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THE FULL MONTI <br> LASALLE'S CLOSING HAS COACH CELEBRATING THE PAST, PONDERING THE FUTURE

In classroom 208 of LaSalle High School, Pat Monti has posted every schedule of his 25 years as coach of the boys basketball team. In the gym, 16 brown-and-gold banners hang above the court. Outside in the hallway, there are four cabinets filled with trophies.

By summertime, all that history has to find a new home.

Next to the trophy cabinet is a photo display for the 1999-2000 LaSalle Explorers. The title is "The Last Season."

"It's bittersweet," said Monti. "I feel sad that the history of the school probably, down the road, will be lost. . . . But life goes on, you have to move on."

Next year, LaSalle will merge with Niagara Falls High School to form the "new" Niagara Falls H.S., acclaimed for everything from the economics behind its construction to its economics classrooms. Four academic towers, 360,000 square feet, 2,500 students. A theater Monti described as "Artpark." A media center worthy of the year 2000. The biggest high school in Western New York.

Bigger. Better. Brand new.

But it will be hard to imagine a basketball program that's been better than LaSalle's.

"We've had seven trips to Glens Falls (for the state public school final four), three state titles, 10 straight Section VI titles and 11 overall, and 13 league titles," Monti recalls without trouble.

The 10 straight Section VI championships are unmatched by any basketball team in the state. Monti has had an All-WNY first-team player 12 times, including 10 straight from 1988-97. He's amassed 420 wins -- for a winning percentage of .782 -- since starting out 8-10 in 1975-76. The Explorers have done no worse than the sectional semifinals since 1985-86.

With senior guard Dewitt Doss signing with Canisius prior to this season, Monti completed a Big 4 grand slam -- placing a player in every program. Although Carlos Bradberry would ingloriously transfer from Niagara to New Hampshire, Tim Winn is helping lead St. Bonaventure's NCAA hopes this season and Modie Cox sparked what nowadays suffice as UB's "glory years."

"There are some things you come to rely on and one of those things is LaSalle High School being a part of high school basketball," said Winn. "Coach Monti helped put Western New York basketball on the map. I know that I would not have achieved all the things that I have as a basketball player without him, and I know a lot of other guys who played for him would say the same thing."

"I've ate, drank and slept the game of basketball my entire life," said Monti, 53. "I believe that structure and discipline is the cornerstone of team play, and team play is the only way you become successful."

And don't forget those point guards. "Michael Freeney in the early '80s to Rodney Ingram in the mid '80s, to Carlos Bradberry, Jody Crymes, Michael Starks, Timmy Winn, Modie Cox, to right now Dewitt Doss, and there's probably some I'm leaving out.

"I believe at the high school level, if you've got a heady, solid point guard that believes in your -- my -- system, I can build and structure everything around them. And that's pretty much what we've done."

Monti attributes his success to the loyalty of assistants like 14-year junior varsity coach Frank Rotundo, the meticulousness of his practices ("we believe in drills, drills and more drills") and on adapting to different situations ("it's a never-ending learning situation") whether it's year-by-year or game-by-game.

Call his home answering machine and you'll hear Monti's update of how the season is shaping up. Talk to him in his office and often times his sentences will be punctuated by the sound of two sizable state championship rings echoing off his school desk: one representing the 1988 Federation championship on his right hand and one for the 1995-96 back-to-back public school titles on his left.

"My wife gets angry sometimes -- I don't have my wedding band on," says Monti. "She knows that after 30 years of marriage that she's still my No. 1 love, but these are my babies right here."

Room 208 from the start

Monti found the loves of his life at Niagara University, from where he graduated in 1968. It was there that he met his wife, Kathleen, and it was in his senior year at Niagara that he was assigned to a student teaching assignment in Room 208 of LaSalle High School.

He's been there ever since.

"I've spent two-thirds of my life here," he said. "Although I was born and raised in Syracuse, LaSalle is home to me."

Monti hopes the banners will find a new home atop the new gym, and he's been told there's a spot waiting for the trophies. As for the schedules, and other things not as memorable, a clean-out week in the summer awaits.

"It's going to be hard for me. Like all of us that are pack rats -- my wife says this to me at home -- a lot of it is probably just junk," he said smiling. "There's old tests that are still in those drawers, and I haven't taught that subject in 15 years."

Monti teaches accounting, business law and business math. And, like a player, he looks forward to that final bell so he can head to the gym.

"Right now, the two (teaching and coaching) go hand in hand," Monti said. "I don't know what I'd do with myself without basketball at the end of my school day."

Who will coach the 'new' Niagara Falls?

With every glance ahead to next season, and the superpower that could be, Monti qualifies his sentences with a "hopefully, next year . . ." or "if I'm the coach . . ."

Once the season is complete, the district will take a look at candidates, hold interviews and make a decision so the new coach can have nearly a year to prepare for next season.

"Naturally, I would like to think that I'm most qualified, and have been most loyal, and would get the job for however long I continue teaching," Monti said. "Because as long as I'm a teacher, I consider myself a coach.

"I can't worry about anybody else. I know what I've accomplished, and I know what I can do, and I hope there's a place for me here . . . or there."

One might think the selection would be an easy lay-up. But nothing is simple when it comes to school politics, especially when the coaching task is an unprecedented one, especially when there are likely to be many applicants (nine applied for the football opening), and especially when the athletic director of the district also coaches the Niagara Falls High School boys basketball team.

Dan Bazzani, who was UB's head coach from 1983-93 and has coached Niagara Falls since the 1994-95 season, said he'll wait until the end of the season to decide if he'll apply for the job. "It's possible -- I don't know," said Bazzani, who will serve on the search committee unless he applies for the job. "I'm not worried about it now. I've got enough to worry about this season."

Tall Falls vs. 'Mighty Mites'

Remember when the big kid on the block held the ball over your head, and no matter how high you tried to jump you couldn't reach it?

That's what it's like to be a LaSalle Explorer this season. All of their starters are 5-feet-something and there are only two 6-footers on the entire team. It's no wonder callers to Monti's answering machine during the preseason heard him call his squad "The Mighty Mites."

Some grave news met the team before the season started. Michael Tyson -- the leading scorer for LaSalle's JV last season -- suffered a freak injury during a touch football game last summer and has been left paralyzed from the waist down. (The school honored Tyson at a pregame festivities earlier this season and the players have his No. 44 on their uniforms). Then 6-1 leaper Brandon Jones suffered a knee injury in the preseason that will likely sideline him for the year, and 6-4 Will Carter decided not to play his senior season. "They could have very well been our starting forward line this year," Monti said.

Nevertheless, the Explorers -- led by Doss (27 points per game) -- rebounded from an 0-3 start to beat each of their four Frontier Division opponents and jump into first place. But the height disadvantage has taken its toll of late, and LaSalle has slipped to 9-5. Seven losses would be the most for a LaSalle team since the 1984-85 season.

"I feel honored (to be part of the last LaSalle team)," said Doss, "but it's not going the way we planned. I've lost as many games this year as I lost the three years that I was on varsity."

The Explorers lost at home to a taller North Tonawanda team, their first loss to the Lumberjacks in 15 years. Last week, even a dozen amazing plays by Doss couldn't help LaSalle keep up with a Bennett team that rebounded and tipped its way to a 26-point blowout.

This all makes for quite a script for the final regular-season meeting between LaSalle and Niagara Falls (7:15 p.m., Feb. 16 at the Niagara Falls Convention and Civic Center). The Explorers have beaten the rival Power Cats a remarkable 35 straight times, dating to Jan. 4, 1985. But this season Niagara Falls (11-1), powered by a fearsome front line, is ranked No. 2 in The News large school poll and has lost to only Pennsylvania power McDowell.

But how about two finales? A sequel already is in the works: If LaSalle and Niagara Falls maintain their comfortable division leads, they'll meet again in the NFL's crossover championship game Feb. 18 at North Tonawanda. Barring a meeting in the Section VI Class A title game, that would be it for the schools.

Afterward, Power Cats will play alongside Explorers. The new, blue-and-gold Wolverines will begin their own history, play for their own banners, their own trophies.

Monti -- who might have more brown-and-gold items in his wardrobe than, well, anybody -- received a blue-and-gold sweatsuit from his wife for Christmas.

He called it "beautiful," and acknowledged that the gift represented where his school and his city were headed.

But, he added almost proudly, "I haven't worn it yet."

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