Remembering The Champs: Schenectady’s 1998, 2001 championship basketball teams share deep ties

Coach points on sidelines

Mark Sausville coaches at Scotia-Glenville in 2019. Sausville was an assistant coach on Schenectady's 1998 state championship boys' basketball team, and was the head coach on the Patriots' 2001 state title squad.

Mark Sausville had a case of the jitters before coaching his first varsity game with the Schenectady boys’ basketball team late in the 1997-98 regular season.

The Patriots assistant coach had been tasked with the chore when Schenectady head coach Gary DiNola was out of town attending to his ill father. At the time, those Patriots were 16-0 and on the verge of the program’s first Big 10 championship heading into Sausville’s debut matchup with Catholic Central.

“There was a lot of pressure. That team was doing something unique, and I didn’t want to screw it up. I remember being nervous,” Sausville said. “We were up by four points at the half and it’s ‘Oh my gosh.’ In the second half they responded like they should have.”

Schenectady beat Catholic Central that night 77-47, and beat Albany 63-50 a few nights later with Sausville again at the helm of a team that would go on to much greater things as the state Class A champion.

Sausville took over for DiNola following that historic season, and in 2001, Sausville led his on squad to another one of those special campaigns that was punctuated by the program’s second New York State Public High School Athletic Association Class A title.

“I remember being up in Glens Falls and Gary tells me, ‘Pretty soon, it’s going to be your time. You’re ready,’” Sausville said. “Gary prepared me very well.”

Sausville, Jason McKrieth and a handful of others have a direct tie to the two state teams that, interestingly, are linked in several other ways.

Both of them finished 28-1, both of them beat Hempstead in the NYSPHSAA final, and both lost only in the Federation tournament. Both had a big man in the middle and a star scoring guard, both ran whenever possible, and both used pressure and physical man-to-man as part of their stingy defense.

Both teams, of course, were also much-beloved by the Schenectady faithful.

“Both teams played with tremendous support at home games,” Sausville said. “People came out to see them play. They wanted to see those teams.”

Both state championships squads had endured a difficult playoff loss the year before their magical runs that put them firmly among Schenectady’s greatest athletic teams. The 1998 edition was anchored by Willie Deane, James Thomas, Pat O’Connor, Jamaar Sims and Justin Hoffman, whose brother, Doug, was on the 2001 team. 

“I learned from Gary and used a lot of that with my team,” said Sausville, who spent 12 seasons and won five Big 10 championships as the Pats’ head coach. “I was sending the same messages Gary taught me. I simulated a lot of things Gary did and used the same tactics to make them believe.”

Biff Fischer remembers using a piece of the past to inspire what was then the present before a 2001 regional game against also-unbeaten Watertown at Manley Field House in Syracuse. DiNola, the Patriots’ former stat man said, would often stress to his players that a fist is stronger than five fingers, and before the contest, Fischer wrote that phrase in big letters on a placard in the locker room. The Pats won by 22 that night, by 20 in the state semi, and by 24 in the title game. 

“When we were on the road and we didn’t have our chalkboard, we’d write game plans and other things on a posterboard, and we’d tape it to the wall,” said Fischer, who kept stats for all four of DiNola’s Schenectady varsity teams and for Sausville’s first three. “It’s one of the first things Gary said to his kids. He even asked one of them to try to bend his finger back. He couldn’t. That was the point.”

Kevin Owens was among the seniors on the 1998 team, and he joined the 2001 title team as a volunteer assistant while attending RPI. Schenectady junior varsity coach Nelson Griffin and scorebook keeper Tony Anapolis were also involved with both state title teams.

Owens worked with guys like McKrieth, Rashaun Freeman, Adonist Barber, Fred Harris, Sequon Young, Josh Colafemina and Steve Snipes, who formed the first seven on that deep 2001 team that made history as Section II’s first Class A team to win a Federation tournament game.

“There was so much talent on that [2001] team, and there was no reason why they shouldn’t go farther than they had,” Owens said of his motivation to join the Pats’ staff. “I wanted the kids to have the experience I had and be successful. I asked if there was something I could do.”

Owens’ tie with the two teams is one-of-a-kind in that as a coach his role was to make the Patriots better, and as a player his role was essentially the same. It’s something he relished, and excelled at.

“Kevin and our other second-team guys were so valuable in practice,” Sausville said. “They played a really big part in making the ‘98 team what it was. Our second team had some good players.”

“Red versus blue,” recalled Owens, who later that school year starred for the Patriots’ lacrosse team. “Those practices were more competitive and exciting than going against other opponents. They were so grueling.”

Schenectady’s second-team group on the 25th anniversary team included guys like James Plowden, Ben Wiles, Adam Hover and McKrieth, a freshman who came off the bench to provide great defense then, and who, by his senior year, had established himself as one of the state’s most talented all-around players.

“His nickname was ‘Rookie’ when he came in and we gave him the usual business, but we knew he was going to be a key guy, and the senior leadership took him under our wing. He took something from everyone,” Owens said. “He was above average for his grade, but now he was stepping up and needed to get stronger and faster to earn those minutes. We showed him what it takes.”

McKrieth knew well by his senior year when he was named the MVP of the Section II and state tournaments, like Deane, the 1998 team scoring leader, had, too.

“How many kids get to play on two state championship teams, and play such a big role?” Fischer asked.

McKrieth became Schenectady’s third career 1,000-point scorer during his sensational senior season. He joined Deane and 1993 grad James Olsen, Schenectady’s first standout after the Linton and Mont Pleasant merger, on the exclusive list.

“Only two guys did it before me, and it feels good to join them,” McKrieth had said the night he put down four slam dunks and scored 30 points to surpass 1,000 in a game against Catholic Central. “I was fortunate to be able to play with Willie the year he led us to the state title. I’d like to do that this year.”

Schenectady became the first Section II school to secure two state championships when the 2001 group prevailed, and the 28 wins achieved by the teams tied the Section II record.

“What Gary’s team did allowed us to believe it could be done,” Sausville said. “We were fortunate to get it done, as well.”

Categories: High School Sports, Sports

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