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(This is the last of 12 stories on the top high school athletic classes of the past 50 years in Western New York. Today's installment highlights Sweet Home's 1982-83 teams.)
So you want to know how deep Sweet Home's talent pool was in the 1982-83 school year? How relentlessly competitive the Panthers were? There's one story that captures it perfectly, a tale that becomes sweeter with each retelling.

In early June of 1983, the baseball team beat Albion to advance to the finals of the state Class A tournament in Little Falls. If they could win two games on the following Saturday, they would achieve every high school athlete's dream: A state championship.

There was one small problem. The senior prom was scheduled for that Saturday night. Twelve of the 17 players planned to attend. If they won the first game in the afternoon, they'd play for the title that evening, while the prom was beginning some 200 miles away at the Niagara Falls Convention Center.

Leading up to that week, the community was up in arms over the dance dilemma. Parents demanded that the game be rescheduled. Girls wept. Boys anguished over their decision. Athletic director Bob Barczak remembers offering to buy girls' dresses from them. There was even talk of sending Albion to the state finals instead.

In the end, Barczak arranged for a bus to bring the girls to Little Falls. If the team lost the afternoon game, they would bus back in time for the prom. If they won, they'd get their own dinner and dance on the road.

Four players -- three starters and the top relief pitcher -- decided to stay home for the school prom. One of them was up for prom king, for heaven's sake. Undaunted, coach Joe Caggiano called up three kids from the junior varsity and headed off for the finals.

"I remember when we got to the coaches' meeting," Caggiano said. "They said, 'If you're missing four players, why did you even come down? We told them, 'Oh, we'll put on a show for you.' "

Sweet Home put on a show, all right. They won it all. The Panthers took the first game, 4-3, on a home run by Kevin Sykes in the top of the seventh. They rallied to tie the championship game in the last of the seventh, then won it when Sykes singled in his buddy, Mike Torrillo, in the eighth.

It was the final, dramatic moment in an unforgettable year at Sweet Home, a year, perhaps, unlike any other in local history. And it qualifies the Panthers as No. 1 in our series on the top athletic classes of the past 50 years in Western New York.

In 1982-83, the Panthers won five sectional titles. They had nine undefeated teams. They won 13 ECIC championships -- or exactly half of their 26 boys and girls varsity teams. Overall, the school won 79 percent of its varsity games.

"Oh, it was a frenzy, that's for sure," said Caggiano, who retired in 1998 after 29 seasons as Sweet Home baseball coach. "It was unbelievable. And we had a lot more kids then, too. You could hardly walk down the hallways without bumping into people."

The odds were good that you would bump into a future Division I college athlete. The senior class had 14 athletes who earned D-I scholarships: Mike Behrman (Princeton football), Chris Bos and Marty Hackford (University at Buffalo baseball), John Brunner (Murray State tennis), Richelle Butt (Eastern Michigan volleyball), Kim Searles (Connecticut volleyball), Barry Fordham (Michigan State basketball), Mark Edinger and Chris Guerreri (Ohio State volleyball), Chris Goins (Holy Cross football), Patty Mondul (Michigan field hockey), Blaine Russell (St. Bonaventure basketball), Rob Stahl (Navy football), and Mike Stepien (Kentucky football).

In addition, Jim Dunbar, an All-Western New York football player in '83 and a star of the baseball team, went on to UB and became a star center on the Bulls' 9-2 Division III football team in 1986.

There were 14 more D-I athletes in the junior class. That doesn't include Dave Biondo, who played quarterback at Division II Ashland College and became a small-college All-American. So you could also make a compelling case for the 1983-84 class as one of the best in local history.

But the athletes and coaches who were around in those days agreed that '82-83 was the peak year. It was the most prolific collection of college athletic prospects gathered under one roof in Western New York history.

"Success breeds success"

"We had so much success back then, and success breeds success," said Sally Kus, whose girls volleyball team was in the early stages of a 292-match winning streak, a national record for any high school sport. "We just fed off each other. Who would miss a prom for anything? But the kids had such pride in representing their school. We were like one big heart."

Jim Kwitchoff, who was a junior in '82-83 and is now assistant principal at Lockport High School, said there were a number of factors that made Sweet Home a sports powerhouse from the mid-1970s to mid-'80s. Perhaps the most vital was the leadership of Barczak, a tireless AD who had the support of his administration and supported all his sports, large or small, boys or girls.

Sweet Home had a remarkable staff of experienced coaches who gave 20 to 30 years of their lives to the program -- people like Joe Shifflet (football and wrestling), Tom Sprague (golf), Jack Lyons (softball), Jack Walko (boys basketball), Caggiano (baseball), Carl Roesch (cross country), Dave Beiter (boys volleyball), Kus (girls volleyball), Dick Keeney (boys swimming), Dick Banaszak (boys soccer) and Pat Wyatt (track).

Whatever the coaches needed, Barczak got it for them. If a coach was repairing the roof or building a porch at his house, the man known around school as "The Bear" would make sure a bunch of his colleagues showed up on Saturday to help.

"At that time, he did anything for us," Kus said. "And Barczak made each of us feel like he liked us best. He had this knack. He quit coaching pretty young in his life to become AD. I said 'How can you do that?' He said, 'I can touch more kids' lives being AD.' "

Kwitchoff said the camaraderie rubbed off on the students. He said racial harmony was a vital factor in the district. He said there were a lot of three-sport athletes -- a breed that has become increasingly rare in recent years. And they were groomed to win from a young age in the district's developmental programs.

"We started off at the elementary school level," said Kwitchoff, who earned a football scholarship to Boston College where he played for one season with a fellow named Doug Flutie. "We had six elementary schools. Each had their own team. By the time we all entered junior high, we all had competed against each other."

"We had no fear, because it was instilled in us," said P.J. Cauley, who played four sports and won state titles in two -- the '83 baseball title and a state basketball crown a year later. Cauley later ran cross country at Cortland and was a Division III All-American in that sport.

"Not only did our coaches teach us how to compete, they taught us how to work hard," said Cauley, who will be the head basketball coach at Hamburg High this year after serving the last two years as head man at Sweet Home. "We worked hard, we competed and we were never intimidated. We knew we could play with everybody."

Undefeated was expected

They weren't surprised when they went undefeated. It was expected of them. The boys cross country, golf, swimming and wrestling teams were undefeated. The soccer team won the sectionals after an ordinary regular season. The boys and girls volleyball teams won sectional titles.

Boys volleyball coach Dave Beiter, a terrific coach whose achievements tend to be obscured by what Kus accomplished, was in the midst of winning 10 sectional titles in 11 years. He produced some great players. Edinger was a two-time All-American and participated in two NCAA final fours. Junior Rich Cicero and sophomore Chris Chase went to Penn State, where Chase became a four-time All-American.

The boys and girls track teams both swept through the winter and spring seasons without a loss under Wyatt, who has produced 18 state champions at the school. At the '83 spring sectional meet, they set six records: Paula Gunderman won the girls 400-meter hurdles in 1:05.3 and anchored the winning 1600-meter relay. The boys 400-meter relay of Rayford Bragg, Stanton Trueheart, Myles Coleman and Jackie Brown won in a time of 42.8. Bragg won the 400 in 48.9, setting a sectional record that stood for 10 years. Rick Mahnke won the 1,600-meter walk in 7:11.5.

Kwitchoff won the sectional discus title with a heave of 151-3. A year later, he won the state discus title by nine feet. Anthony Washington, who was second in the state meet that day, won the world discus championship last month in Spain.

The boys basketball team was probably the most talented, most publicized and, in the end, the most heartbreaking, team in the entire school.

Fordham was named all-Western New York and all-state. He started at Michigan State, where he once earned CBS player of the game honors in an NCAA tournament loss against a Kansas team that made the Final Four. Russell was one of the best leapers ever in this area. Ken Pawlak played for UB in Division III. Goins, a rugged forward, was an even better defensive lineman.

The Panthers breezed unbeaten through the ECIC. They won the sectional Class A-1 title in a double-overtime classic against Kenmore West at Memorial Auditorium, and were 21-0 before South Park upset them in the super sectionals at the Aud three nights later. A number of local hoop observers consider that Sweet Home team one of the most gifted ever in these parts.

"Let me tell you," said Barczak, who retired in 1989 after 27 years as AD. "The best team we had talent-wise was in 1983."

"We had 12 guys on the team and 10 of them could dunk," said Torrillo, a junior who was All-Western New York in baseball and football. He and Sykes played on the club hockey team (it won the title, naturally) and both played baseball and hockey at Canisius. They left Canisius ranked 1-2 on the career scoring list in hockey, and were recently inducted together into the Golden Griffins' Hall of Fame.

There was so much hoop talent in Sweet Home during those years that Gary Bossert transferred because he would have to share minutes. He became a star at Kenmore West (losing to his former teammates in '83) and Niagara University. Cauley, who chose to play hockey as a junior, said the backups on the '83 team would have been by far the second-best team in the ECIC.

Revenge came the next season

They proved it a year later, when a less-talented Sweet Home team got its revenge against South Park in the sectional final and went on to win the state Class A public championship. They lost the overall title by a point the next day when Rod Strickland, now an NBA veteran, made a layup at the buzzer. Point guard Bryan Randall, the only returning starter from '83, was named The Buffalo News Player of the Year. Randall played college ball at Dartmouth, where he was a four-year starter and made All-Ivy League.

Jerry Kopydlowski also made All-Western New York. He got a scholarship to North Carolina-Charlotte, but transferred back to Canisius. Kwitchoff started at center on the '84 team. Like Cauley, a backup point guard in '84, he had the rare distinction of winning a state championship in two sports.

No question about volleyball

There was no state tournament in girls volleyball, but there was also no question who had the best program around. Kus' girls went 42-0 and captured the Western Region championship for the second year in a row. She was in the midst of a nine-year unbeaten streak. In time, her teams would win 21 straight ECIC titles and 20 consecutive sectional crowns.

By the time she left Sweet Home to coach Daemen in 1996, Kus had sent more than 70 girls to college on Division I scholarships. Eight of the girls on the '82-'83 team went on to D-I: seniors Butt and Searles, juniors Kellie Kubiak and Linda Eder, sophomores Tricia McCormick and Sonya Lesczcynski, and freshmen Robin Bock and Kathy Rich.

Kus was especially proud of the fact that Bock and Rich were close friends who became coaches themselves. Rich succeeded her at Sweet Home. Bock coaches at Clarence. "The coolest thing is they all come home," Kus said. "They know where their hearts are."

Nothing pleases her more than knowing her girls are passing their love of sports on to younger people. One of these years, maybe they'll be able to experience something close to what Sweet Home had a generation ago. She wonders if anything could ever be quite like it.

"The boys had great respect for the girls back then," Kus said. "We had such camaraderie between the teams, such great respect. I remember in the middle of practice, the girls would say, 'The boys soccer team is playing. Can we run out there?' And out we'd go."

Those were truly the Glory Days, after all. You didn't want to miss a thing.

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