Jan. 20- 26, 2005
By Luke Eggleston/ SUN staff writer
Utica High School Basketball Program Goes Beyond Sports
Cheerleaders are practicing in the hallway. A junior-high team is picking through its half-court offense in the gym, while the JV’s do the same on the other end of the court. More cheerleaders occupy the same gym and run through their routines while practices go on. In another school, there are likely multiple gyms and practice areas for the kids. There is a tightness to the tradition in Notre Dame hoops. It is brought on by circumstances and necessity. “In basketball, all you need is a ball and a hoop,” athletic director John DePerno says. “And if you’re disciplined, you can beat teams that maybe are a little more athletic.”
The compressed unity in the program is born not only from the direct legacy of the coaches that have prowled the sidelines, but also from the pride of the students and all those involved with the program, according to DePerno. It coils down to the kids and to an athletic director rifling through papers anxious to relay what it means to play basketball while wearing the Jugglers’ blue and gold. It unfurls once you reach a coach like Mike Durr. Durr recently was recognized as the winningest coach in Notre Dame history.
“When you think of Utica-Notre Dame you think of basketball first because the tradition was built from Jim Klein to Dave Brown and from Dave Brown to Bob Devins and from Bob Devins to Joe White and I’ve been lucky enough to follow after Joe,” he said, looking nowhere in particular. “They were great back then.” Many years ago, Durr presented White with a plaque recognizing him as the coach with the best winning percentage in Notre Dame history with a record of 175-88 (66.5 winning percentage). Friday night, after a Tri-Valley League win over Holland-Patent, Durr himself was recognized as the Notre Dame coach with the best winning percentage with a record of 147-68 since he returned to shepherd his alma mater’s hoops program in 1994.
“It’s the few number of coaches, but it’s also the understanding of what it means that it is very special to play basketball at Notre Dame,” DePerno said when he explained the consistency Notre Dame has enjoyed since 1960. “It really is. Coach Durr reminds the kids of that every single day.” Back Then There were years DePerno considered putting on the blue and gold and picking up the roundball, but injuries incurred during football season dissuaded him. Nevertheless, the Notre Dame graduate recalls those halcyon days of Juggler hoops with a certain amount of reverence. “Every Friday night was a special night in our gym as well as the other Central Valley League gyms such as New Hartford, Whitesboro, Rome, Proctor, and UFA [Utica Free Academy – Now defunct],” he said. “Back then,” Notre Dame averaged a try-out turnout of 80 players – per class – for hoops alone, according to DePerno.
“Back then” one needed to buy a ticket by Tuesday in order to be assured a seat that Friday. According to DePerno that tradition has advanced somewhat unimpeded. Still, today, Notre Dame kids purchase t-shirts [each t-shirt affords them free admission] in an effort to commit themselves to the high school hoops team and its fortunes. This season, Notre Dame went into its 32nd annual Juggler Classic with an 11-2 record and ranked 12th in the New York State Class A poll. The Juggler Classic is among Notre Dame’s strongest traditions. Every year, Durr and DePerno invite the strongest competition available. In the first year of the event, 1974, they welcomed in a DeMatha High School team that was nationally ranked and the Stags went on to win that first edition of the tournament. The next year, Notre Dame knocked off the Stags with future Syracuse star Dale Shackleford leading the hosts.
“Our fundamental philosophy — and coach Durr and I are on the same page with this — you play the best possible competition because we feel that it helps,” DePerno said. In 1999, Notre Dame lost to Buffalo Traditional in the state championship. The very next year, the Bulls were invited back to the Juggler Classic and Notre Dame defeated them. This year, the Juggler Classic included such powers as Canisius (No. 2, Class A), perennial central New York power Bishop Ludden, and Albertus Magnus (No. 8, Class B). More than a ball and a hoop
Both DePerno and Durr believe that Notre Dame basketball is more than a game. According to the athletic director, Notre Dame coaches have traditionally taken on a paternal role with their players. “It’s tradition, it’s community,” DePerno said. “The thing we’re most proud of isn’t even so much the basketball. Our coaches bring our kids into the community and they expect community service. They teach them to be young men, which is much more important than teaching them to be basketball players.” DePerno cites one defining moment in Notre Dame history as the manner in which the student body dealt with the death of one of its students in the mid 1960’s. Michael Walsh was a standout basketball player for the Jugglers who had aspirations of playing hoops for the University of Notre Dame. During football season, however, Walsh collapsed in the halls of Notre Dame High School and passed away.
“It brought the school together at the time,” DePerno said. On Jan. 24, 1970, Notre Dame’s gymnasium was renamed the Michael J. Walsh Gymnasium. More recently, Notre Dame rededicated the gym to him. To this day, the players and coaches accompany their “Hail Mary” with “Michael Walsh Pray For Us.” “We’ve got an amazing thing going here and we’re very proud of it,” DePerno said.