By Gary Larrabee
Special to The Salem News
---- — It’s fascinating how history connects with the present.
Perhaps the most surprising story in Eastern Massachusetts high school basketball this winter has been the Danvers High Falcons. Depleted of their repeat Division 3 state championship starting five via graduation and lone returnee Vinny Clifford’s season-wrecking knee injury suffered playing AAU basketball last summer, they projected as little better than a .500 team under fourth-year coach John Walsh.
Moving up to Division 2 for the MIAA state tournament only added to the challenge — if they qualified. The doubters should have known better.
After Wednesday’s 62-59 semifinal win over Belmont at Beverly High, Danvers’ astounding season rolls on at 20-2 heading into today’s sectional final at the Tsongas Center in Lowell.
Now owners of an unprecedented third straight 20-win season, it conjures up memories for us old-timers of the DHS squad from exactly 50 years ago that enjoyed a Cinderella-like championship run of its own, which produced the school’s first Northeastern Conference hoop championship of the modern era.
It ranks as small stuff in contrast to today, but the 1964 champs were special in their own way, similar as noted in that expectations were lukewarm at best for what would turn out to be title-winning campaigns.
In the case of the ‘64 team, John McGrath was in his first year as head coach after serving as Medford High head coach the previous five seasons. He had come to Danvers a couple years earlier as an assistant football coach under the new regime headed by Jim McKinnon.
“I knew there were some experienced players returning,” McGrath, a Malden Catholic and Tufts graduate, recalled, “but otherwise I had no idea what the season would bring. I knew we had two solid multi-sport athletes in Bob Cunningham and Bob Bonner. Little did I know that a combination of four basketball lifers and those two superb all-around athletes would carry us to the Conference title.”
Forwards Jeff Ryback and Steve Lenz, center John Keane and guards Bonner and Cunningham formed the starting five. Pat O’Shea was the sixth man and rounded out what was for the most part a six-man rotation (like Walsh’s design this season), though Mike Sauchuk and Bob Maher provided reliable spot fill-in duty off the bench.
In the preseason, Danvers loomed as a middle-of-the-pack team in what was then an eight-team league comprised of Swampscott, Marblehead, Amesbury, Winthrop, Newburyport, Andover, Woburn and Danvers. Marblehead was the heavy favorite that winter, but Danvers stunned the Magicians twice in what proved to be the difference between first and second place and Danvers’ first NEC title in 11 years.
McGrath would follow with additional titles in 1970 and 1975 in what could be described as a golden era in Danvers High basketball. Of course, what Walsh’s teams have accomplished the last three years has created a golden era the likes of which no North Shore program, let alone no Danvers program, has ever experienced.
“We had brains as much as we had talent on that squad,” said McGrath, who coached Danvers a few years later to its first Eastern Massachusetts Class B baseball championship. “Cunningham went to Harvard, Bonner to Bowdoin, so I couldn’t go wrong having them in charge on the floor. And with the other guys year-round basketball players, they all picked up on my new system quickly. Ryback was our purest shooter and best offensive player, but all six kids could score — and did — in double figures, and they played our 1-3-1 matchup defense quite effectively.
“There were those who wondered if Keane, a lean, tall kid, was tough enough to play in the middle, but he scored, rebounded and defended just as we hoped. Lenz complemented Ryback at both ends of the floor. Bonner and Cunningham were terrific two-way players, though Bonner’s offense was restricted somewhat after he broke his wrist during football. Shea was the ideal spark we needed coming off the bench.”
Most important, McGrath recalled, “This group improved as the season wore on and handled the pressure games like veterans. They adjusted to game situation like a coach’s dream.
“The Marblehead games? They came to our place first and had us by 17 points, I believe, and we came back to beat them. The second game at Marblehead we played deliberately, probably better than at home, and all but clinched the title with that win.”
The ‘64 team did not make any kind of tournament run, but they merit remembering for bringing a championship tradition missing for a decade back to the Danvers High basketball program.
McGrath figures the sky continues to be the limit for Walsh and his record-setting Falcons. After all, he and Walsh boast one other connection — a strong tie in Malden Catholic, where McGrath coached and Walsh played.
Gary Larrabee is a former long-time Salem News sports staff writer.