As I thought about the final piece I’d be putting together as a full-time Gazette sportswriter — and I thought about it quite a bit — the word “fortunate” kept bouncing around in my head.
I consider myself fortunate for so many reasons.
I grew up playing all sorts of sports and in high school at Guilderland. I determined that I wanted to write about baseball, football and basketball for a living. I did just that for 37 years, all with the same paper, before I decided earlier this year to retire.
I am fortunate that, from Day 1, my family was there to offer encouragement, and that the many reporters, photographers, editors, bosses and administrators I shared this journey with were so helpful and supportive. I cannot thank them enough, as well as all of those who have taken the time to read my stories.
I also consider myself fortunate to have been placed in such a unique position to see and chronicle so many special moments, special events and athletic trends, and to have met so many special people — from the youngsters to the coaches to the administrators — that were a significant part of them.
While high school sports became my niche, I also wrote stories about speed skating, water skiing, swimming, rowing, horse jumping, pro golf, pro soccer, minor league and youth baseball, youth lacrosse, martial arts, wrestling and boxing, some college events, auto racing, and the all-encompassing Empire State Games, which took me to all parts of New York.
During my run, the paper moved its location, changed its name, added a Sunday edition, changed the type size you read and the printing press we use, and I don’t know how many times we changed the computers. The way we gather information changed. People here changed, as well, some moving on after long stays and some after shorter stints. I will always have fond memories of them, including Butch Walker, my first boss and the man who hired me shortly after I graduated from Oswego in December of 1985.
About two years after that, and I’ll never forget the day, Butch said, “Let’s go for a coffee.” That’s really when my world changed forever, when he elevated me from a clerk to a sportswriter, and I was given the scholastic beat.
In just a few words: it has been a blast.
The games and competitions were always something I looked forward to, and I consider myself so fortunate — again — that during my time here I was able to work with so many individuals dedicated to high school sports which included some of the most successful coaches in Section II history such as Craig Phillips, Ken Strube, George Mardigan, Gary Bynon, Mike Vorgang, Art and Linda Kranick, and Brent Steuerwald.
I have seen a big move toward turf fields and Friday night football, as well as the birth of a girls’ lacrosse league and that sport’s rapid growth in our area, and the continued growth of boys’ lacrosse. I’ve seen the coming together of Linton and Mont Pleasant high schools to form Schenectady and the start of a hall of fame to honor the district’s greatest sports personalities. I’ve seen a bunch of league realignments, the demise all together of the Big 10 that once flourished, some major rule changes like the advent of the 3-point shot in basketball and the baseball pitch limit, and the shutdown of scholastic sports and their comeback in the COVID-19 era.
That sports comeback made my final school year a four-season sprint, with the “Fall II” season tucked between the winter and spring, which for me coverage-wise was capped by one more crazy high school game up at Canajoharie when the Cougars rallied late and won the Class C baseball title in walk-off fashion.
Baseball was at the forefront of an interview that I will always cherish, when I sat right next to Cardinals legend Stan Musial at a card show in my early years working here. Pat Riley while coaching the Lakers was another early interview.
Fortunate? I’ll say.
My position has also afforded me the opportunity to promote sports like field hockey, gymnastics, swimming, volleyball and cross country, which is something I’ve taken a great deal of satisfaction from. It also afforded me the opportunity to work side-by-side with some really nice folks who work for other news organizations.
While I am retiring from this job I have enjoyed so much, I will not be going away completely. I do intend to freelance for the Gazette, and maybe I’ll be fortunate enough to add a few more items to my highlight list that I have included below.
How many sportswriters can say they covered a 2-0 football game, and not the forfeit kind? I can, and though it came relatively early in my career in 1991, Schalmont’s 2-0 homecoming win over Mohonasen still stands out because of its rarity.
For the record, Schalmont got its safety in the second quarter when Kevin Ward, Paul Barnett and Bill Olochnowicz converged on Mohonasen quarterback Craig Schaff in the second quarter.
The Schalmont-Mohonasen football rivalry was among my favorites to cover. Other football rivalries I covered, and enjoyed tremendously, included Shenendehowa-Saratoga Springs, Johnstown-Gloversville, and more recently Burnt Hills-Queensbury.
THE NIGHT LANSLEY WAS PERFECT
I took in a lot of no-hit baseball games over the years, but only once did I witness perfection, when Shenendehowa’s Keith Lansley sent down 21 straight Schenectady batters in a 7-0 Section II Class A title-game win in June 1994 at Heritage Park.
Even more vivid than Lansley’s strikeout to finish it was Tracy LaFountain’s bunt attempt just before that, and the close call at first base that kept Lansley’s bid alive.
“We gave him his high fives after each inning, and then it was dead silent. Nobody said anything and nobody looked at him. We didn’t want to jinx him,” Shenendehowa coach Jim Carrese said afterward.
Another Shenenedehowa pitching memory didn’t end so well for Jason Downey, who in 2004 spun 10 no-hit innings in an 11-inning, 1-0 Section II Class AA quarterfinal loss to Troy.
In a 2008 Class C regional semifinal game, Dustin Baker of Fort Plain retired the last 21 Ticonderoga batters he faced in an 8-0, no-hit win. Only an error to start the game cost Baker a perfect outing.
SLOWING IT DOWN
Shenendehowa wasn’t going to let Albany race up and down like it had earlier that winter in a 25-point non-league basketball win, so the Plainsmen slowed it down. Way down. From start to finish. And that strategy of milking the clock on every possession almost worked, but the Falcons made a few key plays in the end to pull out a 27-24 Section II Class A quarterfinal win in February of 1994.
Never saw another game quite like it. Albany had averaged 77 points in five games leading up to the strange rematch in which Shenendehowa scored four points in one quarter and Abany scored three in another. Neither team made a 3-pointer, and Shenendehowa missed two of those inside the final minute in a bid to pull even.
“We talked about it. I said there are two ways we can play,” Shenendehowa coach Jim Zullo said afterward. “We could try to beat them by pressing and taking good shots, or we could try this. I gave the guys a night to think about it, and they all said they want to give it a shot.”
Albany went on to win the Class A championship.
I will always have fond memories of the Schenectady boys’ basketball program, which often struggled for wins in its earliest years after the merger between Linton and Mont Pleasant and reached its greatest heights in 1997-98 and 2000-21, when the Patriots won New York State Public High School Athletic Association Class A championships, first under the direction of Gary DiNola and then Mark Sausville. Both of those editions beat Hempstead for the NYSPHSAA title with fourth-quarter heroics, and both finished 28-1. Another coincidence involved the teams’ star centers, James Thomas and Rashaun Freeman, who both had 18 points and nine rebounds in the title games.
Two key figures from the 1998 team, DiNola and guard Willie Deane, were the first coach and player from modern Schenectady High School to be inducted into the Schenectady City School District Athletic Hall of Fame in 2018 and 2019, respectively. The SCSDAHF candidate list includes Casper Wells, who in 2002 was the star of a gritty Schenectady baseball team that came within one win of what would have been another state championship for the high school.
Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake’s 2002 Class A boys’ championship certainly stands out among all of the great swimming meets I have covered, and all of the streak-busting efforts I’ve written about. The Spartans won nine of 12 events in the Amsterdam pool, and with 427 points to Bethlehem’s 410.5, ended the Eagles’ 29-year run as the area’s top Section II team.
“Every race, we pounded out good times. The whole team swam great,” Burnt Hills senior Jud Rudgers said afterward. “Not one person let down, and we needed that. We needed everyone to come through.”
One of the most anticipated Section II girls’ lacrosse title games ended with Niskayuna beating Guilderland 15-14 for the 2011 Class A crown. Kayla Treanor scored the final goal as Niskayuna ended Guilderland’s 80-game win streak against Section II teams.
In the fall of 2016, inside a packed gym at Shenendehowa, the Plainsmen’s girls’ volleyball team ended Burnt Hills’ 390-match Suburban Council win streak that stretched over 26 years.
“I hoped it would be three sets, but I never imagined it would be three sets,” Shenendehowa senior setter Julia Paliwodzinski said after the 25-20, 25-9, 25-17 victory. “I figured it would be a five-set battle.”
OVER THE HUMP
I couldn’t have been happier for the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake football team when, after losing in state title games in 2008, 2009 and 2011, it rode a big first half to a 40-20 Class A win over Sweet Home in 2012 at the Carrier Dome. Burnt Hills had let a 20-7 lead get away in the 2011 Class A final in a 27-20 loss to Maine-Endwell, which made the victory a year later that much sweeter.
Burnt Hills reached the state tournament in 2011 by beating Amsterdam 26-23 in what was among my most memorable Super Bowls. That thriller saw Tyler Rouse kick a late field goal for the Rams before Ryan McDonnell threw a touchdown pass for the Spartans inside the final minute. That game, the last for Amsterdam coach Pat Liverio, was tied at 7-7, 13-13 and 20-20.
GUTS AND GLORY
Shenendehowa was in trouble at the half of the 2013 state Class A field hockey final, trailing two-time defending champ Sachem East by two goals, and with star Anna Bottino hobbling on a sprained ankle. Bottino got taped up, though, and assisted on two goals and then scored the game-winner in an overtime shootout as the Plainsmen prevailed 3-2.
Shenendehowa added a second state title in 2016 and completed a 21-0 campaign when Carli Pelletier and Kelly Buckley scored goals in a 2-1 win over Scarsdale.
Before those wins, Burnt Hill-Ballston Lake was the last Section II team to win a state Class A title in 1987, and I was there, too. Hoosick Falls won the Class B state crown that day, and its coach, Jeanne Frevola, guided both of those Shenendehowa squads that were best in the state.
Without Scott Stopera’s three free throws in the final seconds of the second overtime, the Scotia-Glenville boys’ basketball team never wins those back-to-back state Class A championships in 2014 and 2015 or wins those 53 straight games, either.
Stopera was fouled hoisting a 3 from the corner, his three makes gave Scotia-Glenville a 77-75 lead, and after Troy missed a short shot and a tip-in try, the Tartans had a Section II Class A title-game win in March of 2014 at the Glens Falls Civic Center. It was among the most thrilling and intense high school games I have ever seen — and I’ve seen a bunch — with Tartans’ reserve Schuyler Sayles hitting a 3 in each OT and Tartans’ star Joe Cremo getting a triple-double and a key block just before Stopera delivered at the other end.
I believe if Troy had won that game, it would have been the state champ that year.
“No one was going to go down easy in this game,” said Scotia-Glenville coach Jim Giammattei, whose team was ranked No. 1 in the state and Troy was No. 3. “In the locker room before the game it was, ‘If you want this, you’ve got to fight for it.’ We knew how it was going to be.”
Scotia-Glenville beat Troy again in the 2015 Section II Class A final and went on to defend its state public school title before a loss in the Federation tournament ended Section II’s longest winning streak in boys’ basketball.
AT LONG LAST
After watching so many wonderful boys’ lacrosse seasons end with a loss somewhere along the state tournament trail, Niskayuna got to the top by beating West Genesee 13-10 in the 2015 Class A championship game at Vestal High School. This one was extra special because I had followed Niskayuna since Day 1, and had seen them come so close several times, including state title-game setbacks in 2005 and 2009.
“A lot of other years ended with tears in their eyes, and not the right kind of tears,” Niskayuna coach Mike Vorgang said after bringing the first, and to this day, the only state lacrosse title to Section II.
You do this long enough and you’re going to see some fantastic finishes, but the ending to the 2019 state Class B basketball title game was something extra special, when Joseph Girard III took an inbound pass from under the basket and scored on a difficult layup to give Glens Falls a 75-74 win over Lowville.
The all-time state scoring leader, Girard III forced OT with a 3-pointer and totaled 50 points, and lifted Glens Falls to its first state championship after Jimmer Fredette and Mike Van Schaick-led teams had lost at that stage of the tournament in 2007 and 2003. Earlier that school year Girard III quarterbacked Glens Falls to its second state football title in three years.
“To be the first in basketball, and to win two [state titles] in the same year, it’s unexplainable,” Girard III said. “I can’t put it in words right now.”