(This is the 10th of 12 stories on the top high school athletic classes of the past 50 years in Western New York. Today's installment highlights Kenmore West's 1969-70 teams.)
There isn't much question who the winner would be if we were picking the single best high school sports team of the past 50 years in Western New York, rather than an entire athletic year at a school.
In 1969, Kenmore West had a football team that was without parallel, a squad that not only went unbeaten and untied, but averaged a point a minute running the option offense of the late Jules Yakapovich and beat all eight of its opponents by at least 34 points. Kenmore East went 7-1 under Dick Adams that fall and finished second in the rugged Niagara Frontier League. The lone loss was to West -- 44-0.
The Blue Devils were so experienced, so talented, so deep, that -- modern high school football coaches, prepare to weep -- none of the 22 starters played both ways, and all but two of them were seniors. The Tonawanda News named the entire starting lineup as its Niagara Frontier All-League team.
At the end of the year, they were ranked No. 1 in the nation. The Kenmore West football team was the ultimate expression of a small town's love affair with high school sports. Players from that era reflect longingly on a time when 5,000 people or more would routinely pack Crosby Field for home games.
"We had like a couple of hundred kids just for tryouts," said Gary Bichler, who played defensive line in '69 and is now president of Ciminelli Construction.
"Sports participation was huge," said Bill Tepas, an all-league receiver in football and an outfielder in baseball. "That was the height of Kenmore West. See, entire neighborhoods had been built in a relatively short period of time in Tonawanda and Kenmore. I lived on Thorncliff, with the baseball and football diamonds of Hoover in my back yard."
Kids attended a number of elementary schools in the district. By the time they came together at vast Kenmore West, they had played with and against each other for years.
"We didn't realize how good we were," Bichler said, "until we played against other schools."
It was a harsh awakening for their opponents, especially on the football field. The Blue Devils won their third straight NFL title in '69, outscoring their opponents, 389-67 -- in eight games. If they weren't rolling over you with the option, they were stuffing you with Yakapovich's famed "Radar" defense.
Quarterback Rob Sutton and halfback Gary Streicher both made first team on the Courier Express All-Western New York team. Sutton, who later played at Syracuse, threw for 24 touchdowns and ran for 11 TDs. Yakapovich, not a man given to hyperbole, called Sutton the best quarterback he ever coached.
Streicher, who played for the University of Miami, led the NFL with 112 points. Bob Miller, who was a standout in football, track and baseball, played at Kent State, where he became friends with future NFL star Jack Lambert. A number of Blue Devils played small-college ball and several went on to be coaches, including Gowanda's Mark Leous -- a 145-pounder whose quickness allowed him to play defensive end in the Radar defense.
Yakapovich was the man behind it all. We throw the word "legend" around too loosely (in this series, for example), but he was one coach who seemed worthy of the designation. He was a Vince Lombardi type -- brilliant and driven, an unyielding disciplinarian whose players would rather risk physical injury than their head coach's wrath.
"There was a cast of characters on that team," Bichler said, "a pretty tough bunch of kids. When he talked, everyone shut up and listened. I would have to say that team's character was defined by Jules. There wasn't any question. He said we could do it and we believed. You didn't question that type of authority in high school. I talked to Jules before his death (in 1993) and it (discipline problems with players) was one of the reasons his career took a downturn later."
Tepas, whose older brother, Dale, was a three-sport star at St. Joe's and played basketball with Bob Lanier on St. Bonaventure's Final Four team, said Yakapovich's competitive nature rubbed off on his players, especially Sutton.
"Rob was as intense as Yakapovich," Tepas said. "He'd ream you in the offensive huddle. And the defensive captains were nuts. Tom Haug. I played with two sprained ankles my junior year. You didn't dare tell Coach you were injured. There was someone on the sidelines waiting to take your place. Competition was fierce among us. You didn't screw up."
The other teams in the school seemed to feed off that competitive edge. The football team got much of the publicity, but almost all the athletes flourished (there was no formal, interscholastic competition in girls sports at the time, but they had intramural teams that played against other schools).
"I remember it well," said Mike Pilarz, who played on the tennis and soccer squads. "All the attention was obviously on the football team, but there was a great school spirit overall. Even back then, our soccer games drew very large crowds. I think the entire school was energized by the football team and became enthusiastic about all the teams that were winning. And all the athletes were very friendly toward each other and supported each other."
The basketball team won the NFL behind all-WNY guard Fran Moulin. The baseball team, led by Mike Smith, went 17-2 and won the NFL before losing to Hutch Tech in the sectionals. The tennis team beat Amherst, 3-2, in the sectional Class AAAA finals. Bob Colt, down a set and 0-3 in the second, rallied for a three-set victory in his critical first singles match.
The soccer team went undefeated and won the NFL title. Colt, Rich Anderson, Pilarz, Dick Robb and Craig Evans played on both the tennis and soccer squads. Pilarz went on to set the freshman soccer scoring record at Cornell. Robb played soccer at Buffalo State, Colt at West Virginia.
West also won the league in volleyball, golf and bowling. They even had a hockey connection in the school. Dave Smith, who was a sophomore in '69-70, later played professionally in Europe. His older brother, Barry -- a star running back on the '68 Kenmore West team -- coached for the Sabres and is now the associate coach under Scotty Bowman with the NHL's Detroit Red Wings.
The late '60s truly were the Glory Days at Kenmore West.
"Just to make a team was an honor," Tepas said. "You didn't take it for granted. The coaching, the player camaraderie, the student body participation, were all great. We averaged anywhere from 5,000 to 12,000 people for football games. We used to shoot off the cannon. When the game ended, the crowd poured onto the field and you made your way to the locker room.
"High school was a good time," Tepas added. "You walked in Monday morning and they were aware of you. They were aware of everything. Baseball, soccer, everything. It was taken for granted. You were going to win. Yeah, it was big stuff. Big stuff."
TUESDAY: Going first class.