By Chris Rossetti
HERSHEY, Pa. – It’s almost like an annual pilgrimage.
Dozens and dozens of car loads of people from every corner of District 9 heading to Hershey, Pa., for the PIAA basketball championship.
The number is in the 100s, maybe the couple of hundreds. And they do it every year. And they watch basketball and hang out after the games and meet new friends and reacquaint with old ones.
And the most amazing part is they aren’t really following a particular team – after all in the past 20 years only four times has there even been a D9 team in the state final.
Instead, they do it for the love of basketball.
“It’s a good winter break,” Jim Caribardi of Johnsonburg who has come to the state championships nearly every year since 1968 said. “That’s one of the reason we come. We also come for the comradery. We see one and other, and we see people from other places we know.”
Comradery seems to be the overriding theme. Whether it’s watching the basketball together or hanging out at a local restaurant or watering hole after the game, you see that every where.
On Friday, I spent time with people like Brian Green and John Sherry of Coudersport, Barry Abbott and Scott Sullivan of the DuBois/Clearfield area, Tony Flint of Port Allegany, Dave Fuhrman of Bradford, Kevin Doverspike of Clarion County, the Hindeliters and Doughertys of New Bethlhem and Steve Andressi of Karns City.
And on Saturday, it was people like Chris Bellis of Karns City, Matt Clark of the Knox/Rimersburg area and Union head football coach Dave Louder among others.
They were all having a great time seeing old friends and making new ones and spending quality time with their families.
“It feels great to be able to spend time with my family,” Doverspike said. “I’ve been coming down since 2000 when I refereed Nativity BVM when they beat Saegertown (for the Class A girls title). That was my first time down here, and since then we try to bring one if not all three of the boys down and have a nice time together.”
Doverspike was there Friday with his wife Deborah, one of his twin sons, Bryan, and Bryan’s wife, Shay. Bryan and Shay now live close to Hershey giving Kevin and Deborah a place to stay.
“It’s nice to keep the tradition going,” Kevin Doverspike said.
Tradition seems like a good word when talking with many of the fine folks from District 9.
“My first year was 1996 when Kobe Bryant was here (with Lower Merion) against Erie Prep,” Andressi said. “I missed a couple of the Penn State years and a year when we had one of our kids. But I’ve been here most of the time since then.”
One of those times was more special than all of the others for Andressi.
In 2000, he was an assistant coach on the Karns City girls’ team that won the Class AA title, the last public school to win a girls’ AA championship.
“That year, we had our first kid three weeks before the championship game,” Andressi said. “I got a free pass to come down since I was coaching.”
Furhman, the former very successful Bradford boys’ coach never got the chance to coach a team in a state title game, and the one year a team from the D9 League made it, 1992, he missed the game. The only year he has missed since 1985.
“Since 1985, the only year I missed was then my son was born in 1992,” Fuhrman said. “Of all the years to miss, that was the year my buddy Bill Vassallo and Punxsutawney made it all the way to the finals. I always felt bad about that.”
For a number of years, Fuhrman and his wife, Nancy, would hold a Friday-night get together at their hotel and invite friends from around District 9 and beyond to take part. That ended a couple of years ago after it got a bit too big.
“You would run into so many people that you knew, and they would ask where you were staying,” Fuhrman said. “You didn’t always get a chance to talk as long as you like, so we decided let’s host a Friday-night get together. We really enjoyed doing that, but it actually just got to be too big. We were getting so much heck from the hotel staff about the noise. It’s kind of why we stopped it. But, we enjoyed those years we did that.”
The number of great players that have played in the state title game made it hard for the District 9 contingent to pick out the best player they ever saw, although one name seemed to rise above the rest – Billy Owens of Carlisle, who went on to star at Syracuse before a successful 10 year run in the NBA.
While at Carlisle, Owens led his team four straight PIAA titles and a 20-0 PIAA playoff record.
“We’ve seen a lot of great players,” Caribardi said while standing on the concourse in between games of Saturday’s afternoon session with long-time friend John Harris of Rimersburg. “But if you had to pick one, probably Billy Owens. But you know, you could go with Kobe Bryant too.”
Harris quickly chimed in.
“The shooter from Syracuse (Gerry McNamara),” Harris said. “He was really good. “We’ve seen a lot of them.”
Fuhrman recalled Owens run as the best he’s seen.
“The best player I ever saw was Billy Owens, of course, that four-year run he had,” Fuhrman said. “I think the best game I saw in his four-year run was when they played Meadville and the Burnett brothers (in 1987). That was a heck of a game. I remember he had 53 point against (Pittsburgh) Central Catholic (in 1988). Deuce Skurcenski, God rest his soul, was sitting at the press table right in front of us, and he turned around and said ‘call the fire department, he is burning the house down.’ I’ll never forget that. He’s obviously the best player I saw here.”
Fuhrman said he expected Bryant to dominate in 1992.
“Kobe Bryant really surprised me,” Fuhrman said. “I really thought for sure he would dominate. But he had 18 or 20 points against Erie Prep that year. I was even questioning myself if he was every going to be able to go directly to the pros. But, of course, you can’t question the kind of career he has had. But you see some great ones out here. No doubt about it.”
Many of the people from District 9 make the trip knowing they won’t have a rooting interest.
“The thing about it is, we aren’t backing anybody except for a District 9 team,” Harris, who coached football at Union under the great Rich Vidunas said. “But if anyone does anything in District 9, we are backing them.”
“We aren’t necessarily here supporting anybody,” Andressi said. “But the publics we support, I guess.”
When a District 9 team does make the championship game, it’s a special moment, like for Carbardi when Johnsonburg’s boys made the final a couple of years ago.
“We enjoyed that,” Caribardi said. “We knew the coaches and stuff like that.”
The District 9 fans I talked to, all seem to enjoy the fact the PIAA returned the championships to Hershey after a brief run in State College despite the longer drive.
“I like the Giant Center,” Doverspike said. “Penn State is closer and more centralized, obviously. But I like the Giant Center. It’s sort of built the same way as Hersheypark Arena (the long-time home to championships) but more modernized.”
Andressi believes Hershey is more family oriented than State College.
“I like Hershey better,” Andressi, a volunteer assistant coach for the Karns City girls’ team, said. “The State College thing wasn’t as family oriented. This is more family oriented. I have kids, and my wife and I always love to support basketball. This is a perfect venue for us.”
Fuhrman pointed to the entire area surrounding the Giant Center as to why he prefers Hershey over State College.
“The amenities around Hershey, the hotels and the eating places are better,” Fuhrman said. “The Bryce Jordan Center (at Penn State) is nice, especially from our area. It’s easy to get to. You could go home after the last set of games if you wanted to. But we always come down Thursday after school and make it an entire weekend and go home Sunday. The Hershey area is kind of neat with Chocolate Town, and there is no doubt this is a very nice arena.”
The expansion to six classifications from four next year, could throw a wrench in the usual plans made my some of the District 9 fans. It appears that the championships will expand to a third day – starting Thursday – next year.
“We enjoy it,” Caribardi said. “But I don’t know how we are going to do this when they expand it. We’re getting older. That’s going to be tough on us old guys. You sit here for eight games as it is.”
Harris also was displeased with the lack of fans – less than 20,000 showed up for the entire weekend down from over 30,000 that use to end the championships.
“There aren’t many people here from the school,” Harris remarked. “When Johnsonburg played, you could have robbed the bank. The same with Elk County (Catholic), the same way any team from our area comes down. The whole District 9 follows them.”