Designated Hitter: St. Joseph boys basketball leaves quite a history

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PITTSFIELD — They shut the lights off at the Boys & Girls Club for high school basketball Friday night. It might not be for the last time, but it did bring an era to an end.

When coach Joe Bennett's St. Joseph Crusaders took the court against Monument Mountain, it marked the final regular season home game for the team from Maplewood Ave. And when they locked the doors for the final time, those doors also locked away quite a basketball history.

"It's unbelievable. I've been playing the lottery, hoping to hit the Powerball and the MegaMillions, so I could bail the school out," said former St. Joe coach Paul Procopio.

Procopio was one in a long line of great St. Joe coaches, but the only one in two Halls of Fame. He was inducted into the Massachusetts Basketball Association's Hall of Fame in 1998, and earned induction into the New England Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015.

"There was nothing like it" said Procopio, when I asked him about Friday nights at the Boys & Girls Club. "Especially when I was playing."

Procopio played his high school basketball at St. Joseph, then went on to play collegiately at American International College, where he was a teammate of UConn Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun. Procopio went on to coach 26 years at St. Joe, 24 as the head coach.

"I would say when I had some great teams in the '80s, they used to pack the house," he said, during a conversation from his winter home in Florida. Those nights, the Club was the Friday night place to be.

If you thought parking is a challenge there now, imagine what it was like with full houses in the gym.

In three decades as a Crusader, I asked Procopio if he was more nervous playing on those Friday night games, or coaching in them.

"When I was playing, Tuesdays we played the South and Fridays we played the North," said Procopio. "The North was like the NFL. When we played on Friday nights, I knew we were going to be in for a battle. I knew that when we were playing, too. That's how I always approached it as a player and as a coach."

In the some four decades since the MIAA Western Massachusetts basketball tournaments began playing in the current three or four divisional format, the Crusaders knew success like very few teams in Western Mass., and certainly most teams in Berkshire County.

By my count, the Crusaders won nine Western Mass. Division III titles dating back to 1974. They also lost seven times. Two of those nine Western Mass. titles led to state championships. In 1988, the Crusaders beat Cohasset, and then defeated Lynn Tech in 2001.

The 2001 state champion was coached by Bill DiNicola, with current Taconic coach Bill Heaphy on the bench. The 1988 championship team was led by Procopio, with assistants Red Pleau and Matt Stracuzzi.

Procopio referenced the 1980s. He took teams to the Western Mass. championship game in 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985 and 1988. The Crusaders won four of those titles.

And then there were the classic finals battles in 1994 and 1995 against Pioneer Valley. Those were games you needed to see. Perry Messer's clubs even included a young Adam Harrington. But in '94 and '95, the Crusaders came home with the titles.

Procopio's teams produced countless small college basketball players and one, Mickey Mahoney, played at Division I Siena.

Procopio's team was always the team everyone wanted to beat. When I first arrived in the area, Taconic had a quality club, along with Drury and Wahconah. Those games, especially the Procopio-Ed Ladley games with Wahconah, were must-see games. They were always great fun to broadcast.

"I felt we were the villain," said Procopio. "We always had the target on our back and everybody wanted to beat us."

While many good coaches cycled through the school on Maplewood Avenue, Procopio was quick to remind me — and by extension, you — that it wasn't all about the coaching.

"I had great talent," he said. "You don't win without great talent."

The final season of St. Joseph basketball will end within the month. It will take with it a museum full of memories.

Reach sports columnist Howard Herman at 413-496-6253, hherman@berkshireeagle.com or @howardherman.


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