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DiNola led champions on, off court

Pride of Schenectady

DiNola led champions on, off court

Wins secondary for hall of fame coach
DiNola led champions on, off court
Gary DiNola's 1997-98 team is one of the city's best.
Photographer: Photo provided

SCHENECTADY — One of the greatest runs in the history of Schenectady basketball had just ended when head coach Gary DiNola gathered his Patriots in a locker room at the then-Glens Falls Civic Center.

That was two decades ago, but Andrew Healey still remembers DiNola's parting words.

"My slate is zero and zero," DiNola told his players after their loss to Rice. "My success will be defined by what you do later in life."

That would be now, and the players that represented Schenectady so well during that magic winter, they're all doing just fine.

That 1997-98 state championship-winning basketball team was the crown jewel in DiNola's long coaching career for the things it did on the court, and for all of its accomplishments afterward. It was also the last high school basketball team coached by one of this year's Schenectady City School District Athletic Hall of Fame inductees, one that included three future lawyers, a history teacher and a mover in the pharmaceutical industry.

One of DiNola's assistant coaches and a former student and player of his, Mark Sausville, would lead Schenectady to a second state title three years later.

"That was a tough pill to swallow," DiNola said of the Patriots' only defeat in that 28-1 winter, a loss against Rice in the Federation semifinals. "I remember after the game, instead of letting them feel all bad, I challenged them. That kind of threw them. I told them I'm going to keep inventory on them and see where they are five and 10 years from now. They took the challenge."

And ran with it.

"That's a huge testament to Gary," Sausville said. "He would always say you've got to prepare yourself for success. He drilled that. Don't leave anything to chance. That's why a lot of them are successful in life. It's not a coincidence."

DiNola's coaching way went beyond passing and running and scoring points. He always considered himself an educator first, and played that role. He was big on accountability. He was demanding. He sent messages that stuck.

"He deserves it, hands down, because of the impact he made not only in athletics, but academics," Willie Deane, the title team's scoring leader, said of DiNola's upcoming hall of fame induction. "Look at our team. All 12 of us graduated high school. Ten of 12 graduated from college. These days? You don't hear of that."

These days, Ben Wiles, Adam Hover and Healey are all practicing law. James Plowden is a police officer in Schenectady, and Justin Hoffman teaches history in the school district. James Thomas, who broke records at Texas before a lengthy pro career, has also found his way back to Schenectady where he runs his youth foundation and coaches the high school girls' basketball team.

Deane continues to play pro ball overseas while making his mark as a Schenectady youth basketball leader and organizer.

Kevin Owens is a financial planner. Jamar Sims, Jason McKrieth and Pat O'Connor are in the human service and development fields, and Davidek Herron is the one who has made a name for himself in the pharmaceutical industry. Herron and McKrieth — a freshman on DiNola's New York champion and the senior star on Sausville's state winner — also have pro basketball experience on their resumes.

"They're giving back, up and down the lineup," DiNola said.

"We're not complacent. We're still striving," Healey said. "I know I don't want to keep doing just this. I have aspirations. Someday, I'd like to be a judge."

DiNola delights in their stories of success. The Mont Pleasant graduate remembers the names. He keeps in touch with so many of those he mentored within and beyond the classroom.

The 67-year-old grandfather of seven girls coached varsity basketball, baseball, softball, golf and track teams at his alma mater, and he also had a run afterward with the Albany Academy boys' lacrosse team. That's where his own boys — Dustin, Seth and Jordan — played the game before each of them headed off to the United States Naval Academy.

"There is no better opportunity to assist people in molding and defining themselves than at the scholastic level," said DiNola, who taught English and served in several administrative capacities in the Schenectady school district before his retirement in 2007. "You're in such a unique position to people mold. I feel honored and blessed to have had the jobs I had."

DiNola, who lives in Ballston Lake with his wife Susan, said he always had quality help in steering young students.

"We had an army of people to make sure they made the right decisions," DiNola said. "We had a great staff. You've got to surround yourself with talent."

DiNola played basketball and baseball at Mont Pleasant and played basketball and lacrosse at Fairleigh Dickinson. He was a four-year assistant lacrosse coach at RPI and a five-season assistant basketball coach at the University at Albany. He is in the UAlbany Athletic Hall of Fame as a staff member on the 1993-94 team, and is a member of the Upstate New York Basketball Hall of Fame.

"He definitely put academics and discipline before basketball," Deane said. "From starter to the 12th guy, he held everyone to the same standard. I was benched one time not because my GPA was bad, but because I didn't get my slip signed by all my teachers. He didn't play. He had his rules."

"He was a tremendous influence," Sausville said, "and a tough act to follow."

DiNola's 1986-87 basketball team won Section II and regional Class B titles, and the next season his team won the Big 10 crown and came up a win shy of another area flag. Two of his Academy lacrosse teams won Section II titles, as well.

DiNola was named the Region II Coach of the Year in 1987 and 1998 by the New York State Basketball Coaches Association, and was tabbed the Schenectady City School District Teacher of the Year in 1986 and 1998.

"My dad [Philip] emphasized giving back," DiNola said of the decorated World War II veteran and longtime postal worker. "My mom [Antoinette] stressed the academic side."

Animated and always thoroughly prepared, DiNola served as Schenectady High School's basketball coach for four varsity seasons. His team won five games, then 13, then 19 and reached the Section II Class A final before its breakthrough state-winning campaign that featured 26 double-digit victories. The last of those was a 61-51 win over Hempstead in the New York State Public High School Athletic Association championship game, which came four games after Schenectady beat Colonie 71-37 in the Section II championship game.

That team, with size, multiple scorers and loads of defensive grit, is often mentioned with the finest Schenectady has seen.

"They carried the city on their back," DiNola said. "They didn't have a soft ride. They were representing 60,000 people."

In so many ways, they still are.

Reach Gazette Sportswriter Jim Schiltz at 518-395-3143, jims@dailygazette.com or @jim_schiltz on Twitter.

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