When you are a retired high school coach and youâ€™re 93 years old, it isnâ€™t often you have former athletes cherish your friendship, especially in person.
That was the situation recently when a group of former Southington High athletes ranging from decades ago, gathered for lunch with Joe Orsene, the personable former teacher, coach and mentor.
A native of Branford, Orsene turned down a chance to teach at other high schools after teaching at Torrington in 1951 and decided on Southington. In was 1952 and Southington had already established itself as a winning tradition in all sports.
The late Joe Fontana, a legendary mentor who starred at Trinity College, had compiled outstanding teams in football, baseball and basketball. Then there was Walt Lozoski, a native of Hazelton, Pa., who went to Providence College as a hoop standout and came here establishing himself as a tough but respected coach and teacher.
Now arrives Orsene. His passion for fitness was mixed with his personality and knowledge of coaching and soon fit in quite well with Fontana and Lozoski. Orsene would become a track coach, junior varsity basketball coach and eventually assistant football coach with Fontana who would become athletic director.
Derynoski School was the high school beginning in 1950. The new nickname was secured as the â€śBlue Knightsâ€ť and the great reputation of former Lewis High teams would continue. In a few short years, the Blue Knights were tangling with football opponents from large schools since Fontanaâ€™s master plan was to prepare local players with the same passion of Meriden High, Nortre Dame High, East Haven, Branford and schools from far away.
In basketball the Knights would take on Hillhouse from New Haven while commanding the old Central Valley Conference. The downtown location of SHS made it easy for thousands of fans to line the fence at the football field where Southington would dominate Plainville for decades before crowds of 6,000 and more.
At the lunch were a dozen of former Blue Knights from four different decades. Orsene opened the conversation jokingly saying, â€śI am happy to be here today and at my age, happy to be anywhere.â€ť The players, some in their late-70s, would take turns refreshing their memories of past games.
Some talked about Orseneâ€™s guidance on and off the field. The legendary coach, who retired shortly after his football team had a 33-game win streak snapped in Middletown, Orsene had compiled a record of 50 wins, six defeats. He had coached the best Southington had to offer and recalled the unbeaten teams of the 50s under Fontana and the unbeaten track team of 1957 led by Larry Hall, Mike Ungaro and Al LePreay.
Those who kept in touch with the Cheshire resident were amazed at his memories of specific games, players and the dates of yesteryear victories. â€śI never regretted coming to Southington,â€ť Orsene said to a round of applause especially when it was noted his SHS football teams scored 1,526 points while allowing a mere 513 in six seasons.
Representing the heyday of SHS basketball was Ed Nardi and Dick Lorenzo, former All-State performers also former teachers. Both enjoyed scoring nights of 30 and more points, Nardi hitting 33 against Goodwin Tech and Lorenzo 31 versus Lyman Hall. Nardi graduated in 1955 and Lorenzo 1957.
Tosh Tarfano, John Geloso, Jim Scott, Jack McBride and John Mattas recalled football memories from a stretch of three decades. Several laughs were enjoyed when it was recalled that trackster Larry Hall would love running long distances that, â€śhe had to be reminded to stop.â€ť
Joe Orsene and wife Angela have been married over 60 years. Angela was also a local teacher and a talented artist. Coach Orsene had enjoyed occasional lunches in the past with small group of former athletes. This particular lunch was special.
Leaving was difficult as we approached coach with a hug or a memorable handshake. We said we do this again.