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St Mary’s ‘Little Team that Could’

Posted By September 26, 2014 | 12:02 pm | Lead Story #2
Some of the members of the 1964 St. Mary’s High School New England championship team are, from left, Gene Zabinski, Gerry Nowosacki, Paul Stukowski, Al Stazinski and John Kraska.
Some of the members of the 1964 St. Mary’s High School New England championship team are, from left, Gene Zabinski, Gerry Nowosacki, Paul Stukowski, Al Stazinski and John Kraska.

By William T. Clew

The movie “Hoosiers” was about a team from a small high school in Indiana that, against all odds, won the state basketball championship against teams from much larger high schools.
Nobody made a movie about the 1964 basketball team from St. Mary’s High School.
But someone could have, and perhaps should have. Because the St. Mary’s Eagles overcame the same kind of odds and won the New England High School basketball championship.
They beat teams from much larger schools to get to the New England championship at the Boston Garden. And there they defeated bigger schools for the New England crown.
The members of that team, 50 years later, will be the first players to be inducted into the St. Mary’s High School Athletic Hall of Fame. They will be honored at an informal dinner from 4 to 7 p.m. Oct. 5 in the school auditorium at 50 Richland St. It will be a fund-raiser to support the school’s athletic programs, according to Peter Rojcewicz, chairman of the St. Mary’s Booster Club Hall of Fame dinner committee. The president of the the Boosters Club is Mark Lewandowski.
That 1964 championship season was quite a journey for the Eagles. They won their first four games, then lost to St. John’s and to David Prouty of Spencer. They won their next five games by comfortable margins, then lost again to David Prouty.
Their next game was against St. John’s which had beaten them earlier in the season. The Eagles won this encounter, 79-58.  St. Mary’s won their next five games and went into the District Three playoffs.
After defeating Algonquin Regional, the Eagles ran into St. John’s again, and the Pioneers won, 57-40. That meant St. Mary’s had to win in the consolation round in order to advance to the Western Massachusetts tournament.
And win they did, beating Fitchburg, 82-54.
In the Western Massachusetts tournament St. Mary’s beat West Springfield, 79-67; defeated St. John’s, 59-53; and nipped Springfield Cathedral in a nail-biter, 67-65.
The star of Cathedral’s team is someone the St. Mary’s players remember as a great athlete. Gene Ryzewicz, won four letters in each of three sports; basketball, baseball and football at Cathedral and went on to Dartmouth College to star in baseball and football. He apparently respects them too, because he has agreed to be the speaker at the Oct. 5 event.
That victory over Cathedral put the Eagles into the New England tournament in Boston Garden. They were more than ready for the competition. They beat Stearns High of Millinocket, Maine, 71-50, in the quarterfinals and East Providence High, 72-57 in the semifinals. In the finals they took on a big Malden High squad and beat them, 77-65, and walked out of the Garden with the crown.
They are the only Worcester high school team ever to win the New England championship.
Five members of that championship team were at St. Mary’s earlier this week to reminisce about those glory days. Gene Zabinski, Gerry Nowosacki, Paul Stukowski, Al Stazinski and John Kraska said they have great memories of the games and, especially, the reaction of their fans as well as the people of the city.
They were like the little engine that could. St. Mary’s was, and still is, a small school. There were only 133 boys in the high school and the Eagles played schools with big enrollments. Springfield Cathedral had more than 2,000 boys for example.
St. Mary’s didn’t have a big team. Their tallest players were just an inch or two over six feet tall. They played against teams  that had players four or five inches taller. But the Eagles were quick, fast and well-coached.
The players remember the late Coach Bill Ferris with respect. They said he was tough, demanding and fair. He pushed them hard in practice, they said, and it obviously paid off.
The players said they also remember the support from the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth who taught at the high school. They sat in the balcony overlooking the court during games at the high school.
There was a whole row of rosary beads up there during the games, they said.
Mr. Stazinski said he remembers well the reception when the team bus returned to the school from Boston. When the bus turned off Vernon Street onto Richland Street, crowds of people jammed both sides of the street, cheering and banging on the sides of the bus. He said it must have taken the bus 30 minutes to travel from the top of the hill down to the school.
The team was welcomed at a reception at the Worcester Memorial Auditorium and received watches from the city. Team members were Norm Daigle,  Tom Kasprzak, Dick Rojcewicz, Nowosacki, Bob Listewnik, Bob Szklarz, Stukowski, Zabinski, Bob Gutkowski, Stazinski, Walt Wondolowski, George Zinkas and Kraska, managers. Team member Ron Baronowski passed away in 2005.
The informal buffet Oct.5 will include hot dogs, hamburgs, pizza and soft drinks. There will be free-will offerings for beer and wine, Mr. Rojcewicz said. Also, anyone attending may challenge the champions to a shooting contest, 10 shots for $5. There will be prizes for anyone who beats the winners. There also will be a silent auction.