Toolin’ Around Town: Ray Allena recalls winning season of ‘74

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As Petaluma’s population grows, many residents may be unaware of one of Petaluma’s proudest sports-related milestones.

It occurred in 1974.

Forty-five years ago, Hillcrest Hospital faced a patient overcrowding crisis and 270 acres of land owned by the city of Petaluma on Sonoma Mountain, known as Lafferty Ranch, was under discussion as a possible park site.

Nearly overlooked was possibly the most acclaimed sports story in Petaluma history, the capturing of the Amateur Softball Association’s National men’s fastpitch championship title by Santa Rosa’s Guanella Bros. Floormen.

Competing at ASA’s (now USA Softball) highest level requires dominant pitching and semi-pro or borderline major-league talent. Guanella Bros.’ home was Santa Rosa, but without a line-up bolstered by elite Petaluma athletes, that championship never would have been brought to the West Coast.

A powerful potion of precision pitching, intimidating defense and the “long ball” provided the magic for the Floormen. That recipe included an infusion of talent from homegrown Petaluma ballplayers who grew up playing Little League and high school baseball before teaming up on the national stage. Its key ingredient was future ASA Hall of Famer and six-time All-American Ray Allena, spiced up by silky-smooth infielders Frank and Johnny Topolewski, Bill Johnson, along with catcher Rich Garner. In 1975, Mike Thomas joined the Guanella team that finished 11th in the ASA National Tournament.

All but Johnson were raised on Petaluma’s east side.

Out of the area pitchers K.G. Fincher and Rich Balswick, both All-Americans, were invincible. Allena, who batted .426, with 21 home runs, 73 extra-base hits and 105 runs batted in, powered the offense. The Floormen posted a 107-10 win-loss record in 1974, including a 5-0 sweep in the national tournament, capped by a 4-1 victory over Aurora, Illinois, in the championship game.

“I was having fun playing for Petaluma’s Grayview Farms and the Coasters when Guanella’s picked me up for the ASA Regional Tournament in 1972,” said Allena. “Big-time softball was where the pitching was. I knew several players that could have played with us defensively, but you’ve got to be able to hit the rise ball.”

Allena played for three-time state champion Wilson-Russell Ford of Vallejo in 1973, earning all-state recognition for the second straight year, but rejoined the Floormen in 1974 when it was apparent the Santa Rosa team was building a powerhouse capable of national recognition. Playing alongside the Topolewskis, Johnson (the only non-Little Leaguer) and Garner, the team sported a Petaluma identity.

“Walt Guanella always chose players that fit into the team,” said Allena. “We played for the enjoyment of playing. The tougher it was, the better it was. We had a unique group of guys. I had a feeling we were going somewhere.”

Winning the regional tournament was the biggest challenge for the two-time state champions, but in 1974 Guanella Bros. overcame that hurdle to advance to the National Tournament in Clearwater, Florida, where they went undefeated in five games.

“Back then, we thought it would never end. We were a small town team playing against established champions,” said Allena. “We put Santa Rosa on the map. Our defense was the best in the nation.”

As reigning national champions, the 1975 team received invitations to tournaments in Canada, Salt Lake City, and Colorado Springs, in addition to hosting the ASA All-American team at Howarth Park. In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, they played on a softball diamond built in a cornfield, reminiscent of “Field of Dreams.”

A perennial all-star whose defensive prowess rivaled his hitting, Allena pointed out there were no selfish players on the team — that it takes teamwork to become successful.

“I’ve often said that (second team All-American and member of the 1975 Pan-American team) Frank Topolewski was the best defensive player I’ve ever seen and Rich Garner was among the very best catchers,” he said.

In nominating Allena to the ASA Hall of Fame, former Press Democrat sportswriter Herb Dower described him as the undisputed team leader — the complete package of speed and power, with a great throwing arm and a good eye at the plate. He played in 11 ASA Major National Tournaments, where he earned first team all-American honors four times, second team once and third team once.

A retired machinist at Mare Island Naval Shipyard, Allena, 71, honored a promise made to his wife, Mary: when their daughters, Lisa and Andrea, were old enough to play softball, he’d quit playing and coach them. He followed up on that promise by coaching teams in the Petaluma Girls’ Softball Association for 10 years and the Casa Grande High School girls’ team for four years.

“I have no regrets, my body told me when it was time to quit,” said Allena, who retired in 1986 after a 19-year playing career. “But, if I could go back to 1974, that’s the season I’d like to play again.”

Still active, he’s rolled three 300 games in 54 years of Tuesday night bowling and is a regular on the golf links where, in 2008, he notched a hole-in-one at Foxtail Golf Club.

From the race horse Kenilworth, the legendary Petaluma Leghorns football team, the origin of the World’s Wristwrestling championships and the success of the 2012 National Little League team that finished third in the Little League World Series, historical sports achievements like this are part of Petaluma’s heritage.

It’s important to remember them.

(Harlan Osborne’s ‘Toolin’ Around Town’ runs every other week. You can reach him at harlan@sonic.net)

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