Page 5 - CHSCA Magazine Issue 2, 2019-2020
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Carl Pavano and Rob Dibble were two of the top stars to come through Fon- tana’s program. Both won MLB World Se- ries championships.
“He helped in my development,” Pavano said. “I was able to go on and have a nice career professionally. He was important in my influential years in high school. It helped being around a pro- gram like that. He knew how to discipline ateamandheknewhowtoshowusto be team players and how to be leaders. Those qualities carried me beyond high school baseball and baseball itself.”
It was Pavano who helped deliver Fontana’s first state championship in 1994. Southington went on to win title No. 2 in 1999.
Southington pitcher Carl Pavano and coach John Fontana embrace amidst cel- ebration after winning the CLass LL title June 11, 1994.
“It wasn’t a given,” Pavano said. “We worked for it. We had a lot of momentum coming off of a Legion state title. We all knew our roles. It was a special time.”
Pavano also said he looks back fond- ly at his time off the field.
“I remember the orange and grape- fruit sales,” Pavano said. “I remember those days in the hallway in the middle of winter sorting the oranges from the grape- fruits and taking out the bad ones. It was a way of working with teammates, and that brought everyone together. When you look back on those things, it’s pretty cool.”
Pavano said he stayed in touch with Fontana through the years.
“I think every guy will say it was a great experience to play for Coach Fon- tana,” Pavano said. “He knew how to get the best out of people. You did it right or you go home. I enjoyed that and he had that expectation for everyone in this pro- gram.
“He’s Southington baseball,” Pavano added. “He’s the type of guy you want to run a program. You see people come and go. We didn’t win a state title every year, but every year we competed for one. That’s a great quality ... I’ve had a lot of coaches in my career. A lot of things I learned in high school I used fundamen- tally for the rest of my career. I feel I had a leg up on the other guys because of our program was so polished.”
“I’m sure there will be stories,” Pa- vano said. “It’s unfortunate things like this happen, but I have tremendous memories of him and being on that team. A lot of great memories.”
Mike Lantiere was Fontana’s top as- sistant coach from 1988 to 2002. The two first met as high school basketball referees. Lantiere came on board with Fontana following the graduation of his son Michael, who played baseball for the Blue Knights.
“It’s a big loss. He took care of his players and took care of other players in the area, as well as female athletes if they needed anything as far as backing for scholarships,” Lantiere said. “On the field, he was a tough coach. He played to win. But he was for kids no matter who it was. He would go out of his way for anyone, and that impressed me.
“He was a great coach and a tough nut to crack. He demanded perfection and he got it from all of his players.”
Lantiere said his players are Fon- tana’s legacy more than all of the honors, Halls of Fame and the field bearing his name.
“John was never one that worried about a plaque,” Lantiere said. “He helped the kids and, if they needed help, John was there. He was more concerned that kids coming back and saying ‘thank you’ when they came back. That’s how he ran his program. He deserves the credit. He would shun the idea of patting him on the back, but he deserves it.” Even at 55, nearly three decades after he helped lead the Cincinnati Reds to the world champi- onship, Rob Dibble still calls him “Coach.”
When it comes to John Fontana, Dib- ble, one of major league baseball’s famed Nasty Boys, remains one of hundreds of Southington boys who have nothing but reverence for the high school coaching legend.
“More than a coach, he was a sec- ond father to me,” Dibble said Friday. “I just saw this on Facebook and it’s right: John Fontana was Southington.”
Dibble said he met Fontana in the sev- enth grade.
“My older brother played for Coach,” Dibble said, “and my oldest brother played in the Legion program. So I saw Coach a lot before I got to high school.”
Folks have visions of future major leaguers starring from their freshman year. Southington is a big school. South- ington is a big school with a big baseball reputation. Fontana helped groom four major leaguers and nearly 200 who went on to play in college. He was old school. You earned your spot.
“I was a shortstop-outfielder, a back- up my sophomore year,” Dibble said. “Coach worked more on my hitting than
my pitching earlier on ...”
Dibble stopped in mid-sentence. A
sports talk-show host on 97-9 ESPN, he knows how to grasp his own narrative.
“Look, being the head of Connecticut High School Coaches Association, Coach would ask me to come speak when he was coaching Little League coaches,” Dib- ble said. “He would bring in coaches to speak to coaches at Wesleyan or Trinity, different schools. He’d have a thousand coaches there from across the country. He was so good at teaching the craft of teaching kids.
“I was always around him even when I was young, attending clinics. In high school, he was bringing in pro scouts. He was bringing guys like in Dick Teed and Buzz Bowers, whether they were cross- checkers, bird dogs or top scouts. If he saw something in you, he wanted you to have the best coaching available.”
It wasn’t only baseball, Dibble insist- ed, it was football, basketball, girls soft- ball, etc. John Fontana knew just about everyone.
“People really have to understand how he helped so many kids who weren’t even athletes get scholarships,” he said. “People talk about the wins with Coach Fontana and that’s great, but it pales in comparison to how he cared about get- ting kids educated and getting them to college. He always wanted that for every kid. Anyone he could help.”
A coach for 41 years, a guidance counselor for almost that long, execu- tive director of the CHSCA from 1988 to his passing, Fontana touched many lives and many voices have eloquently spoken about him since he suffered a stroke Sun- day at the Giants game at Met Life Sta- dium. I was hoping to find one voice to give some fuller texture. Dibble, the two- time All-Star and 1990 NLCS MVP, would prove a good choice.
“I had the best of both worlds, be- cause I also had him as my guidance counselor,” he said. “I saw him year-round even when I was playing other sports. We always had a relationship way more than baseball.”
Throughout his career, Dibble was known to be — how should we put this — unbridled, a tad volatile.
“Coach helped me navigate my ado- lescence, my formidable years and long after I left high school,” he said. “More than a coach, more than a guidance counselor, he was family for 40 years. He saw me grow up, get married, have kids. And that’s the same as hundreds of other

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