By Jon Gerardi
The Daily Item
Danville and winning go together like, well, peanut butter and jelly.
The Ironmen were one of the most dominant teams in the Heartland Athletic Conference-Division I again this season, taking another league title with a perfect 14-0 mark before losing to Shikellamy in the District 4 Class AAA semifinals this week.
Last season, all-state selection Andrew Andreychik and Danville went 23-3, winning a school-record 23 straight before losing in the second round of states. In fact, since the 2001-02 season, the Ironmen haven’t had a losing season and routinely find themselves in the District 4 Class AAA championship game — appearing in nine — thanks to coach Lenny Smith.
This year Danville (19-5) extended a remarkable league winning streak with 31 consecutive HAC-I wins, a streak that dates back to the 2010-11 season.
The Ironmen have swept the HAC-I for two straight years now, more than an impressive feat for a talented squad.
But rewind before that. Way before all of that. Winning isn’t anything new at all when it comes to Danville on the basketball court.
This season marks the 40th anniversary of the 1962-63 Danville basketball squad, a team that went an impressive 24-3 while claiming not only the Susquehanna Valley League title, but also the District 4 Class A title before making a run into the PIAA Eastern semifinals.
This was during a time when only the district champions advanced into the state tournament and, prior to that season, no Danville squad had ever advanced to the Eastern semifinals.
Many in the area will hold last year’s Danville team up there as perhaps one of the best ever — a valid case for them — but don’t forget that team 40 years ago.
Some of the names of that 1962-63 squad may not ring a bell to today’s readers: Junior guard Greg Williams, senior forward and captain Bob Marks, junior center and co-captain Ken Shepperson, senior forward Jack Gilbert and junior guard and co-captain Jack Curry.
They made up the starting five for Danville and what a group they made up. Talent wise, they were among the best in the area. The starting five nearly all averaged close to double figures, giving the Ironmen an extremely talented and versatile group on the court, in addition to a decent bench that could contribute as well.
Williams went on to play defensive back at North Carolina State and ended up coaching college football his entire career.
Marks practices law in Danville and actually played quarterback at Bucknell after he graduated while Shepperson went on to have a football scholarship at Memphis State.
Curry was perhaps the most talented of the starting five. He was Danville’s all-time leading scorer at one point and was expected to play college basketball. Curry was one of the 100 best high school players his senior year, alongside the names of Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Larry Miller. Curry, however, went on to play wide receiver at Penn State, holding numerous receiving records during his time there.
That Danville team swept the first half of the season with a 7-0 mark, its “closest” game being a 13-point win over Sunbury. The Ironmen averaged wins by almost 23 points each game, routinely putting up 30-plus point wins, including a 41-point win over Hughesville, 50- and 48-point routs of Lewisburg and a 40-point blowout over Selinsgrove.
Whitey McCloskey was Danville’s coach all those years ago and he was once asked by a Reading reporter — who was also his former statistician — about that squad. His answer?
“That team could do things our other teams couldn’t do,” McCloskey said then. “It was a very special team that was probably ahead of its time.”
Some of what McCloskey did back then was considered ahead of its time.
The coach had his players coach elementary teams on Saturday morning and had the kids play at halftime of varsity games. McCloskey also had his team pick an all-opponent team to come to their banquets. And on the court for practices, McCloskey would have his team do running drills and take charges, among other drills, the entire first week of practice without ever touching the ball.
McCloskey also had his team keep track of statistics such as points off turnovers, offensive rebounds, charting shots, keeping count of total rebounds, assists and turnovers.
“Whitey and then Bob Probert, when Shamokin came into the league, made basketball what it was in our area,” Doyle Dietz, McCloskey’s former statistician in 1962-63, said.
Those two also were key members, in addition to Berwick’s Chet Doyle and others, in helping form the Pennsylvania State High School Basketball Coaches Association.
That season, Danville had an overtime thriller against a talented Berwick group in which Danville eked out an 83-82 win. Curry set a school record by scoring more than 40 points in that exciting showdown.
The Ironmen had claimed the first half championship that season and could have had a first-round bye. Instead, the team voted to play both Bloomsburg and Berwick, beating both in the second-half playoffs, avenging an earlier loss to Bloomsburg.
Danville went on to beat Coal Township in the District 4 title game and followed it with a win against Scranton Central in the PIAA Eastern quarterfinals. The impressive run of dominance came to an end in the semifinals when a Harrisburg William Penn team handed Danville its largest loss of the season, a 13-point defeat that most likely left a bitter taste in the mouth of that Ironmen squad.
“William Penn was simply too quick and had a lineup of 6-foot-2 and 6-foot-3 players,” Dietz said.
Danville wasn’t simply a one trick pony that year either. The Ironmen finished the season 11-0 on the gridiron and became the first area school to sweep league titles in football, basketball and baseball in the same season.
While Danville’s starters nearly all put up double-figure averages, defensively Danville was solid as well.
“With Whitey, it was all about defense and some of those point totals were just because the other programs had no idea how to attack his defense — giving us dozens of points off turnovers — or handle his team’s offense,” Dietz said. “Many times he had us freeze the ball so we wouldn’t score 80 or 90, as there were at least six to eight games where we could have scored 100, and in some one-sided games our opponents scored as many points in the fourth quarter as they had in the first three.”
As McCloskey said back then, they definitely were a special team and ahead of their time. That’s for sure.