UNCASVILLE, Conn., March 17 – Red LeBouthillier played basketball at Farmington High School but his team never got to play on the big stage.
His 1957 team shared a league championship with Woodrow Wilson of Middletown but like many Farmington teams over the years, they suffered a tough loss in the state tournament.
But he was there at the Mohegan Sun Arena Sunday with his son, Timothy, to see the Indians on one of the biggest stages in Connecticut with bright lights, pulsing music and thousands of fans filling the lower bowl seats with the CIAC Division III state championship on the line.
“We’re so excited,” said Timothy LeBouthillier, as Farmington and their opponent Amistad Academy of New Haven warmed up a few rows away. “We’ve been waiting for this for a long time.”
It’s been 80 years since Farmington played for a state championship. The Indians lost in the 1937 and 1939 championship games and had not been back since.
But the Indians were here after a stellar campaign that saw them win their first share of a Central Connecticut Conference title (CCC West Patriot) with Glastonbury, capture 17 of 20 games and then win three straight in the Division III tournament.
“It’s a special group of kids. They play defense. They love each other. They play together better than any other team I have seen,” said long-time fan Bob O’Connor, who said he has seen over 2,000 games over the last 43 years. For a while, O’Connor was a junior varsity coach and he had two sons play with the Indians.
Farmington fans of all ages saw the Indians win their first state championship in boys basketball Sunday with a 55-45 win over New Haven’s Amistad Academy. Some were recent graduates. Others wore 10-year-old letter jackets that looked like they’ve been sitting in a closet gathering dust. There were young parents and their young children watching the action. Red LeBouthillier savored the moment.
LeBouthillier played three years of varsity basketball at Farmington, with his final two seasons under legendary coach John P. Grocki. LeBouthillier, who began playing basketball at Union School as a seventh grader, was the center for the Indians – despite being just 5-foot-11.
“I was the center because I was the tallest one in seventh grade,” LeBouthillier, now 81, deadpanned.
In a 1957 article in the Hartford Courant, Grocki – then in the second year of a 26-year stint as basketball coach – said that LeBouthillier was the best scorer and rebounder on the 1957 team. LeBouthillier had 22 points in a win over Plainville in the later stages of the 1957 campaign.
At 5-11, LeBouthillier was one of taller players on his team (13-5) that shared the Central Valley Conference B division title with Wilson. One of his teammates was future Major League Baseball player Dick McAuliffe, who would have a long and prosperous baseball career with the Detroit Tigers.
McAuliffe was 5-foot-9 while teammates Steve Kristofak (5-11), Guy Gunther (5-10½) and Dick Cromack were all under six feet tall. Grocki told the Courant a few days before the state tournament that his Indians were successful because they were scrappy and they hustled.
“We were average,” LeBouthillier said when asked about his high school days. “We weren’t playing for the state championship.”
During his senior year, the Indians were ranked No. 5 in the 1957 Class B tournament but Farmington was upset by No. 12 Wilcox Tech of Meriden, losing by two points in the first round after nearly erasing a 22-point deficit. LeBouthillier had a team-high 19 points in that loss.
But let the record show that the Indians earned an invitation to the Class B tournament in each of the three years LeBouthillier played varsity basketball for Farmington (1955-57). In those days, the top 16 teams in each class (A, B, C) were selected. There were no teams with a 40 percent win percentage in those tournaments.
LeBouthillier enjoys the speed at which today’s Indians play at and he attended several games this season. While the game has changed tremendously in the last 50 years, he saw some of that hustling and scrappy style his 1957 team used by Farmington in the opening minutes of the third quarter in the Div. 3 final.
With their quickness and athleticism, Amistad had frustrated Farmington in the first half of Sunday’s championship game, grabbing a 25-16 lead. But at the start of the third quarter, Farmington deployed a sense of hustle and intensity seldom seen on the hardwood. With two steals and four baskets, the Indians scored 10 points in a single minute to erase a nine-point halftime deficit.
Farmington outscored Amistad, 24-10 in the third quarter. In eight minutes, Farmington had nine steals and created 12 Amistad turnovers. Farmington’s Jake Dunst had five steals while 6-foot-7 sophomore Bube Momah had four blocks. It was the turnaround that led Farmington to the state championship.
O’Connor was bursting with pride, too. Over the last four decades, he has been one of the many unsung men and women volunteering their time to introduce and teach basketball to youngsters in Farmington.
He helped start third grade and fourth grade basketball programs at West District Elementary School along with a fifth grade and sixth grade basketball program. He helped start travel teams and a Farmington Valley AAU club.
When Farmington High head coach Duane Witter was a young teacher in Farmington, he was teaching at Irving Robbins Middle School. O’Connor was coordinating travel teams at the time. “I said, ‘Coach? You like basketball,” O’Connor asked. “Why don’t you coach the travel team?’ And he did.
“Now, he tells me that I am responsible for getting him into coaching,” O’Connor chuckled. “He’s done a great job.”
One Witter’s assistant coaches is Tim O’Connor – one of Bob’s two sons. Witter coached Tim O’Connor on the travel, junior varsity and varsity teams in Farmington. Tim and his older brother, Michael, played on Witter’s first varsity team in 1999.
Tim O’Connor has been on the Farmington coaching staff for the 12 years – the last 10 as the junior varsity coach. On Sunday, Tim O’Connor’s six-week old daughter, Lilly, was in the stands with his wife, Ashleigh – a Farmington High graduate who was once the manager of the basketball team in high school.
“We bleed maroon and white in the O’Connor family,” Tim O’Connor said.
Witter savored the moment, too. “I probably got a 100 text messages, 50 emails,” he said after the semifinal win over Prince Tech and in the days leading up the final. “Everybody who saw me in town wished me good luck. We got a police escort out of Farmington (Sunday). Everybody was all in. That is the culture we have built around this team.”
Witter has been the varsity coach for 21 years. His Indians have qualified for the CIAC tournament 18 times and advanced to the semifinals in 2007 and 2012 before breaking through this year. This year’s 23 victories is probably a single-season team record — a significant achievement for a program that began in 1921.
“I am feeling like my coaching career is coming to an end,” Witter said as Queen’s We Are the Champions echoed through the Mohegan Sun Arena after the Indians secured the championship. “I have been doing this a long time and obviously I have always dreamed about being part of this game.
“Winning the game wasn’t really part of the dream. It was just being a part of the game,” he said. “I started way back when we used to play (the finals) back at Central Connecticut State University and I used to go to those games and dream about being part of one of those games.
“So I have been dreaming about this my whole life. So, I am not try to minimize it. It means everything to me and I am very happy,” Witter said.
Bob and Tim O’Connor hugged and posed together with the championship trophy afterward. LeBouthillier caught the eye of this reporter afterward with a big smile on his face. “We won it!” he happily said.
The team went to eat and celebrate at one of the restaurants at the Mohegan Sun. Afterward, they posed with the championship trophy together. And, they shared it on Twitter.
In the Farmington basketball family, this was a day for all ages to celebrate together.