Due to the declining enrollment at St. Joseph School in Gowanda this year, the boys basketball program that had been a tradition dating back to 1956 did not have enough players to field a team. Sadly, the Diocese of Buffalo also announced on Jan. 15 that the school, dating back to 1924, will close its doors at the conclusion of this academic year. But what a run of success the basketball program had, especially during the 1960s.
People from outside of the school were always perplexed as to how St. Joe’s could field championship-caliber teams year after year without having a gym to practice in or ever hosting a home game.
Father Eugene Kaczmarek was the school’s first coach. His group of boys in grades six to eight quickly became a force in the late 1950s while competing in the Monsignor O’Connor League that consisted of schools from Dunkirk, Fredonia and Silver Creek. By the early 1960s, the blue and gold Cagers were beginning to fill the school’s trophy case with first-place hardware.
In the fall of 1963, Art Palumbo, a parishioner and a 1960 Gowanda Central School graduate, took over the reins of the program. And for the next seven years, St. Joe’s won five league titles, numerous tournaments and one diocesan title.
The St. Joe’s basketball program became the envy of its opponents. Palumbo required his players to dress in a shirt and tie and a sweater or sport jacket when they traveled to each game. On game days, the team would sit together at the designated school Mass. If a game was scheduled on a Saturday afternoon, all boys were expected to be at the 8 a.m. Mass. Before the team left the school for each game, the players would scrub the orange rubber practice basketballs until they looked brand new and place them in the ball bag until pregame drills. Prior to the opening tipoff, Palumbo would huddle his entire team near half court. There, they would pray the “Our Father” out loud.
Although St. Joe’s never knew what home court advantage was, the players always outclassed their opponents by having the best-looking uniforms and warm-up jackets. Those items were provided by the Holy Name Society, whose all-male membership raised funds throughout the year with an assortment of parish activities.
Once the games began, St. Joe’s used its talent, discipline and Palumbo’s guidance to dominate the competition. During the 1966-67 season, St. Joe’s won all 17 of its games, including the Diocese of Buffalo championship. That was preceded by league championships in 1964 and 1965. After St. Joe’s graduated four of its five starters following the perfect 1966-67 campaign, the “Traveling Cagers” won championships in 1968 and 1970. Again, every win was secured as the visiting team.
Palumbo remained the school’s coach for a few years into the early 1970s. However, the St. Joe’s School enrollment that peaked at 330 students in the mid ’60s began to tumble as the cost of private education soared. As a result, the once-powerful basketball program would generate only a few spurts of high-level success over the next 40 years.
Times have changed and the future for the school looks bleak. But for all of those players who wore the blue and gold basketball uniform of St. Joe’s, the proud tradition will never be forgotten.