Grand Island's Gene Masters has been coaching high school football for 43 years. He is No. 2 in coaching wins in Western New York history. But the old master says his favorite athlete never put on a football helmet or pads. It was a girl -- track star Stacey Schroeder.
"We correspond all the time," said Masters, whose 239 career wins are second to Canisius legend John Barnes. "She's a jewel. She was in my gym class. I used to go watch her throw the shot and discus. I'd kid the football players, 'Guys, why are you coming out? She's benching more than you can'."
It was no shame to be outperformed by Schroeder, who dominated the weight events during an unparalleled five-year career and was perhaps the greatest female track and field athlete in local high school history -- maybe the best female athlete, period.
And while few of the boys could outlift her, the athletes at Grand Island more than carried their weight in her senior year of 1991-92, which was the best in the school history. The Vikings had a remarkable collection of individuals stars and championship teams, which earned them the No. 5 spot on our list of the most memorable high school sports years.
The football team, led by quarterback Bob McDonnell, won its third straight Class B-1 sectional title at Rich Stadium, becoming the first team in the section to do it. McDonnell called a lot of his own plays in a devastating no-huddle attack that rolled up 370 points, third-highest total in WNY history to that point. He set a passing record that was broken by South Park's Keith Smoot six years later.
McDonnell won the Connolly Cup, awarded to the finest player in the area. His twin brother, Scott, who played fullback, was also a finalist. "I was invited to the Connolly Cup dinner, too," said Scott McDonnell, who got a business degree from the University at Buffalo but did not play football. "I was the first person up giving him a standing ovation."
That year, Grand Island put an unprecedented four players on The Buffalo News' All-Western New York first team: McDonnell, kicker Jim Criddle, center Jeff Millar, and cornerback Tom Feeney, who later played at Columbia with current Buffalo Bill Marcellus Wiley. Bob McDonnell was The News player of the year.
Brett VeRost and Scott McDonnell made second-team defense. Anthony Scott, a star receiver, made third-team in '91. A year later, Scott shared the player of the year as the Vikings won a fourth straight sectional crown. In 1989, Scott's older brother, Cliff, who later set passing records at UB, had also shared the award.
Bob McDonnell, who played first base on the baseball team, tore the rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder when a runner fell on it that spring. He tried to play football at Canisius, but he had no zip on the ball and gave up the sport.
"It's still nice to go out and find that people still remember you," Bob said. "You know the saying: 'The older you get, the better you were'. My dad and his brothers still talk about their teams. We had a well-rounded class that year. We had phenomenal athletes in our class. Everybody was big, fast, strong and everybody got along well. Probably the best thing about our class was their heart, their spirit."
In '91-'92, they had good athletes who were even better competitors. The basketball team, which had finished 2-8 in the NFL the year before, won its first sectional B-1 title and upset a Mike Heary-led Fredonia team in the "B" final.
Scott, a 6-2 forward, led the team in scoring and rebounding. Senior Grant Koslowski set a school record for three-pointers. But talent-wise, it was an unremarkable group. Jon Roth, who coached the basketball team and is now the school's athletic director, called it "my most satisfying year ever.
"We had a lot of overachievers," Roth said. He said the 1989-90 team, led by Carlin Hartman, would have beaten them by 20 points. That team was upset in the sectionals.
Grand Island had a number of individuals in the minor sports who were among the best ever at the school in their specialty. Distance runner Joe Dunlop won the state and sectional cross country titles for the Vikings, who went 17-3 in the NFL. Dunlop was the Section VI champ at 3,200 meters and finished third in the state. He ran collegiately at Notre Dame.
Cross country coach Dick Bessel, whose teams went 113-12 in his 13-year career, retired after the state meet. Senior Rich Bessel, the last of his four children to run for the Vikings, was an NFL first-teamer. Like Dunlop, he ran at Notre Dame.
Karen Monaco was the NFL girls' 3,000 meter champion in '92 -- as an eighth-grader -- and became a sectional 3,000 champion.
Diver Mark Abate won the sectional title and finished sixth in the state meet. Sophomore golfer Joe Verciglio made first-team NFL. Two years later, he would win the state title. Chris Tassy, whose father played soccer with Randy Smith at Buffalo State, was an all-state defender in that sport. VeRost was an All-American midfielder for the lacrosse team, which won the second of five straight sectional Class B titles.
Junior Jeff Roth (son of Jon) made first-team NFL in tennis. His sister, Julie, was a first-team NFL as an eighth-grader. She eventually broke Jeff's record for career singles wins with 80 and followed him to Xavier University on a tennis scholarship.
As a senior, Julie Roth became the first girls basketball player to score 1,000 career points at Grand Island. She also was an all-league softball player. She was one of the best female athletes ever at the school. But there's no question who was the best.
Schroeder became the first girl ever to win the state shot put and discus title in the same year in '92, setting meet records in both. Earlier that spring, she had set a state discus record with a heave of 172-10, which was the longest in the nation that year and 63 feet farther than any other girl in Western New York that season. It is still the state record. Schroeder had the second-best shot put in the country that year (49-5), breaking her own WNY record by three feet.
She won the Section VI shot and discus titles four years in a row. During her career, she improved the WNY girls' discus record by 30 feet and the shot put by 4 feet. She was also an NFL first-team all-star and captain of the volleyball team, which was league co-champion with a 9-1 record.
Schroeder was a four-time All-America at the University of Florida; she won at least one gold medal in every Empire Games between 1989-96. She retired after competing in the Empires here in '96, in front of her friends and family. "That was the place I wanted to end it," she said.
She is now attending medical school at Syracuse and plans to be a doctor. She said she misses the sport terribly, but keeps involved by coaching and conducting clinics in the summer. She marvels at how good the athletes were during her time in high school.
"Sometimes, it all just comes together," Schroeder said. "Looking back, it was an amazing place for me. Grand Island always worked hard to blend academics and sports. Coach Masters was very supportive. A lot of coaches worked together to promote the program there."
Schroeder said the presence of so many fine, committed athletes lifted everyone in 1991-92. They fed off one another's excellence.
"Oh definitely," she said. "I didn't have a lot of contact with the football team, except in the hallways or working out. But it was nice having them working just as hard as I was. It was a sense of pride but also a sense of unity -- like playing on the same team, if not on the same field."
TUESDAY: A team for the ages.