(This is the 11th of 12 stories on the top high school athletic classes of the past 50 years in Western New York. Today's installment highlights Kensington's 1948-49 teams.)
When Charles J. Monan became principal of Kensington High School in the mid-1940s, he arrived with a clear vision, a lofty ambition. He wanted to create his own little Notre Dame in the city, a public school that would represent the best America had to offer in both academics and in sports.
Monan built an athletic program that was the envy of Buffalo in the post-war years. He lavished the athletes with meals, equipment and publicity. He enlisted the help of the Kensington businessmen, who provided shiny team jackets and gave team posters prominent display in their store windows. He held countless pep rallies and sports assemblies, to the chagrin of some of his teachers.
It worked. From 1947 to '55, the Knights won eight consecutive Williams Cups, emblematic of sports supremacy in the city. And in 1948-49, they came close to perfection, winning the outright title in six of seven varsity sports and tying for first in the seventh. That earned them the No. 2 spot on our list of great high school athletic years.
"Charley Monan's motto was, 'If you want to go, go first class,' " said Carl Wyles, a football and baseball star who went on to play both sports at North Carolina State.
"He was the driving force," said Dave Warsocki, an offensive lineman who played at St. Bonaventure. "He always said 'Plan, organize, execute.' He said if you did all those three things continuously, no one would stop you. I never forgot that."
There was no stopping Kensington that year in boys sports (there were no varsity girls sports then, though Kensington had a thriving intramural program). The basketball team, which had finished 11th the year before, was the only squad not to win the city title outright. They tied for first with Seneca.
The football team, under Wilbur Bergstrom, went unbeaten in the Harvard Cup, outscoring its opponents, 180-14. The cross country team, led by Tom McCarthy and relying on its great depth, won the All-High meet. The swim team, led by Bill Beagle, Roger Laufer and Tom Schaeffer, won its third straight Syracuse Cup under Jack Warren.
The tennis team, featuring 220-pound first singles Howie Hock and freshmen Dick Wiegert and Bob Mruk, was unbeaten and stretched its match winning streak to 29. The track squad, led by four-sport standout John Corbelli, won its ninth straight Scalp and Blade trophy. Bergstrom's baseball team won the Cornell Cup, upsetting Riverside, 3-0, in the final before 1,500 fans at Offermann Stadium.
"Those were great years," said Larry Hartrich, who pitched a shutout in the final. "We had all these sports assemblies that year, which would go all morning and half the afternoon. The teachers got after the principal about it eventually. They thought we should be concentrating more on school instead of sports."
But it was hard to concentrate when your teams were the talk of the city. Hartrich still has a copy of a newspaper story, with him being carried off the field on the shoulders of his teammates, a sheepish look on his face.
"I felt lucky to win it," Hartrich said. "I had some real good athletes behind me. We weren't supposed to win because Steve Krall (Riverside's star) was one of the best pitchers around."
As fate would have it, Hartrich worked for 35 years with Krall at Ashland Oil. Krall gave up only three hits in defeat. Hartrich used to tease Krall about the 345-foot single he hit off him in the title game. Corbelli played it off the fence in center and threw him out at second.
"It's hard to believe it's been 50 years now," Hartrich said. "They were big years in the city, really big years."
Nothing was bigger than the Ben-Ken football game the previous autumn. On Oct. 21, 1948, a crowd of 50,988 wedged its way into old Civic Stadium -- which would later be known as War Memorial -- to see Kensington beat Bennett, 26-8, in the annual "Ben-Ken" game. It was the first Harvard Cup game ever played under the lights. At the time, it was the largest crowd ever to attend any sports event in Western New York.
It was also the ultimate expression of Monan's vision. Fifty years later, the men who played in that historic game all agreed that Monan was largely responsible for filling the stadium to 10,000 over its capacity. He was so determined to fill the house he enlisted the help of principals from other city schools to help sell tickets.
"He believed if you did anything, you did it big," said Warsocki, who worked for 35 years in management at General Motors and owns a real estate company in Lockport. "He was the one who organized that game. The kids at Kensington sold more tickets than any other school. You know why? The girl who sold the most tickets for us won a fur coat. Rhea Campbell won. I remember distinctly. My sister came in third or fourth and won 10 free dinners.
"Businessmen in the Kensington community went nuts for that game," Warsocki said. "Sears and Roebuck had one window totally devoted to that game and there were photos of both teams in there (the Kensington photo is shown on D1). Bennett looked like a typical high school team. We looked like cutthroats. This was the era when a lot of GIs were coming back to finish high school. They accused us of being veterans."
That was also an era when postgraduates were allowed to compete in the fall after they graduated, as long as they weren't 20 years old. But the core of that team -- Wyles, Glenn Nixon, Jack Thompson and Chris Frauenhofer -- was natural seniors. Whatever their age, they were little boys when they walked into the stadium for the Ben-Ken game that night.
"I can't believe it," said Frauenhofer, who scored the game's first touchdown. "Now that I'm talking, I can see the stadium. There were just so many people there. It was very loud. We had no idea there would be that many people in the stadium. The police had to escort us through traffic, it was so crowded. To be honest, we were so scared, everybody was in a daze and real quiet."
"It was like a swarm of bees all around you," said Wyles, who was a two-way standout that night.
Frauenhofer said the players had to be pushed onto the field for the introduction, because they couldn't hear their names being announced. Warsocki, a backup lineman who became all-High the following year, said the police had to remove fans from the team benches a couple of times.
"There were so many people, where were you going to put them?" Warsocki said. "They were falling all over themselves."
Kensington was worth watching. The football team was in the midst of a 24-game winning streak, a record that stood until Art Serotte's Grover Cleveland squad broke it in 1976. Over three seasons, from '47 to '49, they went 21-0 and outscored their opponents, 517-60.
"I still have my little gold tie clasp we got as a remembrance of that game," said George Voskerchian, who was a 155-pound guard for Bennett that year. He later served as a football official and worked every Harvard Cup title game until retiring in 1997.
Harvey Yeates, who scored the only TD for Bennett that night, played at North Carolina State. His son, Jeff, played nine years for the Atlanta Falcons. Four Kensington stars -- Wyles, Frauenhofer, Thompson and Nixon -- also went to NC State on football scholarships. NC State was building its program and had a freshman coach named Darrell Royal, who would go on to great fame at Texas.
Wyles said there was a member of the old Bills in the stands that night, an NC State graduate who told the coaches at his alma mater about the players in Buffalo. To this day, as men in their late 60s, they speak of Monan and Bergstrom with reverence.
"We were so pampered," said Jack Breuckman, a football lineman. "Everything was the best of equipment. I went to UB and they gave me a jersey with a hole in it."
"I remember they gave us a steak breakfast before games," Warsocki said. "We dressed at school together. Monan ran the schedule so we were there four hours before the game. We'd get rubdowns from the people at Singer's Gym."
"We had good coaches and good administrators, who developed not just good athletes but school spirit," Wyles said.
"He said he wanted to make Kensington a little Notre Dame," Corbelli said. "And he did it."
"I remember they'd bring us to the field right before the kickoff," Wyles said. "Everyone would say, 'Where is Kensington? Are they afraid to show up?' "
Then Charley Monan's shining Knights arrived and gave them their answer.
THURSDAY: And the No. 1 spot goes to . . .