WINSTED – Christine (Wallace) Nelson took her 1990 bright red hooded Northwestern Regional jacket with Berkshire League champs embroidered on the front and state champions on the back out of the closet about a week ago and toyed with the idea of maybe getting rid of it.
“I was just thinking that I’m 50 now and maybe it’s time to let it go,” said Nelson who lives in Mooresville, North Carolina.
Then Nelson’s son Jack intervened.
“He said Mom that’s more than a jacket that’s legend. You can’t get rid of that,” said Nelson.
Needless to say the pristine jacket is safely back in the closet for the duration.
Nelson and the jacket are part of the coach Fred Williams and Northwestern girls basketball legend. Nelson graduated in 1991 and continued her career at Fairfield University. Before she said good-bye to the Highlanders, she sank the game-winning basket to give Northwestern a 29-28 win over Ellington and the Class M title in 1990 and was a major part of one of the highlights of Williams’ legendary career – the 141-game Berkshire League winning streak.
Williams captured his 700th career win (700-320) with the Highlanders win over Terryville Monday night and will become Connecticut’s all-time girls basketball leader in wins when he hits 705 passing retired Masuk coach Dave Strong’s mark of 704,
Along Williams’ 45-year coaching journey that started in 1978 there have been a Hall of Fame load of high points – the 1990 state title, 11 Berkshire League titles (eight in a row from 1987-‘94), a host of BL Tournament titles and brilliant players who have gone on to successful careers.
The streak is right up there with all that has transpired. On Jan. 16, 1987 the Highlanders lost to Thomaston, 50-45. Northwestern would not lose another Berkshire League game for more than six years, 2,230 days to be exact. On Feb. 24, 1993 the streak finally came to end with a BL Tournament loss at home to soon to be Class S champion, Thomaston, 31-27.
Wallace was one of a handful of players that finished her career having never lost a BL game. During the span the Highlanders only lost only four games, three of them in the state semifinals.
Williams takes little credit for the streak. A major league minority opinion to be sure.
“It didn’t happen because of me,” Williams said. “It happened because we had really, really good players. For a coach to take credit for that isn’t right. We had really, really good athletes who put time in during the off-season and worked to be the best they could be. “
Indeed, the Highlanders were not low on talent. Players like one of the BL’s all-time greats and the school’s leading scorer, Beth Finn, Tricia and Julie Blood, Kellie Sorel, Katy Berning, Aileen Brodnitzki and Cheri Carraro made life miserable for opponents.
However, talent needs to be taught and Williams did the teaching to perfection. It wasn’t just who played during the streak it was how they played.”
“Fred taught his kids to play very tough defense, on the ball defense and team defense,” said former Thomaston coach Paul Ebbs. “Each kid knew what they were doing and did it well. There was no swagger from them, but everybody got beaten down by the streak. We all said there goes another title for Fred.”
Williams’ crosstown rival and friend, Gilbert coach Craig Schroeder, knew there was no room for error against Northwestern.
“Fred plucked a lot of those wins off me,” Schroeder said. “Every game you knew had to be prepped for what Northwestern threw at you. You knew about their talent but you also knew they would be well-coached. “
Thomaston’s Amy Matthews, a future Connecticut Women’s Basketball Hall of Famer who played a huge role in helping end the streak with a 13-point fourth quarter, felt Williams had no peer defensively.
“He had a wealth of knowledge, he was ahead of his time,” Matthews said. “He knew what other teams were going to do before they did it. When we called a high-low, he knew the play. Plus his teams were always ready to play. They all had drive and showed up. I’m Freddie forever.”
Williams got Wamogo coach Ken Gladding so flustered that he admitted he had no answer for the Highlanders’ vaunted match-up zone. Williams told him he would sit down with him when the careers were over and explain it. That hasn’t happened yet.”
The enormity of the streak had the potential to suffocate the Highlanders. Yet while it had impact that never happened.
“I don’t remember the kids talking about it,” Williams said. “They knew that something was happening because we got great (press) coverage. But we just rolled with it. It might have been some added pressure but we didn’t emphasize it, it was just one game at a time as it is today. I don’t think the kids were aware of No. 700 until recently.”
While the streak wasn’t overbearing, Nelson admitted it hung over the program.
“It was kind of an unspoken thing,” Nelson said. “We knew it was there and it was a burden but we put it into perspective. We knew we had to raise our game. We had to keep it going and losing was not an option.”
The streak may have been more of a burden on Lewis Mills. The Spartans were coached by Ken Hoagland and had great teams during the streak with players like Heidi Law who would go to UConn, Karin Crompton, the Gallaghers, Jackie and Joanne, and Kathy Ennis. Yet, Northwestern was an insurmountable obstacle.
“Ken and I used to call each other after big games which included after getting beat by Northwestern,” Schroeder said. “I knew Ken was frustrated when his wife Jean would answer the phone and say Ken was down cleaning the cellar which was where he dealt with frustration. For six years, Ken had the cleanest cellar in Winsted. “
The streak also forced Williams to navigate the playing time issue. The Highlanders were often far ahead of opponents early in the second quarter.
“I wanted kids who had averages like Beth Finn, the Bloods and Megan Keefe to get their averages,” said Williams. In hindsight however some of the kids would have bigger numbers on the scoring board (all-time) but other kids benefitted because they got a lot of playing time. The starters often only played half of the game.
The streak itself for whatever pressure it brought also was a great motivator.
“As some of the kids who started the streak graduated, there was pressure on the other kids to continue the streak,” Williams said. “It gave them confidence to know they were part of the success of the program. Some teams thought they were better than they were. I think some opponents thought that oh no it’s Northwestern and we can’t beat this team.”
For six years in the Berkshire League nobody did. All of Fred Williams’ wins were good, 141 of them have a special glow. It was a perfect run in a legendary career.