Sunday, October 24, 2010

SMALL-TOWN SPIRIT IN PLAINVILLE

I am not from Plainville. I didn’t graduate from Plainville High School and never lived there.

I can plead for a special exemption however, because I love the hot dogs at Saint’s, rave about the homemade pasta at Pagliacci’s, appreciate the reasonably priced and diverse cuisine at Aqua Terra, cherish the Buffalo wings and colonial atmosphere at J. Timothy’s and often partake in the exquisitely prepared fish at Confetti.

I’ve also reported extensively on town sports since 1991, so between the hundreds of excellent meals and passionate appreciation for the town’s athletic protagonists, I plead for honorary status because Plainville is indeed a large part of what I’ve become.

I really don’t have to plead. The good people of Plainville have seen fit to include me on the guest list for the gala Plainville Sports Hall of Fame dinner, the most recent of which took place at Nuchie’s Restaurant in Forestville Saturday evening Oct. 16.

The overwhelming theme at the PSHOF soiree backs up what I’ve written extensively about during the contemporary sports era dominated by an internet that needs regulation as bad as the wild, wild West needed law, ESPN-initiated coverage that puts the messenger and the arrogant above the event and the humble and a growing ignorance of what high school sports is all about.

Several times during the induction ceremony, honorees and their presenters stressed how vital were the time and dedication afforded them by PHS coaches, teachers and administrators as they were transitioning from child to adult.

As I noted, my active involvement with town sports affairs began in 1991 so I was not privy to the golden age of Plainville sports. I never got to cover a baseball team coached by the great Ron Jones. I didn’t get to see any of the basketball teams coached by the legendary Pat Riera. I only got to know Jim Lynch as a principal, and Greg Ziogas, with the exception of his interim guidance of the boys basketball team in 2003-04, as an administrator.

But as life whips by like New England trees going from lush green to a palate of brilliant color to stark naked, the PSHOF inductees are now awesome 30-something people with children of their own whom I covered while selfless coaches, teachers and administrators shaped the adults they would become.

Inductee Victor Paradis (PHS Class of 1977) ostensibly turned Nuchie’s lectern into a preacher’s pulpit with his heartfelt tributes to family, friends, teammates and coaches. The portion that really touched me was when he thanked Jones, Ziogas and Lynch for applying a firm hand and discipline that provided him with guidelines that he lives by.

Dr. Michael Lantiere, the recipient of the John E. Toffolon Distinguished Service Award, told a story about the incident that was most responsible for embarking on a lifetime dedicated to supporting youth and community through baseball.

Lantiere, living in Southington, asked Jones to come to the batting cage to help his son learn to hit. Jones spent hours teaching him the physical and mental aspects of hitting, even though he was the coach of rival Plainville.

When Lantiere asked Jones if he could give him some cash for his time and effort, Jones told him to pay him back by doing the same for young people who had similar needs. Lantiere served as a volunteer coach at Southington High for 22 years and as a volunteer umpire for Little League Baseball for even longer.

I remember covering inductee Sara Doncet’s brilliant swimming career during my early days in the business as a correspondent for the Bristol Press. Judging from her mother’s tear-laden presentation speech and her off-the-cuff chat, she merged the love of her family, her thirst for the camaraderie that team sports nurture and the guidance of her late coach George Choiniere.

Doncet’s high school career coincided with that of catching great Brian Edge. Edge played for his PSHOF presenter Bob Freimuth, and noted that Freimuth’s belief in him through the offensive struggles early in his sophomore season will live in his heart forever.

He also revealed more about Jones’ legacy. By the time Edge was playing high school ball, Jones had moved on to a coaching position at Eastern Connecticut State University but still came back to help Edge become the kind of hitter that propelled him to a college career at the University of Hartford and a chance to play professionally.

“Ron Jones was five years removed from coaching at PHS when I arrived as a freshman,” said Edge, a teacher at PHS, his classroom adjacent to the PSHOF display that will soon include his plaque. “He was making the 45-minute drive to Eastern during my high school career and he still spent countless hours with me on catching drills, throwing batting practice and talking about hitting.”

Jones, Lantiere and Freimuth have spent their lives coaching baseball with the primary goal of preparing a base line for their protégés to live by. Edge will carry that torch to the next generation, hoping to keep it lit through a time when the old guard must look at the word “team” multiple times to make sure it isn’t spelled with an “i.”

Of much less significance to the general populace but of great meaning to me was the number of times the speakers mentioned reading about former Plainville High greats in the newspaper, in headlines, their achievements documented for posterity.

I couldn’t help but think of how circulation numbers have dwindled and the newspaper industry has withered under the weight of the internet and a general lack of interest from the younger generations. The once-plentiful articles written about high school sports have been reduced to a trickle. What are Edge and Doncet going to refer to when it’s their turn to introduce future Hall-of-Famers?

Friday, October 8, 2010

PLEASE, NO MORE RENTSCHLER

After three years of trudging to Rentschler Field to cover the Southington-New Britain football game, I have a message for those involved with staging the game there. Please stop!


The attendance was on the lighter side of deplorable.

Southington brought a decent contingent but the number of kids in the Golden Hurricane Marching Band was equal to those from the general population who made the trip. Have you ever seen what 1,500 or so people look like in a stadium that accommodates 40,000?

To the people who didn’t attend, good choice.

It took me over an hour to get from Farmington to Rentschler. The traffic, always heavier on Friday evening, was bumper-to-bumper from West Hartford on. I’m so glad I got XM Radio so I could crank up the Grateful Dead Channel and divert my attention from drivers senselessly changing lanes to slow travel to a crawl.

I am very grateful to Jack Freeman and the Rentschler people for making the press box available. With our early deadline at the Herald, I would have been unable to get a story in without the wireless system there and the comfortable surroundings.

But we had only three reporters there along with Southington’s intrepid stat man Steve Daniels and young spotter extraordinaire Eric Swallow Jr., son of the Blue Knights’ athletic director.

In New Britain, we have the benefit of the finest high school football/soccer venue in Connecticut, Veterans Memorial Stadium in Willow Brook Park. The 10,000 seats there are many more than enough. The press box is accommodating with wireless and plenty of room.

In fact, Veterans should be the venue for the state championship games. The turf is well-maintained and the stadium is the most centrally located venue in the state.

Don’t get me wrong. The Rent is a stunning facility, a great place to watch college football. I’d love to have the chance to cover a UConn game there someday but for high school games, it is overkill.