By RUSSELL JONES
PITTSFORD — In the fall of 1961, the high schools in Brandon and Pittsford merged to form Otter Valley Union high school. Prior to that merger, both schools fielded athletic teams. Throughout that long history at Pittsford High School, they had never had a state championship in any sport.
Then came the winter 1960-61 basketball team. They were good, and it was the school’s last hope to bring home a trophy before the upcoming merger that next fall.
The team that took the court for Pittsford had played together for six or seven years. They experienced some success on the soccer field and were ready to get their senior year of basketball underway. Mark Mooney, who went on to be a coach and teacher at Middlebury High School for 42 years, was on that team.
“We, as seniors, told coach Bob Sherrill we were anxious to get basketball started,” said Mooney, one of the co-captains of the 1961 team. “We thought we’d be very competitive because we lost in the Southern Vermont championship tournament to St. Michael’s from Brattleboro our junior year. We had a desire to redeem ourselves for that loss.”
In a rousing pre-season pep talk, Coach Bob Sharrow had told the team they had the ability to redeem themselves for the prior year’s loss, which Mooney remembered “Put a fire in our belly. We started that season with a hope that we would be in the hunt.”
Although Pittsford had fielded some really good basketball and baseball teams previously, none were ever able to make it over the hump and win it all. The 1949 basketball team is the only team to have made it to the state finals, where they lost to Plainfield.
Even as good a shot as they thought they had, in 1961 Proctor was the favorite to win the Marble Valley League and Mooney said sports writers at the time did not even consider the Pittsford team as having a chance.
Even before the season started, the team was forced to make moves. The gym — at what is now Lothrop Elementary — was declared too small for high school games in the late 1940s. The team played in the gym at Barstow from the 1949 through the 1960 season, but in 1961 that agreement had expired.
“We didn’t have a gym our senior year,” said Mooney. “So the town made arrangements to play in Proctor. There was no such thing as a home gym for us that season.”
The ’61 Panthers had to practice at any facility they could. They held practice in the Lothrop gym, and in Barstow, the Rutland Armory, and at Proctor. They played all their home games at Proctor, as well.
“It didn’t seem to be a factor, but it was interesting,” said Mooney.
Not having an actual home court was not the only setback the players experienced.
By the time the season started in early January, all five of the starters for the Panther team had a parent who had died. Mooney lost his mother to cancer several years before the ’61 season. Nelson Chapman lost his mother in grade school, and Jack O’Flaherty lost his father to a heart attack in fifth grade.
“We were all brought together by some early sadness in our lives,” O’Flaherty said. “We found great joy in playing together.”
Jim Conway lost his dad the year before in the team’s junior season, but the most tragic of their losses was Charlie Patch’s father who was killed in an accident right before school started their senior season in the fall of 1960.
“We all kind of rallied around Charlie because he was thinking of quitting school to go work,” Mooney said. “He had just lost his dad and it was a really sad situation.”
According to Mooney, that bond of dealing with loss pulled the team together.
“I think it might have caused us to be a kind of band of brothers,” Mooney said. “It may have been a factor that helped us support each other, pushed us to compete harder.”
The Panthers did pull together that season, finishing 21-2. In those days, a Southern Vermont champion was crowned, and that team played the Northern Vermont champion for the state title.
The Panthers met Wallingford for the first game of the Southern Vermont tournament. Wallingford had been one of only two teams to beat them in the regular season, but Pittsford beat them in the tournament and then went on to play Proctor for the Southern Vermont championship.
“One of the biggest thrills of that season,” Mooney said, “was that we got to beat Proctor three times. Twice on their court and once in the Southern Vermont tournament.”
The ’61 Panthers were crowned the Southern Vermont champs and went on to face the same town that had defeated the only Pittsford team to make a final previously, Marshfield-Plainfield — for the state championship.
“We beat them handily,” Mooney recalled. “I still remember the score, 49-32.”
Mooney said the key to their run was their defense. They held teams to an average of about 33 points a game, while their lead scorer, Charlie Patch, averaged 20 points a game.
“We had Charlie and then the rest of us,” Mooney said. “One of us would score six to 15 points a night to go along with Charlie’s points, and our defense was just tough. It kept us in several games, and most of our games were pretty closely contested. We only had about a half dozen where we won by 10 or more.”
Mooney said they were not nervous going into the final game.
“We were confident. All season we were a confident team. It all came together for a pretty special season. Our success was clearly in part due to a supportive community and especially coaches we had along the way, from grade school to varsity.”
To honor the history of that team and encourage interest in the heritage of the small towns that make up Otter Valley Union, the Brandon Recreation department and the school are teaming up to put on what they are calling The 1961 Night.
The OV varsity girls and boys will be donning ‘throwback’ jerseys and playing as these two high schools.
The girls will be playing as the Brandon Bison as they defend home court against the Proctor Phantoms on Feb. 4. The boys will play as the Pittsford Panthers against rival Mill River on Feb. 15.
Fans should get there early for both games as commemorative pins for each team will be handed out to the first 100 people through the door, courtesy of the Brandon Museum at the Stephen A. Douglas Birthplace and the Pittsford Historical Society.
The Pittsford Panthers 1961 Class M Boys Championship memorabilia will be on display and commemorative t-shirts will be for sale. Former athletes and students from the high schools have been invited back and athletes from each will be honored at half time at both games.