NIAGARA FALLS – Considering how unforgettable championship moments are, it’s kind of surprising LaSalle High School’s back-to-back state championship teams from 1995 and 1996 slipped through the cracks.
Of, course there are reasons those Pat Monti-coached teams featuring two-time Buffalo News Player of the Year Tim Winn seemingly became lost in the shuffle.
The biggest one is the fact LaSalle no longer exists, as it and the old Niagara Falls merged to form one giant school. The new Niagara Falls High, a perennial Section VI title contender, commands all the attention in the city and also won state and Federation titles back in 2005 that still resonate in people’s minds.
However, those championship-winning Explorers are no longer lost and forgotten, as they finally received their due Friday night at Niagara Falls High School during the Wolverines’ 58-46 boys basketball triumph over North Tonawanda in the Niagara Frontier League.
Members of the two state championship teams (nine were members of both teams) took a bow during a halftime ceremony honoring the 2016 Niagara Falls School District Athletic Hall of Fame Class.
Monti. Winn. Terry Rich. Jody Crymes. Roddy Gayle.
They were some but not the only players from those teams in attendance basking in the spotlight one more time – from making themselves available to fans in the hallway prior to Friday night’s tipoff in an informal meet-and-greet filled with smiles and laughter to soaking in the cheers from an estimated crowd of 500 during a halftime ceremony many thought would never happen.
“This is special,” said the 69-year-old Monti, sporting his old, yet relaxed fitting LaSalle state championship windbreaker from 1996. “I wanted these kids to be able to be recognized for what they did. The ’95 team was 25-3. We played some unbelievable teams. Lamar Odom we held to 13 points. In 1995 Timmy and Jody Crymes kind of pinched Stephon Marbury across the court and held him to 11 points when he was averaging 37 points per game. … These kids, they did some remarkable things.”
That includes a furious fourth-quarter rally in the 1996 state championship game against Newburgh Free Academy. Monti said the Explorers scored a still-standing state record for most points in a quarter, 39, during the final eight minutes to pull out a 77-66 win. That’s the last time a defending Section VI champion has ever won back-to-back state titles in Class A or higher.
While some of the players stayed in touch since graduation, Friday was the first time they had all gathered as a team since their high school days. That alone made the night special for Winn, a former teacher and vice principal who now works in the banking industry in Charlotte, N.C.
“The acknowledgement in itself is great but to be able to sit down and talk with these guys and reminisce with these guys … We’ve been on Facebook all day long just talking about what it meant for us to get inducted and what motivated us to even want to become good basketball players,” said Winn, who after starring at St. Bonaventure played professional ball in four different countries before finishing up with the defunct Buffalo Rapids of the American Basketball Association. “That in itself is hall of fame worthy that I get to hang out with these guys as a group.”
“To see each other 20 years later means a lot,” said Rich, who lives on Grand Island and remains best friends with Roddy Gayle. “Just the fun that we had in Glens Falls, doing something that we shouldn’t have been doing, sneaking out of the room, chasing after the girls and certain inside jokes you don’t forget. The fact we’re all from Niagara Falls and we played together and won a state championship means a lot.”
Monti’s ex-assistant and former player, Frank Rotundo, takes the blame for the Explorers not getting honored sooner – although it should be noted the district went six years without inducting any new members into the hall that was founded in 1996. He forgot to nominate them.
“It was the combination of it being disbanded and not being nominated,” said Rotundo, who is part of the athletic council that nominates and selects individuals or teams for hall of fame consideration in the district.
“The pinnacle to any high school sport ... is state championships and we won back-to-back state championships,” Rotundo said. “Once I brought it up and turned in the form it was a no-brainer, the committee voted it in unanimously. It’s well-deserved. It’s been 20 years but I think it’s better now because all of the players are adults and they can appreciate it a lot more.”
That they do.
Monti and Winn have been inducted into halls of fame as individuals for their athletic achievements, but both agreed that being part of a team being immortalized is even more meaningful.
“This means way more,” Winn said,” because they are guys you went to war with, got in the foxhole with and had the same commitment. It means a million times more.”
During Friday’s game, Falls broke out to a 10-0 lead only to see North Tonawanda storm back and take an 18-14 second-quarter lead. However, the Wolverines surged ahead for good before halftime, 26-22, and pulled away with 9-0 run to open a third quarter in which they held the NT (7-8) to just five points.
Qeyion Williams led Falls (11-3) with 21 points, while Syquan Ralands scored six of his nine points during the third quarter.