Salem Cagers Were, Like 2015 Danvers Falcons, Perfect in 1980, ’90 and ’95

The historic season recently completed by the Danvers High boys’ basketball team (27-0, Div. 2 state title, third state title in four years) brought back memories for this hoops chronicler of three state champion teams from Salem High, all of whom went undefeated as well. A brief reflection of each team follows.

Thirty-five years ago Marie Grant and the Tim Shea-coached Salem High girls’ basketball team won their first state championship, posting the only perfect record in program history. That was 1980. Happy 35th anniversary.

Ten years later the Salem boys’ cagers got into the act, winning their first state title since 1926 behind the eclectic coaching of Jack O’Brien and the brilliant play of future NBA standout Rick Brunson. Happy 25th anniversary.

Then five years later, the Witches’ boys, after previously going 64 years between state championships (1926-90), pulled off the feat yet again, this time behind the bench leadership of Paul Garrity and the exciting all-around play of mercurial point guard James “Scoonie” Penn. Happy 20th anniversary.

Salem High School has enjoyed outstanding teams on the hardcourt before and since this triple crown achievement. But nothing to compare with what these teams accomplished in a 15-year period. All of which merits a brief look back at each team’s championship season.

The 1980 Salem High Girls (27-0)

Former Salem High standout Tim Shea had returned to his alma mater and in his first year as head coach of the SHS girls, in 1979, directed them to the Division 1 North final, where they lost to Cambridge and its star, Medina Dixon. But 1980 was a different story.

The Lady Witches defeated all challengers in 1979-80, finishing undefeated (27-0) and beating prime rival Newton North both during the season and in the state title game at Bentley College. Shea coached the SHS girls for three seasons, finishing 70-3 collectively.

“Marie was the focal point of our team at both ends of the floor,” Shea recalled. “She and Dixon were the two premier girls players in Greater Boston. Marie could do it all as our center. At six feet tall she was a dominant rebounder and defender with an unstoppable semi-hook. She was a good passer and ball-handler.

“She had some terrific teammates, too,” Shea added. “Sue Richard, like Marie, was All-Boston Globe. Then there was Doreen Thibeault, Alison Daley, Holly Brennan and Evie Oquendo among our other key players.

“They were a cocky group, a proud group who knew what it was like to win, but also to lose the big game. They weren’t going to let that happen in 1980.

“I must add,” Shea said, “that the program was thriving before I arrived thanks to the coaching of Sandy Provost. I just kept the ball rolling and we put it all together that one year.”

“We had a good team that year alright,” remembers Grant, who lives in Freeport, Maine and works for Wayside Publishing following a 20-year career in social work in the New York Catskills. “But it still surprises me after all these years that we went undefeated. How hard is that? But we had a great coach and the players all fit nicely with each other.

“People forget we came close the year before and the year after,” Grant added. “We list the Division 1 North final both times. All those years we worked and played hard, had a lot of fun and best of all created wonderful memories those years.”

Grant went on to play at Boston University and Boston College as Salem’s first scholarship player.

Shea went on to coach the Salem State women to unprecedented success spanning 30 years, with 24 NCAA appearances, including capturing the 1986 NCAA Division 3 title in their home gym. Shea retires as the Salem State athletic director later this year.

The 1990 Salem Boys (25-0)

A dynamic coach (O’Brien) and a multi-talented player (Brunson) sparked the 1990 boys’ team to the Division 2 state title, the first of six O’Brien would win (five more came from coaching Charlestown).

An ideal supporting cast made it easier for O’Brien and Brunson to carry the Witches to the promised land.

“We had a great motivator in Coach O’Brien,” said starting center Mike Giardi, who had starring roles that year on the 9-1 football team as the quarterback and on the Eastern Mass. title game runnerup baseball team as the ace pitcher, one year after the Witches won the state title with future major league pitcher Jeff Juden.

“O’Brien found a way to drive every single player on that team; to make them the best support to our star they could be. He pushed us all to greatness because many of us had not played much, if at all, the year before. But he moved us around in the early parts of the season until he liked what he saw and stuck with that. Like in my case, I’d been a guard the year before, but coach moved me to center and it worked out fine.”

Giardi and Brunson were joined in the regular rotation by George McDonald, Mike Fritz, Eric Leibowitz, Pedro Jimenez and Tommy Doyle, the current SHS varsity coach, came off the bench.

“All good guys,” Giardi said. “We knew our roles, knew how to play with Rick and we went all the way.”

The most memorable wins in the tournament, Giardi said, came against East Boston, then against Bishop Feehan in the Eastern Mass. final in the old Boston Garden. The state title game win over Gardner in Worcester was not anticlimactic, he added, but even that one could not top the Eastie and Feehan triumphs.

“We had the star and the rest of us were grinders,” Giardi said.

Giardi described Brunson as a well-rounded player who worked hard and never took his God-given talent for granted. “Rick could take over a game and he often did,” Giardi noted.

Brunson, a 6-3 guard/forward for the Witches, went on to an outstanding college career as the Temple point guard, then forged an 11-year NBA playing career and several more years as an NBA assistant coach. Brunson’s son Jalen, a nationally ranked high school senior, has signed a letter of intent to play for Villanova.

Giardi has gone on to exceptional success as well. He was a three-year starting quarterback at Harvard, pitched and was a two-time All-Ivy League shortstop for the Crimson baseball team and played for three years in the minor leagues (Yankees, Astros and Giants systems).

He will mark his 20th season working Harvard football radio broadcasts this fall. He teaches in the Marblehead school system, is head basketball coach and assistant football coach for the Headers and runs summer baseball camps.

The 1995 Salem High Boys (25-0)

 It seems that as soon as Brunson left for the college big time, another wunderkind appeared on the Salem hoop landscape in the form of James “Scoonie” Penn. He was several inches smaller than Brunson, a pure point guard with breathtaking moves to the basket. Like Brunson, he proved to be the Real Deal, his SHS playing career topped off by a spectacular, undefeated senior season.

Penn capped the team’s 20-0 regular season with arguably his finest individual performance, a 38-point effort in which he rallied the Witches to a last-minute victory over rival Peabody.

“I had my moments, but I had some great teammates that year,” Penn, now 38 and a member of the Big Ten network’s television crew, said. “Jamal Camah went on to play at Providence. Frank Gioia, Saul Mateo, Matt Marengi and Phil Downes all were clutch players. I was lucky to have them as my teammates.”

And they were doubly lucky to have Penn as their headline player. “They were such a good group of kids who all got along, all worked hard, all cared for each other, challenged each other, hung out with each other,” says Paul Garrity. “But we would all agree, all these years later, that we were something very special that year because of Scoonie’s star presence and star power on the court. I have never seen a more competitive player, a player who welcomed every challenge to come his way like Scoonie.”

The Witches survived several epic games on the way to the state title, among them the aforementioned Peabody joust, a last-second win in the Division 2 North final over Belmont at UMass-Boston and a tense Eastern Mass. final victory over Milton.

“Great wins all,” said Garrity, who was a dominating 93-22 in five years coaching the Witches and now either watches the Danvers High boys, where son Mark is the varsity assistant to John Walsh, or his daughter Kelsey, the starting guard for the UMass-Dartmouth women. “It was a season that people remember for a lifetime, not just the players and coaches, but the parents and fans, and we had a great following that year.”

“I was confident we could get to the states,” Penn, who lives in Columbus, Ohio, with his family, said. “I remember telling the senior not to buy their class rings in the fall because we were going to win state championship rings in the winter. And we did.

“A lot of positive factors figured into that season. One was the fact Coach Garrity gave me the flexibility to do my own things on the court. I could freelance when I thought the opportunity was there. He wasn’t extremely strict with any of us. He wanted us to be able to express ourselves on the court. It was different, of course, in tight games late. That’s when he’d calm us down, talk us through the situation and we’d get through it just fine.”

Penn stressed that, unlike the perception of some, “I had to work hard, very hard, for whatever I wanted on the court. It was great that I could start for four years, but nothing was given to me. I earned everything I received. I was plenty motivated, too.”

Penn enjoyed a dreamlike playing career after graduating from SHS. He played two years for Jim O’Brien at Boston College, was Big East Rookie of the Year, Big East Tournament MVP as a sophomore when he led the Eagles to the title, followed O’Brien to Ohio State for his final two years, being named Big Ten Player of the Year as a junior, MVP of the NCAA South Regional final his senior year when he led the Buckeyes to the Final Four. He also was a two-time second team All-American.

He played 11 years professionally in Europe before returning to Columbus, where he and wife Niki are raising four children while Scoonie does TV and also works in sales and serves as a motivational speaker.


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