Rudel: BG boys look to make history

Mirror photo by Russ O’Reilly Fans and students send off the BG team Thursday as it boards the bus heading for Hershey.

One of the many great things about the Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic boys basketball team’s charge to its first PIAA championship game is now the Marauder faithful not only have a storied past but a team to celebrate today.

And sometimes it takes a team like this one to shine that light.

For all of BG’s athletic success over the past three decades — the six PIAA girls basketball championships, the incredible three straight PIAA football titles to go with the 59-game winning streak — the boys basketball program, while for sure respectable and a force at the District 6 level, was at times dimmed by the shadow between the school’s other sports and the glory days of yesteryear.

Jim Lane has often referred to the 1960s as the “golden age” of high school sports in Altoona – at both Altoona and BG – and certainly the Marauders did their share to bolster that era.

They sent numerous football standouts — such as Mike Irwin (Penn State), Tom Wiley (Purdue), Pat Baker (Maryland), Tim Sigrist (Notre Dame), Tom Turchetta (Miami) and Thom Geishauser (West Virginia) — to Division I schools. The basketball prowess was nearly equal with the likes of Eddie Miller (Mississippi), Len Zandy (Fordham) and Tim Lambour (Georgetown).

The Marauders were the first Altoona or BG team, boys or girls, to win a state basketball title, capturing Pennsylvania Catholic Interscholastic Athletic Association titles in 1967 under Bill Gaffey and 1970 under Tom Lane.

Until last week, when this year’s team took out Farrell — talk about a storied name in western Pennsylvania scholastic sports history — the Marauders had not been to the PIAA semifinals since 1974.

This run has stirred memories, fueled by Facebook postings and a Mirror story, of the Marauders’ trip to Harrisburg, which then hosted the state’s final four at the Farm Show Arena.

Despite being significantly outsized, BG hung with heavily favored Midland before losing 31-30. The names then were Paul Hasson and Mike Palazzi, Dave DiPietro and Mike Morgan, Dick Smith and Bob McGeary.

That team could not have marked a more stark contrast to this year, the dozen-pass per possession strategy replaced by a racehorse style that has wildly entertained Guilfoyle’s fan base and created a sea of purple following the team to heart-throbbing victories at Kiski Area High School, first over Farrell and then over Our Lady of Sacred Heart in a one-point western final thriller.

Thirty-year broadcaster Rich DeLeo, in the waning moments after victory was clinched over OLSH, said the game was the greatest he’s called.

John Frederick was a manager/statistician on the BG team of 1974 and later coached the girls to their first two PIAA titles. He, too, is well qualified as a BG historian.

“A tradition of exceptional man-to-man defense at Guilfoyle has often compensated for the lack of that exceptional big man,” Frederick wrote in an email. “Yet the past championship teams and other noteworthy groups have always had a solid rebounder that has helped make up for overall size shortcomings (Joe Landolfi in ’67, Bob Landolfi and Steve Skelley in ’70, Mike Palazzi in ’74, Dave Jeffco in ’87, one of the few teams to make it to the Western semis).

“This team has no true post player in the starting lineup. Speed, defense, chemistry and 3-point shooting has made this a unique group, proving that (at least in high school) it’s possible to win championships without the traditionally ‘perfect’ lineup. Clearly, they’ve broken the old mold.”

Luke Ruggery has led that transformation. The showstopping guard — his toughness after finishing the western final with his tooth knocked out matching his skill — has made his case as the top player in BG history.

He’s the Marauders’ all-time leading scorer with 1,490 points, breaking the records held first by Hasson and then by his son, Jonny, and could well be the Pennsylvania small school player of the year.

He’s headed to Saint Francis on a scholarship at a perfect time with the Red Flash cresting.

Tom Goss, a BG alumnus (1976), has had a front-row seat, having spent the last six years as an assistant on Chris Drenning’s staff after seven on the girls staff.

And he’s needed a seat belt.

“It’s very difficult to compare teams and players from different eras,” he texted. “Bishop Guilfoyle has such a storied history with so many successful teams and players so defending an opinion becomes very difficult. (But) I am casting my vote for the 2018-19 Marauders. (And) Luke Ruggery will be the hardest working, most dedicated and simply the best player to ever graduate from BG. He has motivated and energized every player and coach year round to achieve things we may not have thought possible, and with recent dedicated players have definitely turned the program around.”

Guilfoyle once won big with defense, but Drenning — trained at the feet of Tussey Mountain’s Dave Bailey — emphasizes an up-tempo style.

“While other teams could make a good case, this version of the Marauders is super athletic at all five positions on both ends of the floor, likely the highest and most balanced scoring team ever and survived the more athletic and skilled state competition than it faced in years past,” Goss said.

To full appreciate the boys basketball tradition at BG — the PCIAA teams and the “mighty midgets” of 1974, as they were known — you have to be 60 years old.

Today, the heroes are named Ruggery (both of them), Witherspoon and Montecalvo, Helton, Yanoshak and, of course, Drenning.

This group is one step from delivering Bishop Guilfoyle with its first PIAA boys basketball championship, and win or lose today, its legacy has been safely cemented.

Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or nrudel@altoonamirror.com.

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