The Cesare and Volpe Eras 1956-1970
The 1956-1957 season saw the Royals with their second new coach in two seasons, Fiore Cesare. The new coach, however, could not change Scranton's luck. The team opened with three consecutive defeats, which the Aquinas attributed to poor performance in the foul shooting department. Cesare stated that the team did not have the facilities where they could devote time to practicing foul shooting. As usual, the team managed a brief winning streak in the middle of the season and the team finished the season with 9 victories and 14 losses. Ed Kazakavich lead the team in scoring with 473 points.Tom Keefe won the Les Dickman Most Valuable Player award.
The 24 game 1957-1958 season featured a mostly veteran squad for the Royals. But once again the team had a difficult schedule and were significantly shorter than most of their rivals. The Royals opened with a victory against Albright, but then lost five of their next six games. But suddenly the team turned the season around and won 11 games in a row including a convincing victory over Georgetown and an impressive victory over Villanova. The team finished the season with 17 victories and eight defeats, their best record since 1939. The team won their first playoff game in pursuit of the Middle Atlantic States Conference championship but lost to Widener ending the Royal's season. Coach Cesare used seven players regularly, substituting a couple players who had special talents. Ed Kazakavich broke a number of records for the Royals. Among other records, he scored 602 points for the season and scored 56 points in one game against King's. After only two seasons of play he had scored 1075 points and received the Les Dickman award. The Aquinas was finally able to complement the student's school spirit.
Bob Bessoir returned to Scranton as assistant basketball coach for the 1958-1959 season. He was also responsible for coaching the freshman team. Most of the starters were selected by mid-November and Ed Kazakavich was selected by Dell Basketball Magazine as one of the top 10 players in the East. The previous successful season meant that the Aquinas covered the new year in great detail publishing player profiles for the first time. Unfortunately, the season began on a down note with two defeats. The Aquinas attributed the defeats partly to a lack of school spirit, once again, because only 50 students attended the opening home match. But then the Royals scored one of the great victories in team history when they defeated Seton Hall for the first time in 20 years, 61 to 58. The Royals then won five of their next six games. The University radio station broadcast its first basketball game when it covered the Jan. 7 Scranton victory over King's. The most unusual game was a 75 to 74 overtime victory over Gonzaga. The Gonzaga squad featured 7'3" 280 pound Jean LeFebvre who, the Aquinas commented, "proved to be no more than a spectacle at which to gape." Kazakavich sent the game into overtime with a foul shot. But Gonzaga had fouled so many times that they were only able to use four men during overtime and Scranton was able to squeak out a victory. Although the Aquinas does not specify how many students attended the game, 4500 tickets were sold. There were approximately 1200 Scranton students so the general population was also turning out to see the Royals perform. The team continued its winning ways and finished the season with 16 victories and six losses. Unfortunately, a late season defeat by Moravian eliminated the Royals from Middle Atlantic States Conference championship contention. Bessoir's freshman team finished the season with 13 victories and only one defeat, and that defeat was by only one point. Bob Meckwood was awarded the Les Dickman Most Valuable Player award. Kazakavich graduated holding eight University records. He was drafted by the Boston Celtics and the University Student Council proposed retiring his number.
Pete Carlesimo, Director of Athletics, stated that scheduling was the biggest headache that he had each year. And the 1959-1960 25 game basketball schedule was extremely difficult to put together and included an initial seven game series with only one home game and with no more than two back-to-back home games at any time during the season. And once again Coach Cesare noted that his team would be much shorter than most of their opponents and hoped to offset that disadvantage by emphasizing a fast break game. Furthermore, only four veterans were returning. The season would not be a repeat of the previous successful outings. The team struggled all year, particularly after losing captain Bob Meckwood for six games with an ankle injury. The team never got on track and finished the season with 9 victories and 16 defeats.
Only three lettermen returned for the 1960-1961 campaign and Coach Cesare was once again concerned about height. The Aquinas considered the season to be a rebuilding year. By the time the season opened, only two seniors and four juniors were on the 13 man roster, the rest of the team was made up of sophomores. The Royals lost to Villanova 106-72 in the opener and then lost to Muhlenberg in the first home game. The team won the next two games but then began a new losing streak. Although the Aquinas accepted "the old height nemesis" as a reason for the team's poor results, the paper also stated that that was not enough to "excuse the ineptness of the team's play." This unusually critical commentary may have been due to the fact that the article was published in the same Aquinas that reported on the discontinuation of the football program. By mid-season the team had only won three games, at which point the Aquinas' sports editor predicted a dim future for the team. After an eight game losing streak had been snapped by a convincing win over Wilkes, the Aquinas debated whether the Royals should be playing higher ranked opponents like Villanova, Temple, and Hofstra but also whether it was fair for the Royals to take on much smaller schools like Wilkes. The terrible season and the relentless Aquinas criticism continued and the team finished with a five victory and 25 defeat record. The Les Dickman trophy was given to the first sophomore to win the award, Tom Foley. Sophomore Joe Barbuti received an honorable mention for the Catholic College All-American team.
Only two seniors returned for the 1961-1962 campaign and the team would rely on the now experienced sophomores who had learned the game the hard way during the previous dismal season. Since there was no longer a football team to compete for attention, the basketball squad was given heightened attention during the late autumn. A player preview appeared and as even did an article about the team's managers and statisticians. And for the first time the Royals were not at a significant height disadvantage. Nonetheless, the team had a rocky season and lost convincingly to some of their powerhouse opponents like Villanova and Temple. But the team also lost to Muhlenberg as well and were at 500 near the middle of the season. Although the team was struggling they were scoring well and were the top scoring outfit in the Middle Atlantic Conference with an average of 87.4 points per game. One highlight of the season was a 95-90 upset over Susquehanna, the Middle Atlantic Conference leaders. That victory was followed by wins over Elizabethtown and Moravian but the surge came too late to give the Royals a chance at the conference playoffs. The team won six of their last eight games and finished with 12 victories and 12 defeats. Will Witaconis was awarded the Les Dickman award and was also named to the MAC All-Star squad.
The 1962-1963 season started on a negative note with two consecutive away losses to Buffalo and Niagra, both by significant margins. The season got worse with five more defeats interrupted only by a convincing victory over previously undefeated LeMoyne. The team rebounded with victories over Wilkes and Moravian. But those victories kept the team in the running for the MAC title. The Royals managed to win four straight games in the middle of the season and had a 5-0 record in the MAC. Unfortunately, the team then lost their next six before ending the season with a three-game winning streak. Unfortunately, the late surge was not enough to keep the them in contention for the MAC title. The Royals finished the season with 11 victories and 15 defeats. Will Witaconis led the team in scoring and in only two years scored 1129 points. He averaged 28 points per game which placed him number 7 of small college scorers. He also was the first player in University of Scranton history to be named to the AP first team Little All-American squad. Senior George Clum, who was awarded the Les Dickman trophy, put in a solid season consistently scoring in double digits and pulling down an average of 13 rebounds per game.
Only three lettermen returned for the 1963-1964 season, fortunately Witaconis was one of them. Scranton once again lacked height but were hopeful going into the season. The team lost its opening away games against Canisius and LeMoyne because of poor play. But they won the home opener against low ranked Wilkes which gave the team some life and they won two of their four holiday contests. The season continued in a similar manner as the Royals won three of their next six including a home court victory over King's College. The game took three overtimes to conclude and featured a stands clearing fight after a King's student stole the beret from the head of a Scranton cheerleader. The cheerleader went over to the King's stands to retrieve his beret, the King's students attacked him and the Scranton student body rushed over in mass and the fight broke out. The fight was stopped when the police turned off all the lights making it impossible for the fighters to see who they were punching. The team also defeated Susquehanna by a score of 121-65, which was the highest point total the Royals had ever attained, the second-highest being 117 points accumulated against King's in the triple overtime. Although the Royals had a chance at the MAC playoffs, a less than .500 finish left the team out of contention. The Royals finished the season with 12 victories and 14 defeats and were 8-4 in the Middle Atlantic Conference. The high point of the season came when Bill Witaconis broke Ed Kazakavich's all-time scoring mark. He finished his career with 1712 points and the University retired his jersey. Bud Cooper received the Les Dickman award.
The Royals only lost two starters to graduation, Bud Cooper and Bill Witaconis. But probably more important the schedule underwent a significant change. Scranton dropped games against "perennial powerhouses" Lafayette, Niagra, Canisius, and Providence. The team thereby eliminated long road trips and also eliminated teams that Scranton simply could not defeat. The Aquinas noted that some students were planning to boycott the games unless the team started winning immediately. The Aquinas responded that lack of school spirit has traditionally been a reason why the Royals did not fare better. As the season was about to start, coach Fiore Cesare resigned and freshman coach Jack Koniszewski took over the position. Koniszewski had spent four years as the freshman basketball coach. Cesare agreed to help out by scouting the opponents for the rest of the season. The Aquinas summed up the Royals problems by saying that they will have basically the same type of team that they have had for the past six years. "They will have great shooting, a fair defense, and terrible rebounding." The rebounding problem was due to the team's perennial lack of height. The tallest player on the Scranton squad was 6'3" but opening night opponent Villanova had four men 6'7" or taller. The Royals started the season poorly with three victories and five defeats, but fortunately for the Royals the three victories were against MAC opponents and four of the defeats were against nonconference teams. Consequently, the Royals were in decent condition going into the middle of the season. The Royals actually managed to compile a 6-1 MAC record before losing two consecutive conference games which put them out of contention. The team suffered another blow when one of its players, Rhett Jenkins, was declared ineligible because of a deficiency in the number of credits he took in the previous year. Jenkins had transferred to the University in February 1964 and was only able to take two classes. For some reason East Stroudsburg State College challenged his eligibility and the conference required that he sit out the remainder of the season. He continued to practice with the team but the Royals had lost one of its better players. The losing streak continued for the rest of the season with the exception of the finale, against the East Stroudsburg squad that cost the Royals one of its star players. The Royals ended the season with 9 victories and 15 defeats. The Les Dickman Award was given to Jim Dooley. Although the season had ended there was the some controversy with the athletic program. A full-time head coach needed to be appointed and the student body got very upset and staged a mass demonstration when it was announced that Pete Carlesimo had accepted the head coaching position of a professional football team in Scranton but would also continue to carry on his duties at the University. The demonstrators, consisting of approximately 200-300 students marching down Lyndon Street and chanting "We shall overcome," were concerned that Carlesimo would not be able to give the athletic programs enough attention if he also had a full-time coaching position. The University responded that Carlesimo had attained approval from the University and that all parties were confident that he could continue to give the University's athletic programs sufficient attention.
The Royals would be challenged by the loss of five lettermen going into the 1965-1966 season. The team also acquired a new head coach, Nat Volpe. Volpe, considered to be a strict disciplinarian who stressed fundamentals, had been basketball coach and director of athletics at Archbishop Stepinac High School in White Plains NY since 1948. He would also be a full-time, fully professional coach would have the ability to recruit players from out of the area, particularly from the New York City area. The coach was immediately thrust into the limelight with a "rally round Volpe, V-Day" ceremony and expectations that he would be the "saviour of basketball at Scranton." Although the team had lost five lettermen, there were seven sophomores who had played on the winning freshman team trying to take their places. The team started the season by losing to Villanova away and defeating Elizabethtown at home. The Aquinas commented that the team appeared to be "well schooled in the fundamentals" for the first time in many years. But the team then lost two more games before beginning a four-game winning streak which included a 109 to 98 victory over Upsala, followed by a 105 to 74 defeat by Bucknell. The team was losing more games than it was winning but was still in the hunt for the Middle Atlantic Conference at midseason. The coach tried different strategies to keep his team competitive. Against Wilkes, for instance, he started the second string and had them run the opponent up-and-down the court in an effort to tire them out. He then put a fresh first-team onto the court in the second half and took the team from a one point deficit to an 18 point victory. The star of the team at midseason was Everett "Rhett" Jenkins, who had been regularly scoring in the high 20s and was selected as one of the All-East players of the week for three games. And although Jenkins continued to score well the team continued to lose more than it won, including a critical conference game against Moravian where Coach Volpe was called with a technical foul that resulted in Moravian eliminating the Royal lead and then staying ahead for the last couple minutes. The team then lost four of its last five games and finished with 10 victories and 14 defeats. Senior Tom Yucka received the Les Dickman award and Jenkins made the Middle Atlantic Conference first-team. Coach Volpe commented that it had been "a year for me to get acquainted with the material at hand; it was a year for me to bring in my theories of basketball to a group that was totally unfamiliar with them."
Workouts for the 1966-1967 season began with four returning lettermen and six out of eight front-line performers from the previous season. Rhett Jenkins was named Captain. Among the returning lettermen was Charlie Witaconis, brother of former Royal star Bill Witaconis. Sports columnist Alan Mazzei wrote that Coach Volpe, the five foot tall "little tyrant" had toughened his players through repeated drills. The straight talking Volpe stated "See what those drills are doing to them. They're becoming animals." The "animals" started the season in a convincing fashion with two double-digit victories over Wilkes College and Elizabethtown with Rhett Jenkins and Charlie Witaconis leading the scoring. The team lost its next game to Temple but then went on a six game winning streak. The streak included in some impressive victories such as a 28 point victory over LeMoyne, a 31 point victory over Delaware Valley, and a 24 point victory over Juniata. Jenkins was averaging 30 points a game for a few games. Charlie Witaconis was leading the team in rebounds and also scoring in double digits. The winning streak ended with a 92-86 loss to King's followed by a victory against Drexel and then a loss to Albright. The team won and lost a couple more, and looked "sluggish" in their victories. But then the Royals managed a seven-game winning streak going into the Mid-Atlantic Conference playoffs. Their victory over Moravian on February 16 was particularly sweet. First of all the team won by 27 points, they clinched a spot in the MAC playoffs, and Rhett Jenkins became the six player in Scranton history to score 1000 points. The team finished the regular season with 17 victories and five losses and won the MAC with a 14-1 record. The team met Wagner in the playoffs. The Royals had just recently defeated Wagner 101-86 but the playoff would not be a repeat. Unfortunately for the Royals, lead scorer Rhett Jenkins had been hospitalized prior to the game and Bobbie Moylan, another offensive star, was also ill. The two offensive stars played but were ineffective. Nonetheless, the Royals managed to hold the lead at the half. But the Royals had a height disadvantage and Witaconis and Bob McGrath both started the second half in foul trouble. Wagner slowly pulled in front and won the game 91-80. It was, however, the most successful season the basketball team achieved in 35 years. Rhett Jenkins was selected to the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference Division II All-Star team with a 23.9 points per game average which ranked him 45th in the nation. Unfortunately, the Royals would have to replace the graduating Jenkins. Jenkins received the Les Dickman Award and also received the Pete Fidati trophy, an annual elective gift by the student body to the outstanding senior athlete. Charlie Witaconis was selected as the outstanding center in the Middle Atlantic Conference Northern Division.
The Royals entered the 1967-1968 season with only Rhett Jenkins missing from the lineup due to graduation. Coach Volpe said "Rhett is definitely the most difficult man to replace from last year's ball club. He was a great shooter and he did a good job off the boards." Volpe also considered Charlie Witaconis to be the "key man because he is an excellent rebounder and scorer. He has been working hard not to commit the fouls he committed the last two years."
The team would also be treated to its first on-campus full-time basketball court in a newly constructed gymnasium, which would be named the Long Center after former University president Father John J. Long. The team opened its season at its old home court at the Catholic Youth Center with a victory over Loyola and a conference victory over Susquehanna before losing to LeMoyne on the road. A win one/lose one stretch ensued and at midseason the Royals were at 500. They had won three home games in a row defeating Lycoming, King's, and Upsala in the new Long Center. Volpe stated that the problem was "We don't have a leader. We have four captains, but not one of them has taken over to inspire the whole group. To sum up the first half of the season, our losses can be attributed to just this--the inability of a big man to score the consistent 25 points that are needed to win. The reason for last year's success was that we had Rhett Jenkins, who could always produce 25 points." The team lost two more games, to Moravian and Lafayette, before winning six of their next seven games including eight straight home victories in the Long Center. The Royals ended the season on a disappointing note with a 28 point loss to Seton Hall and a failure to make the MAC playoffs. Charlie Witaconis came within 27 points of the 1000 career point market and shared the Les Dickman Award with Bob McGrath.
Coach Volpe instituted a tough conditioning regimen for his 1968-1969 squad. The team lost four starters (only Ed Moroz returned from the starting lineup) but did have some returning veterans and promising freshman. Volpe planned a running offense because the team did not have great size. He also stated: "Overall, this is a team that if it really gels can be outstanding." The team started with a victory over Moravian at home but then lost two away games to Philadelphia Textile and Loyola before putting together a three-game winning streak going into the holiday season. The University hosted its First Annual Basketball Tournament at the Long Center on Dec. 27 and 28. Boston University, Colgate, and Lehigh University were participating along with the Royals. The Royals took top honors by first beating Lehigh and then squeaking past Colgate. Gene "The Machine" Mumford quickly emerged as the star of the team winning the MVP award at the tournament. With the exception of a loss to King's, the Royals then won their next 13 games before losing to Elizabethtown in the season finale. But by that point the team had secured second place in the conference and was going to the playoffs. Mumford regularly scored in the 20s, but other players like Roger Yost and Bill McCue were averaging in the double digits as well. Perhaps the most dramatic victory was an overtime triumph over Seton Hall, the first time the Royals defeated The Pirates in 11 years, when John Scott scored his only basket to win the game with 14 seconds left. This victory was immediately followed by another overtime triumph, this time over Wagner. The biggest controversy of the season occurred off court. A February 8 game against King's College resulted in a "wild melee" between students from King's and Scranton police. The game was sold out but approximately 60 King's students had walked 25 miles from Wilkes-Barre to see the game. Most of the students had tickets but University athletic director David Ocorr had apparently allowed the game to be substantially oversold and, consequently, not only the King's students but also University of Scranton students and even season ticket holders were turned away. There had been some skirmishes between the University students and the police but the King's students are quite upset and police moved in to remove the students from the steps of the building. According to the Aquinas, Scranton police used Mace and Billy clubs to clear the steps, arresting six King's students in the process. The Aquinas laid the blame completely on Ocorr for overselling the game "Perhaps someone should tell Mr.Ocorr what the capacity of the Long Center is and that it is not a good practice to oversell that capacity.... It especially seems that an apology is owed to the students of King's College by Mr. Ocorr...." The Royals faced Delaware Valley in the first playoff game. The Royals won convincingly by a score of 74 to 63, with Mumford scoring 39 points. Juniata had upset conference champions Wagner and faced Scranton in the final. The small but tenacious Juniata squad gave Scranton a tough game but the Royals pulled ahead with less than a minute and hung on to win 63 to 61. University of Scranton Royals had won their first MAC Division Championship. The team finished with 20 victories and five defeats and 13 victories against three defeats within the conference. Team captain Ed Moroz won the Les Dickman award. Gene Mumford led the team in scoring with 657 points and a a 26.3 game average.
The Royals were looking forward to the 1969-1970 season partly because they had six returning Letterman and partly because the rigorous training had the team in top physical condition. The team opened with two away victories before losing to LeMoyne also on the road. The Royals then lost their first home game ever in the Long Center to Philadelphia Textile but recovered with five consecutive home victories, including victories over Vermont and Hofstra to give the team the Holiday Tournament crown for the second year. They lost to Rider but then put together a four-game winning streak including a 102-66 victory over Moravian. Up until this point the team had been playing competently but had been winning games from the foul line. The team had earned nearly 100 more foul shots than their opponents about halfway into the season. Mumford was averaging 30 points per game at midseason and scored his 1000th point in the rout of Moravian. The Royals had a rough stretch near the end of the season losing consecutive games to King's and Delaware Valley in a double overtime defeat. The closing stretch also featured a 24-22 victory over Susquehanna, who decided the only way to stay in the contest was to slow the game down as much as possible, and a loss to Wilkes. But the Royals ended the season with 11-3 MAC record which put them in second place and sent them to the playoffs. The Royals convincingly defeated Upsala but then lost, again at home, to Philadelphia Textile 103-83. The Royals finished the season with an away loss to Seton Hall that would be the final game between the two teams, ending a four decade relationship. The season ended with a 15-8 record. The Les Dickman award was presented to Ed Moroz.
As the 1970s dawned, The University of Scranton basketball team would see significant changes that would lead it to championship seasons. Now that the team had shown that it could win consistently, the University decided to upgrade the schedule by adding well-ranked teams like Canisius and Iona, which contributed to a couple more mediocre seasons. But more importantly, the team appointed former Royals star Bob Bessoir head coach in 1972. Within a couple years the team was consistently winning Middle Atlantic Conference championships and even NCAA championships in 1976 and 1983. It had taken Scranton decades to develop a championship team, but the early years had their highlights and their stars.