Amid the jokes about old age and fading memory, Yvette Angel remembered quite vividly what it was like to play against Gina Castelli in the early 1980s.
Angel was a standout at Sacred Heart while Castelli played at Archbishop Carroll. And those Catholic clashes were anything but easy.
"She was a very aggressive, very smart player," Angel said of Castelli. "Good ball-handling skills. Team player, obviously. Commanded the court and the ball. Was very challenging, and I think she's that way as a coach as well when you see her on the sideline. She's what I like to think of as a quiet storm as a player, because she's very quiet but was a very good player and a very good shooter."
Angel was among the guests at KeyBank Center Wednesday afternoon as Castelli and 14 others were officially announced as the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2018. The group will formally be inducted in October.
Angel is already a member, inducted in 1999.
Castelli is another in a line of women's basketball players who made their mark in the early 1980s – a golden era for girls high school and women's college basketball.
"During that time we had some unbelievable players," Castelli said. "That was probably the height of girls high school basketball. I feel like God put me on that path where I was in that spot where I could play with the top players to ever come out of the Buffalo area. I don't think people really know what we did or what we had."
"I think back to those days and how much we just really loved the game," said Angel, now coaching at Sweet Home High School. "We played a lot on playgrounds and you don't see that as much now. We played at Boys and Girls Clubs and pick-up games, challenging the boys. We all, I think, in that era were like that. It's interesting because there were not as many opportunities at that time, but yet we probably played more then than you see kids playing now, just for the love of it."
The love of the game is what drove players like Angel and Castelli, and a host of others. Many don't know about the great women's basketball players, and other great female athletes, who came through Western New York.
But they're starting to learn.
Of the 330 all-time inductees into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame, only a handful are women.
That's begun to change in recent years as its board of directors becomes more diverse. Women's sports coverage, and knowledge of outstanding women athletes, is sparse. So as diversity on the board increases, the base for potential nominees expands and lost stories are recovered.
"For a long time, there were three women on the board and 32 men," said Paula Bogdan, a member of the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame board of directors. "What do you do? You go with what you know. So as men, you're going to know other athletes, other coaches. I see it opening up."
The election of women has increased, with the latest addition of Castelli building on an era of high school and college basketball success that largely flew under the radar.
After high school, Castelli went to Canisius College to play for the legendary Sister Maria Pares. As the point guard for the Golden Griffins, she led the team to an 82-34 record over her four-year career including a berth in the Elite Eight of the 1983 NCAA Division II championship.
Pares, who died in 2017, is one of the pioneers for girls and women's basketball in Western New York. Castelli wished Pares was around to see her receive this honor, but fondly recalled what it was like to play for her in the early days of Title IX when few still cared about women in sports.
"My heart goes out to Sister Maria because if it wasn't for her, I wouldn’t even be coaching," Castelli said. "She was such a pioneer and we were lucky enough to play for her at Canisius. She fought for so many things, so to be honest with you, I always felt like we weren't denied much because she brought so much to our program whether it was material things or other things. We had fans, we traveled well."
After graduation, Castelli began to coach, following Peres to Marquette as an assistant before taking over the program at Siena College. She was there for 22 years, compiling a 336-296 record including five Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Coach of the Year honors.
For the last five seasons she has been at LeMoyne in Syracuse and regularly recruits Western New York players. That includes getting East Aurora standout Emma Brinker to commit to the Dolphins.
"I think that girls high school basketball in this area has grown and gotten better," Castelli said. "I feel like it's coming back and there's some talented players."
Three other women will be inducted posthumously this October – the Weigel sisters. Louise, Estelle, and Mary were all figure skating champions in the 1930s. Their father, William Weigel, was the president of Iroquois Brewery and built Buffalo's first artificially made ice rink at the back of the brewery on Pratt Street.
Louise was the 1932 National Junior Ladies Figure Skating Champion and earned berths on the 1932 and 1936 Olympic teams. Estelle was also a member of the 1936 Olympic team and was the 1933 National Junior Ladies Champion. Mary won the National Novice Ladies Championship in 1935 then became a standout swimmer and golfer and excelled in equestrian until her death from pneumonia in 1941 at the age of 21, just two months before her wedding day.
The other inductees include Golden Gloves Champion and undefeated heavyweight boxer "Baby" Joe Mesi. Born in Tonawanda and a three-sport athlete at Sweet Home, Mesi had a 15-year boxing career that included 36 wins, 29 by knockout. His career ended with the diagnosis of at least one subdural hemotoma that forced Mesi into retirement in 2007.
Also being inducted are:
- Werner "Babe" Birrer, a right-handed pitcher from Kensington High School who played at the University at Buffalo and was signed to a Detroit Tigers contract in 1947 by scout Cy Williams. Birrer pitched professional from 1957-66 including nine seasons for the Buffalo Bisons.
- Bill Bradshaw, a Lewiston native and graduate of Bishop Duffy High School in Niagara Falls, was an All-American baseball player at LaSalle University, graduating in 1969. He coached at Niagara from 1972-74 before beginning a distinguished career as an athletic administrator. An athletic director for 38 years, Bradshaw led the programs at LaSalle (1978-86 and 2016-present), DePaul (1986-2002) and Temple (2002-13).
- John Faller, who played football at the University at Buffalo, leading the Bulls in rushing in 1970, coached 31 seasons at Sweet Home. His record of 217-84-1 ranks fourth in all-time Western New York gridiron victories. In 1976 he started Sweet Home's lacrosse program, coaching until his retirement in 2017.
- James "Chick" Hewson, a graduate of Riverside High School, rowed in West Side boats that won 26 U.S. national titles. Over three decades of rowing at the Royal Canadian Henley Regatta, he won 49 gold medals. He was part of West Side boats which were finalists in the 1948 and 1952 Olympic trials. Hewson then switched to race walking, making the 1956 Olympic team in the 20K and 50K at age 39.
- Marv Hubbard, a Salamanca native who went to Randolph High School, led the Colgate football team in rushing in the 1965 and 1966 seasons. Selected by the Oakland Raiders in the 1968 draft, Hubbard was a three-time NFL All-Pro, helping the team to four straight AFC Western Division titles form 1972-75.
- Lonnie Nielsen, former longtime club pro at Crag Burn Golf Club in East Aurora, dominated the regional club pro competition. He owns two New York State Open Championships (1985, 1989), eight Western New York Open titles, two PGA Match Play titles for nontouring PGA of America members, nine Western New York Sectional titles and a PGA Stroke Play title.
- Barry Smith, a Kenmore West High School graduate, played hockey at Ithaca College, graduating in 1972. He became the head hockey coach at Elmira College in 1976 then went on to a long career as an assistant and associate coach in the NHL, including time with the Buffalo Sabres, Pittsburgh Penguins, Detroit Red Wings, Phoenix Coyotes and Vancouver Canucks. Currently he is the director of player evaluation for the Chicago Blackhawks.
- Jimmy "Bug" Williams and Rickey Williams were the brother duo that was among the top Western New York high school basketball players in the 1970s. Jimmy led East High his senior season in 1973 to an undefeated record while averaging 32.1 points per game. He was named the New York State Player of the Year before an elite career at Syracuse. Rickey averaged 20.8 points per game in 56 appearances with Timon High School. After playing at New Mexico and Long Beach State, Rickey was drafted by the New Orleans Jazz, playing in 44 NBA games in the 1982-83 season.
- Jeff Yeates, a star at Cardinal O’Hara and Boston College, played 11 NFL seasons at defensive tackle with both the Bills and Atlanta.