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Woodsville Bids Bagonzi Goodbye

Woodsville baseball coach John Bagonzi sits on the bench with his team in an undated photograph. (Valley News photograph)

Woodsville baseball coach John Bagonzi sits on the bench with his team in an undated photograph. (Valley News photograph)

Woodsville — Woodsville mourned and celebrated one of its very own on Thursday.

While the sun shone on an unseasonably mild day outside St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, inside friends and relatives reflected on John Bagonzi at his funeral mass.

Father Pierre Baker and Bagonzi’s three children gave eulogies in honor of a man who taught and coached at Woodsville High School for 33 years, winning 13 combined state championships in baseball, basketball and cross country, using an intense — but loving — old-school style that former athletes unequivocally say helped shape them into better individuals. Bagonzi died Feb. 13 at age 83.

A talented multi-sport athlete himself with the Engineers, Bagonzi went on to pitch at the University of New Hampshire, and was eventually signed by the Boston Red Sox before his career was interrupted by a stint in the U.S. Army. After returning from the service, he pitched in the minor leagues before an arm injury ended his professional career.

The end of Bagonzi’s playing days was a boon for his hometown, where he returned to coach and teach from 1959-91. He also served as the town’s Youth Recreation Director for 25 years during this time, making an impression on all of the children who attended his programs. That included Baker, who was enrolled during Bagonzi’s first summer in charge.

“I was a 9-year-old boy and he’d just got back from the military,” said Baker, a 1970 Woodsville graduate now stationed at a Nashua, N.H., parish. “It didn’t matter that we were 9 years old, we learned about discipline quickly. We stood at attention, we marched right face and left. He’d tell us to watch the flag and say, ‘stand there and watch it until I tell you not to.’ ”

Indeed, Bagonzi didn’t ask much of his young charges — but he told them plenty. Visionary and confident, Bagonzi would often have players pegged for certain high school positions before they were finished with elementary school. When he needed someone to fill a role, he chose someone and molded them to fit it.

Jay Holden, a good friend and classmate of Bagonzi’s oldest son, John III, spent a lot of time with the family and filled the Engineers’ hole at catcher his senior year.

“After my junior year, Mr. B said, ‘You’re playing catcher next year, but you’re going to have to learn how to call pitches,’ ” Holden, a 1975 graduate, recalled. “That whole following summer, I went to the Bagonzis almost every night to watch baseball games (on TV) and call every pitch to Mr. B. I remember being so proud of the fact that I learned to call pitches enough that he let me be catcher.”

During his senior year, John III had a no-hitter against U-32 in hand with two outs and two strikes in the seventh inning. The would-be final batter whiffed twice on curve balls, and Holden called for a third straight breaking pitch to try to put him away.

“(John III) hung it just a little bit and it got poked for a base hit,” Holden said. “We still won the game 15-0, but Mr. B was a perfectionist. The fact that we’d lost a no-hitter hit him pretty hard. Needless to say, I never called three straight curve balls again.”

Even as a professional pitcher, Steve Blood couldn’t fully escape Bagonzi’s admonishments. Drafted by the Minnesota Twins while a senior at Woodsville, Blood was pitching for a minor league affiliate and out dueled future Red Sox pitching coach Joe Kerrigan in a complete-game victory with Bagonzi in attendance. Despite the 3-1 victory, Bagonzi had some criticism.

“It was in (one of the) Carolina(s), and he came all the way down to watch me pitch,” Blood said. “I beat (Kerrigan) 3-1 and I gave up one hard-hit ball the whole game, a line drive that the center fielder caught. I saw Mr. B afterwards the first thing he said was, ‘Hey, what happened on that line drive?’ ”

Even as a pro, Blood welcomed the instruction that followed.

“In five years of professional ball, I never had a pitching coach who knew as much as Mr. B did,” he said.

Bagonzi’s basketball teams were the stuff of legend. Borrowing the press-and-break style of John Wooden’s UCLA teams, the Engineers won five NHIAA Class M championships in seven title-game appearances from 1969-77 while routinely scoring 100 points or better.

“It was a whole mind-set where not only did he not want to fail, he didn’t know how to fail,” said former player Bob Miller. “He didn’t know what it meant. It wasn’t an option. We won 62 straight games, and I’ll never forget when we finally lost in 1971, by nine points at Littleton. We were devastated, but we put together another 20-game winning streak right after that.”

Though intense, Bagonzi possessed an eternal optimism that penetrated those he mentored. Once he was struck with an innovative idea, there wasn’t much anyone could say to dissuade his ambitions.

No one knew that more than his own family — his wife, Dreamer, and children John III, Teresa and Robert. During his eulogy, John III reminisced about one of his dad’s most spirited home projects.

“Dad thought he was a carpenter,” he said. “He told me one day we were going to the rail yard to get some wood, and we were going to make steps out of them.

“We got there and I was looking around for plywood and small boards, but he what he intended to make the steps from were these giant railroad trestles, each about 12 feet long. Only one at a time would fit in the station wagon, and it took a long time to go back and forth and cut them all up. But he was so proud of those steps by the time we were done. He said, ‘John, you couldn’t blow these up with dynamite.’ ”

John III didn’t shed tears until the end of the speech, when he tried to characterized his dad’s life in so many words.

“When I think about it and contemplate, ‘Did my father have a good life? Did my father have a great life?’ The answer is ‘no.’ He had a wonderful life. I miss him, but I take comfort in that.”

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.