SOUTHINGTON - There was plenty of laughter, cheers and tears in the Aqua Turf Club on Sunday afternoon as 10 new names and one team were officially etched among some of Berlin High School’s athletics best when they received induction into the Berlin Athletic Hall of Fame.
Some of the inductees told stories of former teammates and coaches, while others reflected on their time in the Redcoat uniform or how something that seemed so simple at the time turned into such a big difference down the line.
Walter Pajor was the first to be inducted. A 1955 graduate, Pajor excelled in football, baseball and basketball, breaking the single-game scoring record not once, but twice and led the team in scoring his senior season. By the time he left Berlin High School, Pajor was only the second Redcoat to be named All-State.
Unfortunately, Pajor passed away in 2013 and was inducted by his son Gary. As the younger Pajor began to reflect on what his late father would have thought of the honor, he began to choke up, noting how special it was.
“I wanted to focus on what his legacy would be and how my own son is going to start his own high school career in the fall and what a treat,” he added. “My son can look at his own grandfather’s accomplishments in high school as inspiration for his high school career.”
Marie Siegal has achieved a lot at Berlin High School, but perhaps none bigger than starting and growing the Berlin High School Unified Sports Program to what it is today, becoming a model program for other schools to follow. During her 21 years of coaching, Siegal has received much recognition for her work including the Friend of Unified Sports Award in 2016 by the CIAC and the Special Olympics.
For Siegal, her induction was more about the players she has been able to coach than herself.
“It’s a surreal thing,” she said. “To me Unified has always been about the kids and my special athletes and getting them to a place where they can put on a uniform and compete and get high-fived in the hall like any other athlete and a special place in my heart is my partners because without them, none of this would have happened. I’m so blessed to have three of my athletes here today. This is about them.”
George Kanupka III was an all-conference tackle from the undefeated 1968 football team as well as being a four-year member of the baseball and basketball teams. He went on to the U.S. Naval Academy and served five years in the Navy before getting involved in community athletics in Rocky Hill. But for him, this day was more than just about accomplishments, it about a moment between father and son.
“This is such a great honor for me and having my father in the Hall of Fame with me makes it even more special,” Kanupka said.
Andrea Yukna was a trailblazer for female athletes at Berlin. When she arrived to the high school in 10th grade for the 1970-71 school year, there were no interscholastic sports for girls. But the very next year, she convinced a faculty member to put together a basketball team. By her senior year Yukna led the team to an 11-1 record while averaging 24 points per game. She would go on to UConn where she would play basketball before a torn ACL her sophomore season ended her career.
“I just to thank the Berlin Hall of Fame for selecting me,” Yukna said. “I want to thank my friends for supporting me, my family for always being there and my mom for always being my biggest fan in sports.”
Lori Mongillo presented an emotional speech in which she thanked her family and in particular her parents, which brought her father to tears.
Mongillo went on to excel in volleyball, basketball and softball, becoming an all-conference performer in all three and named All-State in softball her senior season. Mongillo would then go on to have a decorated college career at Division-I Adelphi helping the softball team win the National Collegiate Softball Championship in 1987 and 1988.
“This really means a lot to me,” Mongillo said, fighting back tears of her own. “For many years I’ve been selected, but the timing wasn’t appropriate for this honor and tonight is the night.”
After her speech she presented her father with the first home run she hit in Little League.
Michael Church was a standout soccer and baseball player for the Redcoats before he graduated in 1991. A four-year varsity player on the soccer pitch, Church not only collected two All-NWC honors, but was an All-State selection his senior year. He found just as much success on the baseball diamond where he helped lead the Redcoats to both the NWC title and the Class M championship in 1990. In his speech, it was all about his former teammates and coaches.
“It’s almost impossible for any person or team to find success without be surrounded by loved one, coaches, mentors and teammates,” Church said. “I was fortunate to be one the 1990 state championship team under Leo Veleas and be on the team that made it back there in 1991.”
Shelly Ravizza Moran was another three-sport standout for the Redcoats. Whether it was soccer, basketball or tennis, the former Redcoat was an all-conference selection. When she graduated in 1993, she not only left as the school’s all-time leading scorer with 1,180 points, but was the NWC singles champion her junior and senior seasons in tennis.
For her, this was a culmination of all the hard work she has put in during her time as a Redcoat.
“I’m proud to be standing here tonight and being acknowledged for this great honor,” Ravizza Moran said.
Whether it was in football or baseball, Kenneth Bratina found success while in a Redcoats uniform. In his senior season on the gridiron, he set school records with the most yards in a season (620), most passes caught in a single game (11) and most passes caught in a single season (42). In baseball, he helped lead the team to the 1997 Class M title game.
“I love sports,” Bratina said. “It’s in my blood and a big part of my life. I’ve learned discipline, fairness, hard work and trust. All these attributes have helped me in my life along with the coaches I’ve had. I wish there was time to mention everyone.”
Like many others on this list, there was no sports season Michael Laroche did not excel in. Over a three-year varsity career in football, he racked up numerous awards, while in wrestling he left as one of the school’s most decorated grapplers. A four-time state championship placer, Laroche captured the Connecticut State Open title in 2000 and ended his career with a 131-40 career record.
“It was an honor to be nominated, let along be selected,” Laroche said.
Roy Early is known for helping to develop the game of softball and players in the area. After his daughter, Melissa, graduated from Berlin, he spent more than the next 30 years working with kids from Berlin and across the state, teaching them the game of softball and particularly pitching, working with kids as young as nine through college.
Unable to attend because of his health, current Berlin softball coach Jason Pires represented him.
“I’ve never met a kinder person than Roy Early,” Pires said. “Here is a man that has battle serious illness over the better part of two decades and still finds time to give pitching lessons at no expense to anyone who wants them.”
The 1955 football team was also inducted. This Redcoats team was the only member in Class S that season to go undefeated thanks to outscoring their opponents 158-56.
“The fourth quarter finally ended and we were waiting for overtime,” said James Newman, who spoke for the team. “We’re so honored to be inducted.”
The class of 2017 will be looked upon as a great one in future years and one which will provide stories to be told for years to come.
David Glovach can be reached at (860) 801-5085 or firstname.lastname@example.org
On Twitter: @DavidGlovach