By Garry Brown
I covered high school sports for The Springfield Union and Sunday Republican for 14 years, and, without question, my time writing about Smith Academy's Fabulous Falcons was the most memorable and enjoyable part of that.
What a story. A tiny school in Hampshire County puts together two teams that travel to the big city (Springfield) and win the Western Massachusetts Interscholastic Basketball Tournament two years in a row. No school had won the tournament back to back until those Smithies did it. And no small school had ever won it until they came along in March of 1960. "Hoosiers" all over again.
That would be Bob "Jingles" Kovalski, a 6-foot-6 (some say he actually was 6-foot-8) junior whose scoring feats began attracting the region's attention. Ten games into the season, he was averaging 29.2 points per game. Then came a 40-point game against arch-rival Hopkins Academy and a 50-point game against St. Michael's of Northampton. By then, Smith was blowing out Hampshire League rivals, twice scoring 101 points.
The Western Mass. Tournament committee took careful note of Smith's 19-1 record and the scoring of "Jingles," and gave them a berth in a field that also featured defending champion Holyoke, city champ Cathedral, Berkshire County's top two, Adams and Pittsfield, and Worcester County king St. John's of Shrewsbury.
Meanwhile, coach John Skarzynski was preparing his little powerhouse for action on the big stage at the Springfield College Field House, site of the WMass tourney since 1948. He arranged for scrimmages at Deerfield Academy and Longmeadow High School so his team could get used to playing on big floors (as opposed to its little home court at the Hatfield Town Hall).
The Smithies adjusted well. They soon realized that they were even better on a big floor, and were ready for the Field House.
They drew Adams as their quarterfinal foe, and went into the game a bit jittery. They quickly fell behind 10-0, and I wondered – are they out of their league? Not so. They scored the next four points, and it became a duel to the wire. Smith won 44-43, leaving the capacity crowd emotionally drained.
If that was a cliff-hanger, the next one was even more so. Facing a St. John's team that figured to be a big favorite, Smith again took it to the wire, winning 59-58 to reach the championship round. Another capacity crowd - including just about everybody from Hatfield - saw that one.
The 1960 final actually was the easiest of Smith's tournament games. Matched against a Pittsfield team that featured super soph Mark Belanger, Smith maintained control throughout and won 65-57.
Kovalski made most of the key points, but he also had a dedicated supporting cast that included Ken Kulesza, Tony Symanski, Jim Southard, Ed Malinowski, Jim Majeskey and Billy Celatka.
Although Smith lost a lot of seniors to graduation, the 1960-61 team still had Kovalski. New coach Max Moczulewski built another top team around "Jingles," with Billy Celatka, Terry Michaloski, Marty Wilkes, Charlie Symanski and Bernie Pelis playing key roles.
Smith went 19-0, with Kovalski having a 63-point game that set a new record for a Western Mass. player. The Falcons went back to the tournament, and pounded Lee 78-37 in the quarterfinals. From there, they knocked off Worcester South 49-43, then went back to their heart-stopping mode in a 50-48 championship victory over Worcester Commerce.
The scoring of Kovalski was crucial, but so was the dogged defense that Celatka and his mates played to stifle W-Commerce's top player, Paul Ranucci.
Smith ended each of those seasons with a loss in the New England Tournament, but their WMass tourney play endeared them to the region's rabid basketball fans and earned them a special place in the Connecticut Valley's basketball history.
Yes, they were "Hoosiers" all over again - twice.
Award-winning sportswriter Garry Brown joined The Springfield Union's sports department in 1950 at the age of 18, and went on to a 59-year sportswriting career, all of it as an employee of The Springfield Newspapers. In 1973 he started writing a weekly "Hitting to All Fields" column, which has become his signature work, still going 47 years later. Brown retired from full-time work in 2009, but continues to contribute columns and feature articles to The Springfield Republican as a freelance writer. His book, Garry Brown's Greatest Hits, was published in 2016 and includes a chapter about Smith Academy's championship teams of 1960 and ’61.