THIS + THAT: Black River Presidents basketball history

“Joslyn, Parino, Howarth, Pierce, Goodell. Yonder lie the Presidents and we are doing well.”

You have likely lived close to a full life if you quickly recognize the meaning of those words. The slogan was shouted with enthusiasm by Black River basketball fans who were cheering their team throughout the 1956 season on their way to an eventual state championship match-up with Essex in Middlebury when the Black River Presidents would capture the school’s second Division II basketball state title.

The days were different back then.

Earl Washburn told me, “Back then, every basketball game was an event in town. The games use to be played at the town hall, and everyone came. Ludlow was truly a basketball town.”

Black River Presidents 1959-60. Photo provided.

From 1955 through 1962, Black River was in five Division II championship games in eight years. And if those numbers don’t impress you, how about the news that the Presidents of that day were scrimmaging, beating, and holding their own, against the Rutland, Bennington, Bellows Falls, Springfield, Hartford, and Windsor schools of the time.

Officially, Black River has won four state titles. They have competed in 11 title games. Two of their titles are in Division II.

I feel lucky that I saw a number of outstanding Black River teams play during the years they advanced to the Final Four. The school captured state titles in 1938, 1956, 1974, and 1987. The town also claims a title in 1942. The official Vermont title records do not show that championship. The state did not hold an official tournament in either 1942 or 1943 because of the war.

The teams that stand out to me were the group that dazzled fans at the annual Southern Tournament held in Springfield each February from 1958 through 1962. There may have been no titles during that stretch, but there were five straight Final Four appearances – the longest streak in school history – and this was a special period in the history of the school program even without a crown. This is the group I remember the best. I can also say without reservation they were the best teams I was lucky enough to see in President history.

Those years also corresponded with the five-year coaching career of Glen Thurber who came by way of Bennington. These were his only five years at the helm.

My two favorite Black River players of all time were Bruce Stryhas and Ray Libuda. There were several others who played well for the Presidents, but these two came along when I was very young and impressionable. They shined time and time again. More than 50 years later, I’m still impressed.

Stryhas, who graduated in 1962, is listed first because he was part of four of those Final Four teams. I anoint him The President. Libuda is my Vice President because he was a standout on three of those teams.

Washburn has followed the sport in Ludlow as closely as anyone over the years. He has been a player, spectator, and coach all along the way. He graduated with Stryhas but was not a part of the team his senior year due to an unfortunate injury away from the sport.

He told me he believed, “Stryhas was one of the premier basketball players in Vermont for three years.” He also pointed out that this group of Presidents was a very athletically talented group. “Unfortunately we didn’t win a basketball championship, but we won three baseball championships during those years,” he said. Wow! Ludlow must have been a baseball town too.

Washburn went on, “During that period from ‘59 to ‘62, we didn’t suffer a loss to a Division I team in Vermont. Some of the games were scrimmages, but we played a number of teams and none of them beat us.” Many of the teams were local rivals but then there was also Spaulding of Barre, who won the Division I title one year, in which Black River defeated them in a regular season game. Spaulding also won a game in Boston Garden in the New England Tournament that year.

Washburn said, “That was a victory you remember. They had great players and Black River beat them.” That was during a stretch in the early 60s, when both Bellows Falls and Springfield dominated Division I in southern Vermont. From 1961 through 1964, those two schools took turns advancing to meet Black River in the finals and falling short.

Black River may not have fallen to any Vermont Division I teams during that time, but those Presidents did get plenty of recognition in a tough one point loss to North Adams, Mass. It is very clear by the schedule Thurber set up, he wanted to challenge his players; it is also clear that they responded to the challenge.

Back quickly to the narrow defeat to North Adams. The Bay State team prevailed 53-52, but a newspaper clipping from that game will resonate throughout Ludlow for the rest of time. A writer reported, “We love our Mark and always will, but Stryhas was the best player on the floor in this game.”

Just so you know, Mark Belanger was one heck of an athlete. He played shortstop for the Baltimore Orioles on some really good teams.

Back to the 1956 championship team. They controlled Essex 78-49 in the title game after tumbling Burr & Burton and Fair Haven along the way. Dick Joslyn, Tom Parino, Brad Howarth, Charlie Pierce, and Goody Goodell were the names from the cheer. They were the cornerstones that brought the last Division II title to Black River’s case. Many of the same players had also been a part of the 1955 team, which was the third President team ever to reach the finals where they lost to Peoples Academy, 78-42.

I have no specific information about the Presidents’ championship team in 1938 other than I know they won the Division II title over Waterbury, 26-19. The Presidents had advanced to the title game for the first time in school history in 1935 and fell to Orleans, 32-16.

In 1958, Black River fell in the Southern Vermont Championship game 52-40 to Burr & Burton. Libuda was a sophomore at the time.

My dynamic duo atop the President Rank chart, Libuda and Stryhas, became teammates in 1959, and that team reached the finals and suffered a stinging 44-38 loss to Bradford. George Huntington, who would later see many of his offspring see athletic success at Oxbow, totaled more than half his team’s points in the contest for the winners.

The next year, Libuda’s senior year, saw the height and the valley of the group. The Presidents controlled Bob Dailey’s Woodstock Wasps for a half in the Southern Finals. They took a 20-point lead into the locker room at halftime, before falling short at the end, 49-47. Washburn recalled, “Most everyone has never gotten over that one.” Washburn added, “That’s why we play the games.” He’s right.

The remaining Presidents would get their Woodstock revenge the next year in the Southern Tourney, downing the Wasps, 54-51. My bet is they were the hungrier team in that one. They also disposed of Bradford in that year’s southern get together, 66-44. Then 1960 would be the first of two years Black River would meet Winooski in the finals of the Division II Vermont State tourney.

Back to back close losses, 45-42 and 54-48, would prevent the Black River team from capturing that much anticipated day in the sun, but what a legacy they left anyway. In their final Southern Tournament championship, they captured two more games with meaning. First, they blasted Woodstock 53-31 in the southern semis before defeating rival Chester 73-40 in the Southern Title encounter.

Four more title games and two more titles would come Black River’s way. The Presidents would fall to Blue Mountain 63-44 in the 1985 Division IV title contest and in 2001 Black River reached their most recent title appearance and dropped a 75-45 contest to Poultney.

Black River appeared on the big stage in 1974, and they ran away in a Division III title championship victory with a 58-34 conquest over Chelsea on the big floor of Patrick Gym at the University of Vermont. I saw that team in action a number of times, and I clearly remember the exploits of Eugene Hyjek, Paul Stuart, Chuck Clark, Richie Gainard, and Roger Danyew among others.

Then finally, in 1987, the Presidents were able to pay Blue Mountain back when they captured the championship with a 79-73 triumph over the Bucks. The names of Matt Warnecke, Greg Witalec, Peter Libuda, Sean Trainor, Wayne Call, and Howie Paul led the way that time around.

Black River will soon close the record books for good. The man I annointed President of the Ages has my last words on the history of the game in Ludlow.

Bruce Stryhas told me, “I was lucky to be a part of a group of us who grew up in Ludlow and was part of a community who took us under their wings and dedicated their time to make sure we had the facilities of a gym or a ballfield to play on and taught us the skills and the way to play the games. The whole town was family back then. Our programs were always well funded and supported in every way.”

Stryhas said many times during our conversation that, “Basketball is a team game and we were a team. We always went out as a team. Some guys scored baskets, some guys rebounded, gave out assists, or played defense, but we were a team.”

When the interview was near complete, I asked Stryhas if there is anything else and he said, “Yes. I don’t ever remember playing a game at home with an empty seat.”

Hopefully, some of these teams can be recognized in Black River’s final season of basketball. And that the community will fill many of the seats in the final go-round.

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