Better than 20 years of age separate Cliff LaRose, a veteran high school and collegiate softball umpire, and Tom McDonald, the long-time but since retired softball and basketball coach at Milford’s Lauralton Hall.
Their shared bond through sports, however, makes them the perfect pair to be inducted together into the Connecticut Interscholastic and Collegiate Softball Hall of Fame.
That took place on March 2, at the Aqua-Turf Convention Center in Southington.
The organization, now in its 25th year, honored the two, who shared some time on the same coaching bench when McDonald was the head basketball coach at Lauralton Hall (1989-2004) and LaRose was his assistant.
“It really goes back much farther than that between Cliff and I,” said McDonald, who now lives in Nellysford, Va., but was a longer than 25-year resident of Fairfield.
“I worked with Cliff’s father (also Cliff) in the post office,” McDonald said. “We also coached together in the Black Rock Little League.
“Then, when my daughter (Vina) was nine, we formed a Senior Softball Division, in Black Rock (a section of Bridgeport bordering Long Island Sound). Cliff’s sister (Jane) also played for me.”
After Cliff LaRose Jr. graduated from Notre Dame High of Fairfield, he briefly attended Housatonic Community College, found out it wasn’t for him, and took a job at Bridgeport Hospital where he’s worked for 25 years and is now the Inventory Control Coordinator.
One day, Dave Caterson, the head of the Bridgeport Umpires Association came by his house, gave him a rule book, and invited him to a clinic.
“I had played some softball (in Church Leagues) and felt that officiating was always my calling,” LaRose said. “I fell in love with it. At first, the money was important to me. But eventually it became for a pure love of the game.”
Now, 23 years later, LaRose has worked collegiate games in five conferences (Big East, Ivy Patriot, Northeast 10, America Eas, and Northeast Conference) along with hundreds of Stratford Brakettes games and two high school state championship finals (the S contest in 2000 and the M final in 2001).
He’s worked MAAC championship games and one ECAC Division I final.
LaRose has coached high school basketball at Kolbe Cathedral in Bridgeport and is currently the head coach at Stratford High School.
He worked with McDonald at Kolbe and had two tours of duty as an assistant coach at Lauralton Hall.
“Because of all the time that we’ve known each other, this is an honor to be inducted at the same time with Tom,” LaRose said. “We go back a long ways together.”
McDonald first met Dave Hennessey, a key figure in the relationship in Black Rock, and went over to Kolbe as the girls basketball coach and wound up as the softball coach at Lauralton Hall one year after his daughter graduated from the school in 1986.
“I was hanging around there so much watching her play that they asked me if I’d like to become an assistant coach,” McDonald said.
McDonald took the Crusaders to back-to-back Class M state titles in softball (2004, 2005) and reached one final in basketball where he lost to Guilford.
“You’re only as good as your players and the assistant coaches that you surround yourself with,” McDonald said. “In softball, I had Charlie Grimshaw and in basketball I had Cliff and Steve Schuler.
“When I started out there wasn’t much travel ball in either sport. Once the kids got started at age 10 or 11, by the time they reached high school, they were very good.
“In softball, we used to have to teach a kid how to play a position. Once travel ball came in, it was just a matter of fine-tuning their game.”
In his final two years, McDonald had a combined record of 51-2 and was led by players like Kim Ovitore, Sam and Ali Keltos and Mary Rose Sheehy.
“In basketball, we’d always win the South-West Conference’s Patriot Division, then I’d have to face Dave Strong and those Masuk teams,” he said.
“We’d be undefeated during the regular season and we couldn’t beat Dave for the conference title.”
LaRose is nothing short of being thrilled to be inducted while he’s still umpiring.
“This is coming from my peers,” he said. “I have to thank people like Tony Candido, Judy Samaha, Tony Piccolo and Ron Pringle for an honor like this.
“Not too many umpires get to receive this recognition while they’re still active.
Candido, one of the organization’s founders, said, “It’s truly a wonderful occurrence that Tom and Cliff are going into our Hall of Fame together on our 25th anniversary.
“Cliff is what an umpire should be. He’s very knowledgeable about the game and is an excellent rules interpreter. He’s also a great teacher and a role model for younger umpires who’re getting into the sport.”
Candido officiated many Lauralton Hall basketball games when McDonald coached there.
“Tom was the type of coach who you’d want your daughter to play for,” Candido said. “He always had the respect of his players and all of the referees who worked his games.”
Candido said that McDonald once asked him what type of call he’d like to make against him.
“I laughed and said a technical,” Candido said. “But I knew that would never happen, and it never did.”
LaRose has become an assignment official for both the America East and the Northeast Conference, as well as the Brakettes.
“It’s nice to move into the administrative end of this business,” he said. “I don’t know how many years I have left as an umpire.
“Doing games is all about hustle and making the right calls. Judgement is just so important. You have to be in the right position. You have to know how to properly administer the game.”
“This has been a long but very rewarding journey for me. I never expected this (being inducted). I never thought when I started out and wanted to help, that it would lead to this. I’m overwhelmed by it.”