City rivalry remains special
None of the players in Thursday night’s Altoona-Bishop Guilfoyle boys basketball game were alive when the rivalry was not just a big deal on the local high school schedule, but the biggest deal.
Fans from both sides would pack the Jaffa Mosque (now the Jaffa Shrine Center), and the names involved are etched in the city’s rich basketball lore.
Swogger and Lane, Moore and Cordova, Nagle and Morgan, Piper and McGeary, Bickel and Brandimarte and on and on and on.
The rivalry was so intense back in the 1970s and early ’80s that it was mutually put on hiatus for several years.
Thankfully, times have changed, perspective has been restored, and the game, on both the boys and girls side, has been back on each other’s schedule for the past 25 years.
“I just think it’s great for the city,” Bishop Guilfoyle coach Chris Drenning said after the Marauders ran out of gas in a 51-39 loss at the Altoona Fieldhouse. “I give Altoona credit. We’re David, and they’re Goliath. They don’t have to play us, but it’s great that they do.”
“I think it’s very healthy,” Altoona coach Paul Hasson, who played in the game in the mid-’70s, said. “These kids are good friends off the court.”
Because of that, Mountain Lion senior guard Matt Dry, said, “We have the game circled, but it’s bittersweet to get a win over them.”
Some of the players share AAU ties or have played against each other since elementary school. That competitiveness allowed BG, though outsized as usual, to hang tough for three quarters in putting forth a representative effort.
“This game is tough to lose,” said BG senior guard Pat Irwin, whose family’s roots are four generations deep in Guilfoyle’s athletic history. “I know a lot of guys on their team, and I didn’t want this [loss] hanging over my head.”
While growing up, Irwin learned about the series.
“I’d hear how good Altoona used to be and how BG used to compete with them and beat them sometimes,” he said. “That makes me proud of BG and where we come from.”
Fellow senior Nate Nardelli’s dad, Jim, played on the BG 1974 team that went to the PIAA Final Four and lost to mighty Midland by a point.
“He [Jim Nardelli] would talk about how big of a rivalry it was and the adrenaline of playing in that atmosphere and how much the whole town came together,” Nate Nardelli said. “We’re still carrying on that tradition.”
Altoona Athletic Director Phil Riccio said Thursday night’s crowd was the Lions’ biggest this season.
“This has been a great week,” he said. “Our girls were at BG the other night. That was a packed house. This is a wonderful atmosphere. I think it’s a great game for our community.”
When the teams were playing at the Mosque 40 years ago, there was no ESPN. Girls basketball was played in the fall. BG wasn’t in the Laurel Highlands Conference, and Hollidaysburg, which visits AAHS on Tuesday, had yet to establish itself as an athletic rival to Altoona.
“Hopefully that crowd will be even bigger than tonight,” Riccio said.
Even if it is, that series can’t quite match the half-century history of Altoona vs. BG.
“This is big school-small school, small gym-big gym … a lot of contrasts,” Drenning said. “I love local basketball, and I think this is a big part of it.”
BG assistant coach Mark Charlton is a former Marauder but one who came along when the series was interrupted between 1977-85.
“We were all friends – [Altoona’s] Val Mignogna, Troy Wible,” Charlton said. “I would have loved to play them, but it’s a great opportunity for these guys today and a memory you can’t forget. Win or lose, whether it’s the girls or the boys, I just think it’s great.”
He’s not alone.