Ed. note: This story was published in the June 6 Weekend Edition of the Times.
GENEVA — Baseball often emerges as a school’s first-born athletic team. The sport’s history is filled with epic celebrations and unforgettable collapses, the nostalgia of it all making it America’s pastime a long time ago.
The 1974 DeSales baseball team stands as an eternal reminder of the lasting impact the game can have.
In 1912, DeSales High School was created “to provide an academically excellent education in an intimate, faith-filled community.” As the only Catholic high school in our region, thousands of students walked DeSales’ halls during its century of existence. Like any other school, hundreds of superb athletes, many of them baseball players, wore the Saints’ blue and gold.
The baseball program at DeSales began in its early years. The Saints played teams such as Waterloo, Dundee, Naples and Red Jacket but were locked out of sectional play when it came time for the postseason because it was a parochial school, and the New York Public High School Athletic Association did not permit it to compete in a public-school tournament.
According to some of the players, the 1973 Saints baseball squad was the strongest in school history. They went 10-0 in division play and boasted 10 all-conference selections. First-team all-conference players like Mark Liberio, Jim Lavin, Nick Quartaro, and David Jansen — and those at every non-public school like DeSales — weren’t given a chance to win a sectional crown.
That changed in 1974, the year the NYSPHSAA permitted Catholic schools to compete in the postseason.
That spring, the Saints’ roster was brimming with talent yet again.
“I’ll tell you what. It was damn exciting,” Ron Passalacqua said of the feeling heading into the ’74 campaign. “Knowing that we were going to be a part of the playoff system, finally, it was just a goal we talked about. Being the first year we were allowed in motivated us to no end. We wanted to be the first (Catholic team) to win a title. I remember being so excited if we could just get to one sectional game just to get the feeling of how it is to be in the playoffs.”
Gary Taras, a catcher and pitcher, remembers the year well too.
“We really didn’t have a chip on our shoulders,” Taras said about the team’s motivation heading into the ‘74 season. “It was just the opportunity to play. For us, it was more important than the regular schools because bad season or not, they were guaranteed to play (in the sectional tournament).”
Even with an overabundance of motivation in tow, the team still had to perform. Pitcher, leading hitter and utility man Dan Hennessy noted it was as true a team effort as conceivable.
“1974 season was a season of everybody doing what they had to do when they needed to do it,” Hennessy stated. “We filled in. I caught when Gary pitched. When Dave Rickey pitched, I moved to center field. We all did what we had to do to make the team work, and we just had a kind of mindset. We knew each other so well.”
The Saints wasted no time making their mark. They opened the 1974 campaign with five consecutive wins, only one of which was close.
It began with a 14-2 thrashing of Honeoye Falls-Lima. The Saints registered 13 hits, three off the bat of John Serafine who drove in four runs. Hennessy pitched a complete game, allowing 7 hits and 2 runs. He also went 3-for-5 at the plate with two runs scored.
“That was when I felt the presence of my teammates being great,” Hennessy began. “Being on the mound and knowing that whatever you do, (teammates) are going to back you up. When we won that first game, I just felt like, ‘This is where we’re going with this.’ It set a tone.”
In the next four games, the Saints poured on the runs, beating Naples 10-2, Dundee 10-2, South Seneca 13-1 and HF-L again, this time 3-2. It was not uncommon for the Saints to score five or more runs in an inning.
“We had awesome pitching,” Passalacqua said of the first thing that came to mind about the first five games. “Dan Murphy was — Oh, my God, he was so good. He was a junior and we were seniors, but he fit right in. He had one of those rubber arms. He could pitch a complete game on Monday and come back on Thursday and pitch a complete game … He was just unhittable at times.
“Bob Davie was a great coach. He kept us in tune, kept us in line, but once the season started, we were so eager. We had such good players, and we all played together for all those years.”
The Saints might have gone undefeated had it not been for a Victor squad that boasted four Wayne-Finger Lakes all-stars. In the sixth game of the season, Victor needed 11 innings to best DeSales 9-8 despite Rickey’s two hits and three runs scored.
“That game that we lost to Victor, I remember,” Hennessy said. “Murph started and I came in as relief.
“And Murph, God rest his soul, when I get to Heaven that is one of the things I am going to talk to Murph about, putting me on the spot there ... I came in with bases loaded in the 10th inning and got the loss,” Hennessy added with a laugh.
The Saints rebounded to take their final four regular-season encounters. Included in that streak was an impressive 5-3 extra-inning win over powerhouse Red Jacket, which, like Victor, had four W-FL all-stars.
After dispensing Red Jacket, Dundee and South Seneca for a second time each, and posting a 4-3 revenge triumph over Victor, the Saints closed out their regular season with an 9-1 record, scoring 73 runs and allowing 27.
A successful regular season was nothing new for the Saints, though. What was different was that his group of DeSales players would get a chance to create postseason memories.
A Class B first-round matchup pitted the Saints against Livonia. Interestingly, the opponent’s head coach, Gene Baker, happened to be the tournament’s director.
With the score tied 1-1 in the third inning, Passalacqua and Taras singled. With two outs, Serafine notched a single up the middle. Livonia’s center fielder committed an error, allowing Passalacqua and Taras to round the bases.
Murphy took care of business from there, holding Livonia mostly in check in a 3-2 victory.
“It was euphoria,” Passalacqua remembered. “We were so happy to get that first sectional win. That was our goal from the beginning: to get to the playoffs and win a sectional game. To beat a powerful team like Livonia … we were just so excited. I can remember that feeling. It was just awesome.”
“It was a relief to get that win,” Taras added. “This Livonia kid hit a home run on top of the school. I mean he just blasted that ball and made it a close game. But Murphy was a solid pitcher. He could really move the ball around and had good hard stuff and soft stuff.”
After a narrow but confident victory, the Saints traveled to Dansville, where Holley awaited them in the semifinals.
Passalacqua scored the game’s first run. However, Holley struck for two runs in the home first, then combined four singles, two doubles and an error to erupt for six second-inning markers.
Hennessy was the starting pitcher.
“I remember I was pitching a lot, more than usual,” Hennessy said about the games leading up to the semifinal. “When you’ve got Dave Rickey and Gary Taras coming up to the plate, the consistency of the hitting and the fielding, it was just really a matter of when Holley would break down or give up, and then we’d take the lead. It was more like a marathon, even when we were losing.”
A run from second baseman Lou Quethera in the third gave the Saints a flicker of hope.
With six outs left in their season, the Saints staged one of those comebacks that define a program.
“It really didn’t enter my mind that we would lose,” Hennessy said.
Down 8-2 in the sixth, right fielder Elmer Sroka ignited the DeSales rally with a leadoff single. Serafine and Don Graham followed with four-pitch walks. Third baseman John Bucklin drove in Graham with an RBI single. Despite Serafine being tagged out at third, Quethera and Passalacqua smacked back-to-back singles in front of Rickey’s RBI double. Taras went down on strikes and Hennessy flew out to right, but DeSales had whittled the deficit to 8-7.
Holley had a chance to put the game away in the next inning.
Following a popout to begin the inning, Holley’s pitcher tried to stretch a double into a triple. A textbook relay from left fielder Graham to shortstop Passalacqua to third baseman Bucklin allowed the latter to tag the runner out at third.
“I do! I do! That was so exciting,” Passalacqua exclaimed when asked if he remembered that relay. “That was a turning point in the game. Donny threw a perfect throw to me. I had to make a good throw to third base. We got him by a full step. It was unbelievable.
“That was like, ‘OK, we got them.’ ”
Following a Sroka strikeout to lead off the seventh, Serafine roped a triple to put the tying run 90 feet from home plate. Following a walk to Graham, a middle infield mixup allowed Serafine and Graham both to score, giving the Saints the lead.
Murphy escaped trouble in the bottom of the seventh. Following a one-out walk, Murphy gathered himself and struck out the next batter. Holley’s catcher followed with a single. Murphy refused to flinch, coaxing a ground ball to Bucklin at third base. Bucklin whipped the ball across the diamond to Serafine for the final out, sending the Saints to the Class B championship game.
“To me it’s fate. It was fate,” Passalacqua said. “It was meant to be.”
“We knew we should come back. We were cocky,” Taras said with a laugh. “We thought we could beat everyone that year.”
The final game of that ’74 season immortalized the Saints. Murphy took the ball; after allowing a bases-loaded triple, he retired the next 16 batters he faced. He was just about perfect, nearly achieving an immaculate sixth-inning, striking out the side on 10 pitches. In the final inning, Murphy needed just seven pitches to record three outs and give DeSales the first sectional title for a parochial school in New York state history.
Murphy finished with 13 strikeouts in the Saints’ 6-3 triumph over Oakfield-Alabama, allowing only the early triple.
The 1974 Saints were inducted into the Geneva Sports Hall of Fame five years ago. Nearly every single member of that group attended the ceremony.
Here is how Passalacqua summarized the end to DeSales’ unforgettable 12-1 campaign in ’74:
“A small Catholic high school competing against all larger public high schools in Class B high school baseball. A daunting task for any group of students in any sport. But this group was special in so many ways, including dedication, pride, unselfishness and a love for the sport.
“To be part of history as the first Catholic high school in New York State to win a Class B baseball sectional championship is, to this day (46 years later), still exciting and rewarding. That year, 1974, was the first year that Catholic schools were allowed into the sectional tournament. I believe that we would have capture the sectional championship a year earlier (or maybe even two years earlier), as we had even more talented players on the previous teams. Our never-give-up attitude allowed us to win games in 1974, including several come-from-behind, one-run ball games.
“The experience of 1974 allowed me to carry on the lessons to a 30-year coaching career for DeSales High School baseball! I am blessed to have won sectional baseball championships as a player, an assistant coach and a head coach. A special year was in the year 2000, as an assistant coach to Peter French, when Chris O’Donnell knocked in my son, Michael, with the winning run in the last inning. That image captured by the Finger Lakes Times won the newspaper an award.
“Memories that will carry into eternity!”