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A half-century ago, tiny St. Joseph reached state finals

| Sunday, March 17, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Members of the 1963 St. Joseph High School basketball team, PCIAA runners-up: Front row: Rich Demharter, Joe Zalenski, Tom Conroy, Ed Thimons, Tom Severn, Ron Bowman. Back row: Coach Nee, assistant Ron Slater, Lou Demharter, Dave Krumenacker, Tom Antowiak, Ron Krasewski, Bob Christri.

As luck would have it, Sunday, March 17, 1963, wasn't an ordinary St. Patrick's Day for coach Joe Nee.

The seventh son of a seventh son with Irish roots had his Natrona St. Joseph High School basketball team in the Pennsylvania Catholic Interscholastic Athletic Association Class B championship game in Scranton.

Carbondale St. Rose won that game, 56-54, but the road to the state title game was a bumpy one, at the very least, for the Spartans.

First of all, St. Joseph had no home court. It used the former Har-Brack gym for home games.

The Spartans had to practice upstairs at the old Natrona Polish Falcon's Club.

The lighting consisted of two bulbs hanging from the ceiling, and one side of the wall was burned out. There were no showers.

A tarpaulin served as a wall, and on a cold, winter night, Nee's team would practice in their jackets and sweaters.

There was no team bus. The Spartans got to their away games via carpools.

But St. Joseph was undeterred by its lack of trappings.

“We didn't have the best equipment, but sometimes, I think that brought us closer together,” Nee said.

After winning the section with a tiebreaker-game victory over St. Casimir's, St. Joseph defeated St. George from the Allentown section of Pittsburgh twice to win the best-of-three series.

In the western region playoffs, the Spartans eliminated St. Vincent's Prep of Latrobe, then secured a berth in the state finals with a 75-59 win over Elk County Christian before 1,400 fans at the old Arnold High School gym, now known as Valley Middle School.

St. Joseph finally chartered a bus and stayed in a hotel as part of the trip to Scranton Catholic Youth Center, a new facility that seated 3,500.

The night before the game, sleep became a challenge for the Spartans, as an Irish bagpipe band paraded through the Hotel Casey's hallways long into the night.

At the same time, several busloads of fans left Natrona for the 10-hour trip to Scranton. There was no Route 28 expressway or Interstate 80 at the time.

The buses had to take a number of outmoded roads to the big game.

But game time finally arrived as fans filled the arena.

There were problems immediately for Nee's team. St. Rose was led by two twin guards in Mike and Tom Cunningham.

The guards would plant themselves in front of the area where the Spartans would put the ball in play, causing an inordinate amount of charging calls against St. Joseph.

The Spartans kept the game close throughout, despite two starters fouling out.

The Roses led, 55-54, with 1:18 left and were trying to freeze the ball. But the Spartans defense forced four jump balls in 52 seconds.Actual jump balls took place then. Today, the Spartans would have been awarded at least two alternate possessions.

A foul shot with 12 seconds left provided the final margin for St. Rose.

But the little school from Natrona, with just 18 boys in the senior class, was on the basketball map for good.

Nee would go on to coach the Spartans for 20 more seasons and coached sons Joe, Brian and David. He assisted his daughter, Carol, in coaching later on.

Nee was inducted in the Alle-Kiski Sports Hall of Fame in 1993.

George Guido is a freelance writer.

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