The Year the Centaurs Were Half-Good, and the Two Who Made It So

Posted on Nov 29, 2012

Sophomore year we Centaurs weren’t half bad. In fact, with an 8-and-8 record we were actually half good.

Eight and eight! A .500 season! A non-losing slate! After three years and a combined 15-41, eight-and-eight deserved every exclamation point it could muster. Indeed, while this record would be matched once, it wouldn’t be surpassed for a dozen more Centaur seasons.

Credit Jack Sabota, new coach, class of ’69 and member of the first Centaur team. Read about him and that team here … and here … and here … and especially here.

But credit, too, senior co-captains Jerry Wilkinson and Tony Mazzeo.

Wilk and Maz; Maz and Wilk.

No surprise, this: That 8-and-8 season was the only year of my four Centaur seasons when we had real on-court leadership. (And I certainly include my senior-year co-captaincy in that indictment.)

Leadership: You know it when you see it and are grateful for it. With Wilk and Maz we had leadership. Wilk (short cropped hair, military bearing) was all control and discipline; Maz (curly reddish mane, fu-manchu) was wild and unpredictable. But together these roommates senior year were the perfect yin and yang.

“They were both tough players,” Jack Sabota says. “Maz was a handful, but he gave you a lot of enthusiasm in the backcourt. He wasn’t a great scorer by any stretch. His best opportunity was driving to the basket where he could get fouled.  Jerry was overmatched for his size” – a 5-foot-11 forward – “but he gave you the best he could. He could score from the corner, rebound, and he could jump.”

I played hard not to disappoint Wilk. I played even harder not to invite the wrath of Maz.

They both went to high school in Philly. Wilk at Cardinal Dougherty; Maz at Father Judge. Neither had played on the varsity teams there.

Eight years before, the way Wilk tells it, he had been a 4-foot-10, 85-pound high school freshman.  “There was no way I’m playing basketball at Dougherty,” he says, “where probably 150 kids go out for the freshman team, at a school where the team was probably already picked.”

A gym rat, he kept at it — rec leagues, summer ball.  “Gradually, playing all the time, I got better, and, of course, taller. And then all of a sudden I’m out-jumping guys bigger than me. And I started thinking, ‘I’m not too bad at this.’ But I had no aspiration that I was ever going to play anywhere. None.”  He went to mammoth Temple, then transferred to little Allentown.

“You could not get lost at Allentown,” Wilk says. And so thus did the Centaur find Jerry Wilkinson.

As for Maz, whatever the sport, he played it — Boys Club stuff. “I was least talented in basketball,” he says. The only school he applied to was Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales. “The place needed bodies,” he says. Self-deprecating, yes. But for this cornfield college in Center Valley, Pennsylvania, also true enough.

Once at Allentown, Maz says, he knew he wanted to keep playing, everything, anything. And like with so many of us, his skills and the school’s development were perfectly matched. “This was it for me,” he says. “This was my Olympics, my Final Four.”

Without Maz and Wilk there is no 8-and-8. Period. At best we’re 5-and-11. Their senior year we beat York College twice, the team that for three years had manhandled us, including a 70-point humiliation well chronicled here … and here … and here … and especially here.

We also beat Philadelphia Pharmacy.

“Fellas,” this is Coach Sabota talking, delivering his pregame Pharmacy talk. I see him standing before us, wringing his hands nervously; I hear him stuttering a bit, which he always did when he got excited. “This is our first game against a Philly team with any kind of name at all. How we do tonight means a lot to the program here at A.C. You may not be here to reap the benefits, but if we can win tonight the A.C. basketball program will gain just a little bit of respect it didn’t have before, and that will mean something when it comes to schedule games  in upcoming seasons.”

There was a lot of that in our Centaur Seasons. Playing IN the present but FOR the future. Thinking now; hoping then. It makes for interesting motivation — quiet, internal, personal, private.

At half time Pharmacy was up five, 37-32. We caught up with just under twelve to play and took the lead, 44-43. But the lead changed hands eight more times. By rights – plainly put – I’m surprised we didn’t fold. But we didn’t. Dennis Ramella, our leading scorer with 22, fouled out with 1:53 left, which forced Coach to go to Jerry Fleming, a seldom-used junior.  Dave Glielmi, a freshman, tied it at 61. Pharmacy then froze the ball until we fouled with 18 tics left. When Pharmacy missed the front end of the one-and-one, Dave got the rebound and called time out.

The play Coach designed was for Wilk to get a shot in the left corner on a pass from me at the foul line. But Wilk was double-teamed, so he threw back to me.  But I was double-teamed, too, and was out of my range to boot. Plus, let’s be frank here, the last thing I was going to do was shoot the ball. I passed to Flem on the right side, posted up eight feet from the basket. He turned, gave the sharpest head fake you’d ever want to see, and then, with four second left, banked in the winner, ball kissing glass as pretty as you please. Pharmacy called time out, heaved a shot to no avail and we stormed the court. Winners!

Reserve Jerry Fleming made his only shot count last night, began the next day’s Morning Call newspaper. Allentown 63, Pharmacy 61.

Beating York College, that was the big win on Wilk-and-Maz’s senior-year watch. That was about revenge and righting wrongs and just plain beating a team that had humiliated us for three seasons. But “nipping” Pharmacy, as the Morning Call put it, that was Wilk-and-Maz’s important victory. Pharmacy was on the Philly-college food chain. On the bottom, but on it. Beating them got us out of the mud and into the hunt. And the win (on its own an improbable third in a row) improved our record to 5-and-3, TWO games over .500.

Heady stuff, completely uncharted, and we lost our way, going 1-and-5 to drop to 6-and-8. We would need to win our final two to get back to and finish at .500. Maz and Wilk made sure we did. Against York, at their place, Wilk led all scorers with 19, as we stuck it good to our tormentors past, 78-68. Against Baptist Bible in the finale, Maz went for 21, a career high, and had nine steals. We won going away, 104-81.

Leadership.

Wilk, the undersized Wilk, led the team in rebounding. Maz, who by his own account couldn’t play much, led the team in assists and was second in both steals and scoring (and Wilk was third).

That year they shared the basketball MVP.  Maz also was MVP in soccer – a sport in which he did excel – and baseball, and he was named the ’71-’72 Varsity Athlete of the Year.  All told, he won nine varsity letters. And in 1999 he was inducted into what was still then called the Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales Centaur Hall of Fame.

“At any other school,’ says the guy who’s likely one of the best athletes Allentown College/DeSales University has ever produced, “I am playing intramurals ONLY.” A common refrain among we Centaurs of a certain age. And while I admit this can be looked at from either end of the telescope, what’s the point of peering through the wrong end?

Wilk says he still remembers when we played Pharmacy his senior year that he recognized the guy he was guarding as a high school player in the Philadelphia Catholic League, the gold standard for a kid like Wilk. “So for me,” he says, “here I am, playing against guys who I never, ever thought I’d ever be able to play against.” Except he was.

“I’ll tell you what,” Maz says, brash and beguiling all at once, getting the final word.  “We all knew what kind of school we were going to. Nobody considered the smallness and the newness. Two dorms, one building; as far as I was concerned, that was college. I remember after my senior year there was a small thing in the Philadelphia paper, a tidbit section, and it said Tony Mazzeo from Father Judge High School and Allentown College had won three MVPs and all that. And I never played at Judge. But I was just so proud when I’d read the paper after a game and see my name in the box score. All you guys in Philly I played with? You reading the scores, you seeing my name? I play for Allentown, you know what I mean?”

On November 30th, 2012 at 7:02 am, Steve McKee: Centaur Season said:

[…] The Year the Centaurs Were Half-Good, and the Two Who Made It So […]



 
     

Welcome to CENTAUR SEASONS: A ‘memory blog’ of the basketball beginnings of a half-good, half-bad, all-new college team.

Once, I was a Centaur.

I played basketball for Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales in Center Valley, Pa. I was on four of the school’s first seven teams, was MVP senior year and in 1974 graduated in the fifth class.

My junior year I kept a diary: A History of the Events of the 1972-1973 Allentown College B-Ball Season, as Chronicled by, and With the Personal Memoirs + Occassional [sic] Philosophizing of the Author, One Stephen J. McKee.  One-hundred-forty-five hand-writ pages. (Yes, I was an English major.)

But it occurs to me now: Were I today a “Bulldog” playing for “DeSales University” (both mascot and name changed in 2000), my private “History” would be not a diary but a blog.

So starting November 30  “…Personal Memoirs…” will be re-imagined as CENTAUR SEASONS

A blog before its time, posted 40 years after in real time.

Meanwhile, beginning on September 24, here at CENTAUR SEASONS the preseason has already tipped off, with stories, interviews and reminiscences of the people, the place and the purpose of those early years of Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales.

Check back often. Sign up for CentaurSeasonAlerts. Email CENTAUR SEASONS to friends.

We were not a bad team, we Centaurs. We just weren’t very good. Winning was always the goal, if never exactly the point. How could it be, with victories so few?

Back then Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales was a couple of buildings in some cornfields.  Our commitment to the school’s basketball program was far greater than was the school’s commitment us. So what? We got to play college ball – and paid for the privilege! In return, we got to be part of a team, wear the red and blue, be Centaurs. And we got to create a place that was, right then, as much concept as it was college, making itself up as we went along.

What we got was a once-in-a-life-time chance.

All we had to do was keep showing up -- next practice, next game, next season. And so we did.

Welcome to CENTAUR SEASONS.

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