, which Mike Armonaitis hit to left field for a sacrifice fly to tie the game, but on the play Mencio was caught off second base for a double play to end the rally.
“To me that was the key moment,” Benanto said. “They could have had a big inning, but instead we got out of it tied. Mike Ragozzine came in and pitched the last three innings, and we rallied back to win.”
Richie Anderson started the winning rally in the eighth with a single and was sacrificed to second. He scored on a single by Norko. The Gaels then added a run in the ninth on a one-out single by Biercevicz and a controversial double by Anderson for a 4-2 lead.
Anderson blooped a ball down the right field line. With only two umpires, the base ump was stationed behind second base and home plate umpire (Bernie Iassogna) called the ball fair despite the fact that Naugatuck first baseman Rich Rydzik said the ball was clearly a foot foul.
Iassogna admitted afterward that his view was partially obscured when Naugy catcher Mencio stood up.
“I had a real good look right down the line, and that thing was foul,” Mencio said. “The umpire wasn’t very tall, so when I stood up I blocked his view, because that thing was about a foot foul when it landed.
“It was a pretty hollow feeling when the game was over. It was very tough at the time, but I think our luck just ran out.”
There was no denying that Shelton had arrived as a program. After losing in the semifinals in 1969 and 1971, the Gaels advanced to their first championship game with the win over Naugy and went on to beat New Canaan in the final. They then followed with state titles in 73, 74 and 76.
“We were coming on before we beat Naugatuck,” Benanto said. “We just hadn’t gotten over the top, but that win over Naugatuck propelled us and gave us that extra confidence we needed to go on our own run.”
Norko said that while the Shelton and Naugy players never became friends, he felt like a tremendous respect developed between the teams as they practiced against each other so intensely so often.
“Nobody respected Naugatuck more than us or wanted them to beat the national record more than us,” Norko said. “We would have loved to have played them after they beat the record of that Texas team (Waxahachie). Regretfully it didn’t work out that way and the end came against us.”
THE STREAK: Friendly rival Gaels ended Naugy’s run in 1972
BY ROGER CLEAVELAND