The Starting Line: How One Meeting In Schenectady Changed XC Forever (2016 Update)

The Return of the Champions: Racing to the Future

Any knowledgeable fans waiting for the Class A runners to take off could have been forgiven for thinking that the race was just a coronation party for the local Schenectady harriers. Mont Pleasant and Nott Terrace had proved themselves to again be the best public school teams in NY, and though only one of them could run for the Team title, the combined power of the two squads made the Section title in Class A an apparent certainty for Section 2.

There was only one other team at the meet besides Nott Terrace that had shown itself able to challenge Mont Pleasant, and that was Monticello from Section 9, the big favorite in the Class B race. Schools that had recent success in past years such as Sewanahaka and Utica Proctor were not strong in 1950. Vestal was relatively tough, but it had finished a distant 3rd to Mont Pleasant at the Proctor Invitational. Section 1's champion New Rochelle had faced MP at the NYU Spiked Shoe meet and had two strong runners with Dillon and Utter at the top, but the Huguenots had been outscored by 107-309 the one time they had faced the Red Raiders, so enough said about that.

Section 1's Westchester County top runners at left and most of the 28 sectional runners gathered at right to ride up to Schenectady were quietly confident that they could pull some upsets at the 1950 state championship.

The individual title was more in doubt because MP's Eddie Alger had been beaten by 9 seconds by New Rochelle's Greg Dillon four weeks before at the NYU meet, but Alger had set a course record the week before States at Central Park and was now the big favorite. No team appeared to have anything close to the depth of Coach Ray Vacca's Red Raider squad of Alger, Don Lesperance, Bill Cote, Ernie Weeks, Paul Lusk, Wayne Erb, and Barrie Gray.

Still cross country is a sport when nothing is ever certain, and the vagaries of the course, weather, and even how a runner ties his shoes can make a crucial difference in springing implausible upsets. The newspapers serving Section 2 seemed confident that their local Mont Pleasant and Nott Terrace boys would capture the section, team, and individual titles in the big Class A race, but the Mount Vernon Daily Argus in Section 1 stated that the harriers from its area were "second favored to take one or two" of the six titles of the A and B races, which in a certain light could be seen as being vaguely optimistic.

Runners on the starter's right side take the first step in the 1950 States Class A race.

When Bill Leonard fired the starting gun, the 7 colors of shirts started to mix together, and with them the identities of the runners who would be noted in the record books. What is known is that the maroon jerseys of Mont Pleasant and Nott Terrace quickly moved up toward the front and appeared to take control of the Sectional contest. The Red Raiders also seemed to have the Team title tucked away with Alger up among the top 5 runners, Lesperance and Weeks strong in the top 25, and Gray and Cote a few places back in the low 30s.

Vestal had their top guys Jim Howard and Jim Clubb among the leaders and #3 guy Bob Ward in the top 25, but they did not have enough depth at the back. Middletown with Vic Oliver up near the front and Frank Scheuerholz and Frank Gilbert up in the top 20 also was a threat, but like Vestal its 4th and 5th guys were too far back. New Rochelle was doing much better than expected with Greg Dillon at the front, Jerry Utter in the top 10, and Charles Nelson in the top 15, but they were still running behind Mont Pleasant.

All seemed to be going pretty well for the Mont Pleasant Red Raiders, but with a mile to go, things unraveled for them and New Rochelle got its chance.

Runners to the left of the starter get the jump in the 1950 Class A race.

Mont Pleasant's Ernie Weeks was normally further back among the runners on Vacca's squad, but at States he had forged up close to #2 runner Don Lesperance at the halfway point. Shortly afterward, the laces on one of his shoes came loose and he soon was running with one foot bare. The chance for a top 20 place was gone as he drifted back toward what would ultimately become a 28th place.

Meanwhile, Dillon broke away from a group that included Alger along with Middletown's Victor Oliver and Vestal's Howard and Clubb. The New Rochelle frontrunner sped to the finish in a new course record of 11:18 to win by 4 seconds. The previous record owner Alger fell back to 4th behind Oliver and Howard and one place ahead of Clubb. Russ Bradshaw of Fulton in Section 3 took 6th, but then two more light blue jerseys crossed the finish line with Utter giving New Rochelle a key 7th place and John Dowd of Yonkers Roosevelt finishing 8th. The last two Oscar trophies were claimed as Nott Terrace's John Parillo finished 9th and Bill Patton of Hicksville earned Section 8's first placing in 10th.

At left is New Rochelle's Greg Dillon in the final strides of his 1950 Class A race that earned him a course record time. He and teammate Jerry Utter, shown at right congratulating each other after their Section 1 qualifier win, led the Huguenots to an historic upset at States.

As the light blue Section 1 jerseys continued to filter in among the Section 2 maroon shirts, even the Sectional title began to look a little more in doubt. Charles Nelson placed 13th to give New Rochelle a third runner in before Mont Pleasant's second, and it would be a huge place in the team score since Nelson's place would count as a 7, just 1 more than his teammate Jerry Utter who had placed 7th. Walt Bretnall of Gorton gave Section 1 another good place with a 15th. It wasn't until Roger Grice and Warren Harding of Nott Terrace took 18th and 19th and Don Lesperance gave Mont Pleasant its 2nd runner in at 21st that Section 2's chances began to seem more secure. But as the runners poured across the line, the question of which team had won the race was very much in doubt.

As the last Class A runners finished up a little before 2:15, the official scorer Bill Eddy got to work trying to untangle the results and declare a winner. But while the Class B runners lined up for their race, the final decision on the Class A was still 2 hours away. What scoring difficulty Eddy was wrestling with was not reported, but three different results would be announced before the fourth and last decision would be set in stone.

Monticello of Section 9 left little doubt about who was the top small school as they placed 5 runners in the top 25 of the Class B race and also took control of the Sectional contest. The team's top duo of Tom King and John Smith finished 5th and 9th, and Steve Murran, Mike Tutsi, and Frank Lauferswiler placed 18th, 22nd, and 25th to earn a 37-56 decision over Riverhead. The Long Island school finished Al Brown and William Lucas in 13th and 14th to propel them into the runner-up spot. Pelham of Section 1 placed Eph Klotts in 10th and finished 3rd with 73 points. Bob Jackson of Waterford finished 4th and led his team to a 4th place, and Delhi, Silver Creek and New Hartford finished 5th through 7th.

The battle for the individual championship in Class B turned out not to be close as expected. Jack Hughes of Watervliet and Tom Deans of Rye had been co-favorites going in, but Deans ran 11:23 and won by 10 seconds over Silver Creek's Pete Bifaro, with Hughes taking 3rd. Other top 10 runners included Don Farley of Bronxville in 6th, George Turner (1951 Class B champ) of Arlington in 7th, and John Williams of Glens Falls in 9th. Section 9's Sectional triumph was built on not only the champion Monticello squad but also the 11th place of Orville Myers of Walkill and 23rd of Bill Klopchin of Congers.

Rye's Tom Deans takes the 1950 Class B race.

Back at the scorers table with the Class B championship already determined, Bill Eddy and his assistants were still trying to figure out who won the Class A race. After an initial tally, the decision was announced that the result was a tie between Mont Pleasant and New Rochelle, and that meant co-champions since no 6th-man tie-breaker rule had yet been stipulated in meet rules. However, as both schools were congratulating each other, a recount was made and New Rochelle was announced as the sole champion. But a further tallying switched the decision in Mont Pleasant's favor.

Finally (and I mean finally), at around 4:15 with the sun getting low in the sky, the New Rochelle runners got to celebrate as they were awarded the championship trophy based on a 59-60 final score, a monumental upset. The race had lasted around 12 minutes, but the final decision had needed about 120.

Eddy's scoring system usually required no more than 15 minutes even for giant races like the Manhattan Invitational with four times as many runners as at States, so something unusual had happened for the Class A race. What the problem was may forever remain a mystery, but future years' state championships would sometimes tally just the team runners for the team competition scores and at other times also include all the at-large runners. This question may have been the sticking point in 1950 that caused the long delay.

The names of the winning runners for New Rochelle besides Dillon, Utter, and Nelson included Tom Bartoe, Mark Starr, Wilbur Fennell, and Dick Hendricks. Judging from the Section 1 placements, it had to be Bartoe and Starr who earned the crucial 4th and 5th scoring places.

Mont Pleasant got some satisfaction for being part of the Section 2 squad that beat Section 1, 222-260. After a likely fairly hasty awards ceremony, the visiting teams climbed back on the buses and headed home. The first NYSPHSAA Cross Country Championship had had a few awkward and likely a lot of heartbreaking moments, but overall it had been a spectacular success.

Mont Pleasant coach Ray Vacca and his team suffered a tough loss at the 1950 state championship, but in 1951 they were all smiles as they captured the Class A race at the second States meet by an 11 point margin.

Many decades later the question still comes up: Who was the best team at the 1950 States meet? New Rochelle took the decision over Mont Pleasant in Class A, and the times for the Huguenots' top runners appear to indicate that they would have beaten Class B champ Monticello in almost any kind of race. But was there another "team" with seven runners at Central Park in 1950 that had the best day on November 18, 1950?

The answer is almost certainly yes, and the "team" is naturally Nott Terrace. Although the Blue Devils had had a bad day at sectionals in the loss to Mont Pleasant, they still qualified seven at-large runners for States. We do not have a full accounting of all the team runners in the Class A race at States, but Nott Terrace would have outscored Mont Pleasant by 24-31 if they were going head-to-head as in a dual meet, and the Blue Devils' score versus the Red Raiders if you include all runners is 105-117. Nott Terrace's runners were very favorably placed to get a good team score, and Bill Eddy's old team would likely have come out with a 2 or 3 point win over New Rochelle if Nott Terrace and Mont Pleasant had switched places as the Section 2 representative at States.

But of course in New York, the best team in the state or even the nation does not always qualify for the state championship, and even when they have a scoring team there, they may not be scored. Such are the workings of a very strange sport.

The runners would return to Central Park for the State Championship in 1951, and this time the hometown heroes Mont Pleasant would win the Class A title by 11 points over Sewanhaka, while Arlington of Section 1 would claim the B title behind individual champ George Turner. 1950 Class A champ Greg Dillon was ill on day the day of the Sectional competition and would not get a chance to defend his title, which in 1951 was won by Bay Shore's John Cummings, who had finished 25th the year before.

After three more championships on the same Central Park course in Schenectady, the venue would move to Bear Mountain State Park in 1955, and Vestal would win the last of its three straight Class A titles. Nott Terrace got one chance to win a State title on its hometown course in 1953 and came in 3rd, but before the school was closed down in 1958, the Blue Devils shot off a grand finale for their storied program by winning the 1956 and 1957 States Class A championships. Mont Pleasant made a final appearance at the State meet and won the Class A title in 1958. New Rochelle made its final appearance that same year as a new slate of teams moved to the fore in New York's ever-changing lineup of state powers.

In 1960, the NYS championships would expand to three classes. In 1975, following an earlier resumption of interscholastic athletics for students of all genders, the girls would would run in their first State Cross Country Championship, and Kathy Mills from Fayetteville-Manlius would win the race. Some things never change.

Section Links

The Starting Point - Setting Up

Getting Back to States - A Season of Changes

The Return of the Champions