What would happen today if you placed all of Lynn’s best high school basketball players on one team?
You’d have one very good basketball team representing the city and most likely competing for the state title every year.
But that’s exactly what happened 50 years ago when the Lynn School Committee voted to merge Lynn’s three public high school athletic programs into one. There would be no Classical team, no Lynn English team, and no Lynn Trade team – there would be only one team that became known as the Lynn Lions.
The School Committee selected Herb Brenner as head coach of the 1961-62 Lynn Lions,, Brenner had been the Classical head coach in the previous season. The then-English coach, Al Tagney, became the junior varsity coach of the Lions.
Dick Sakowich remembers well that season: the players, the coaches, the success, and the unique feeling of competing on the same team with players who had been your opponents just one year earlier. The English-Classical basketball rivalry was just as intense 50 years ago as it is today so you can imagine what it was like to learn that your rivals would now be your teammates.
Sakowich was a 6-foot-2-inch senior at Classical at that time. Though he missed some games due to a knee injury, he finished the season as the Lynn Lions’ leading scorer.
“The School Committee decided to merge all schools in all sports into one team,” said Sakowich. “Dr. Elmo Benedetto, who was a great guy, was the athletic director for the city and the Lynn high school teams weren’t faring well in the state tournaments and there was some pressure in the community so the Lynn School Committee wanted to create a powerhouse so we would compete and win.”
Sakowich, who retired last year as assistant principal at Classical, said as an educator he doesn’t agree with the one-city, one team philosophy. “It’s the wrong philosophy. If you have a basketball team, you might have 13 kids on the varsity. If you have three teams, you’d have 40 kids participating.”
Sakowich recalled that the 1961 Lynn Lions football team did not post a winning record. In fact, the Lions lost on Thanksgiving to St. Mary’s High School whose football team included Tony Conigliaro, who went on to play baseball for the Boston Red Sox.
The Lynn Lions basketball team ultimately consisted of nine English students and three Classical students (Sakowich, Mel Willard, and Dave Giarla). Joe Burton and Sakowich were named the captains of the team, joining Charlie Campbell (who would later earn a tryout with the NBA’s Seattle Supersonics), Larry Fulton, and Bobby Medros in a formidable starting five.
Sakowich, who starred for a state champion St. Michael’s CYO team as a sophomore, said despite attending different high schools, the English and Classical players became a cohesive unit.
“We were always rivals from our junior high days and in other sports through the years, but we had known each other for a long time and we actually got along well on the Lions,” said Sakowich.
The Lynn Lions qualified for the State Tournament [known as the Tech Tournament in those days] with an 18-2 record, losing games early in the season to Somerville and Leominster. The Lions played North Quincy in the first round of the Class A Tournament, losing on the parquet floor of the Boston Garden.
“We really expected to go farther than we did in the tournament,” said Sakowich.
But he added that there might have been underlying reasons for the team’s early dismissal from the Tech Tournament.
“In January , there was a new School Committee elected and they voted to de-merge the team at the end of the season – instead of waiting for the year to be over, they decided to disband the team after the ’62 season and go back to their old ways with three teams. That kind of divided the team a little bit and affected the guys, Politics had interfered with the whole situation.”
Sakowich said the one-and-done merger experiment worked as many had hoped. “There’s no question that the Lynn Lions became a really good basketball team. We split with Somerville, who was a power in those days, and beat Brockton, St. John’s, Malden Catholic, Salem, Archbishop Williams, and New Bedford. And we defeated St. Mary’s twice during that season.”
Even though the Lions lost their final game at the Garden, Sakowich, an inductee in the Classical Hall of Fame, said he has great memories of the Lions’ first and only season.
“I even remember there was one game in Leominster that we played inside a swimming pool,” said Sakowich.
Sakowich said Herb Brenner adapted very well to the role of coach of the Lions. “Herb was a great guy and cared about his players – he was more interested in his players’ education,” said Sakowich. “It was hard in the beginning for him to coach the English players because he [Tangney] had been their coach and some would him approach him for advice. But Herb united us as a team and we had a very successful season.”
Sakowich went on to work 44 years in the Lynn school system as a teacher and administrator, retiring as an assistant principal in 2011.
Sakowich still stays connected to Lynn sports. His grandsons, Connor and Cameron Sakowich, attend St. Mary’s where they are continuing the family’s tradition in athletics.