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Fifty years later, remembering Southampton's Long Island record 61-game winning streak

From 1967-70, the Southampton High School boys basketball team enjoyed a 61-game winning streak, aided by the play of "Foots" Walker, who went on to play 10 years in the NBA. On Friday, March 6, 2020, members of the team, many of whom still live on Long Island, talked about the 50th anniversary of the feat. Credit: Randee Daddona; Photo Credit: Getty Images North America

It may be the greatest story in nearly 120 years of high school basketball on Long Island, and it celebrates its golden anniversary this year.

The story is rich with depth and dimension. There is a David defeating Goliath, an improbable coach becoming an innovator, and games played in an empty potato barn and before thousands at the old Long Island Arena.

The Southampton boys basketball team won an astounding 61 consecutive games between 1967 and 1970, a Long Island record that has gone unchallenged for five decades. Like an Impressionist masterpiece, the winning streak is as fascinating from afar as it is when examined more closely.

“The streak is mind-boggling to look back on, the way we never lost — a collection of players with amazing passion and drive — but it was a very different thing when you were living it,” said Clarence “Foots” Walker, the team’s brightest star during the streak and still its biggest name after going on to play 10 NBA seasons.

“It was like being in a zone and everybody was coming after us. There were teams with size that thought we were runts. There were teams from big towns that called us ‘potato farmers.’ But that only gave us more motivation to win — and we did win.”

The preamble to any winning streak is a loss, and the Mariners’ was a bitter pill to swallow.

Back then, there was no state championship, only a county tournament with no enrollment classifications. Southampton took an 18-1 record into a semifinal against West Islip on March 7, 1967, and suffered a 95-64 defeat in which the winning Lions made 40 of 51 free throws, as several Southampton players recalled.

Two nights later, the Mariners took down Half Hollow Hills in a consolation game and the streak had its opening cadence. Southampton went 21-0 in 1967-68 and defeated Pierson of Sag Harbor for the championship, then wento 21-0 in 1968-69 and beat Copiague in the title game.

“There was a ‘Hoosiers’ aspect to the whole thing with our small school [about 300 boys] playing the big guys, with all the people that piled into cars and drove to road games to fill those gyms,” said Steve McMahon, who graduated in 1968.

After 1,096 days without a Southampton loss, North Babylon brought the streak to a stunning halt with an 82-69 quarterfinal upset on March 9, 1970.

“North Babylon played that game with a real sense of purpose — to end our streak — and you have to hand it to them,” said Terry McNamara, who graduated in 1970. “We were all shocked when it was over. When you’ve never lost, you don’t think you will.”

‘God’s gift to basketball’

Southampton’s winning streak covered parts of four seasons and, in that, it is unique. No player was a part of all four teams and many players cycled in and out of key roles. But while the Mariners were an ensemble throughout their run, those many stars formed a constellation around Walker.

He was a sophomore when he made the varsity for the 1967-68 season, and his arrival transformed the Southampton program from strong to exceptional. He played in 51 of the 61 wins in the streak — more than any other player — and the only loss of his high school career was to North Babylon.

Walker shared the backcourt with Ronnie “Kitchen” Baxter, who became a Suffolk County sensation. One Southampton legend tells of St. John’s coach Lou Carnesecca using video of Baxter’s jump shot to teach his players perfect form.

“Baxter was an amazing player. Foots was God’s gift to basketball,” Mike Dozier, Class of 1970, said in a telephone interview from Atlanta. “It was an incredible combination.”

“Foots had extraordinary abilities,” John Mosley, Class of 1970, said in a telephone interview from Maryland. “He could jump out of the gym. He had incredible ballhandling ability and he had moves none of us had ever seen. He could hang. He could change hands in midair. He was eight to 10 years ahead of his time.”

Walker’s extraordinary athleticism and passion for defense made him the centerpiece of Southampton’s chief weapon: a withering press. He had a penchant for deflecting balls and intercepting passes and igniting the Mariners’ fast break.

“He’d steal everything,” said Shaun Harrington, Class of 1970. “He was small and fast and no one had ever played against a guy with those skills.’’

“With Foots and Ronnie on the press, there were games where the other team — I remember a game against Mattituck — they couldn’t get the ball over halfcourt,” McMahon said.

Walker helped Vincennes University capture the 1972 junior college national championship, then helped West Georgia win the 1974 NAIA national title before his NBA career with the Cavaliers and Nets.

“I’ve never seen anyone get more out of their God-given talent than Foots Walker,” said Bob Vacca, who starred for rival Pierson in its 1968 title-game loss. “He just kept getting better, too, all through college on his way to the pros.”

Havoc on the East End

Southampton’s Joe Romanosky ranks among Long Island’s greatest coaches and was inducted into the Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame in 1998. Basketball, however, was never his game.

He was brought up in a Pennsylvania coal-mining town where football was everyone’s passion, and he was a star player in high school before serving in the Navy in World War II. When he returned, he studied education and played football at St. Bonaventure before being selected by the Baltimore Colts in the 1950 NFL Draft. Instead, he pursued a career in teaching.

He relocated his family to Long Island to be closer to his sister after her husband suddenly passed away and soon became a teacher and assistant football coach at Southampton. According to Michael Mackey, an unofficial historian of high school basketball in Suffolk County, Romanosky became basketball coach in 1960.

If there is one great irony to Romanosky’s stellar 23-year run as Mariners coach, it is that his best move may have come while standing on the football field.

Walker was well-known as a basketball talent in town, but like many of the better athletes in the area, he also wanted to play football and baseball. On his first day of football practice, when players were told to break up into groups by position, Walker gathered with the wide receivers. It wasn’t long before the hulking Romanosky — cutting an intimidating figure — approached him.

“There I was with my helmet and shoulder pads on,” Walker recalled in a phone interview from his home in Kansas City. “He looked me up and down, didn’t even say a word, and pointed to the gymnasium. I will always thank Coach Romo for that. It was the best piece of advice I’ve ever gotten: Concentrate on basketball.”

Romanosky looked at his starting backcourt of Walker and Baxter and saw a weapon to be used. With their speed, a talented first 10 on the roster and his bedrock belief in defense, Romanosky employed a full-court press that wreaked havoc. As Walker recalled, Coach Romo’s instructions were simply “go do what you do.”

“Teams did not run and gun back then. They ran set plays where each of the five players did something and it set up a shot,” said Joe Romanosky Jr., who played for his father through 1967, replaced him on the bench in 1983 and became mayor of Southampton from 1999 to 2006. “His philosophy was new to the area. He let players play with their natural abilities, not in some rehearsed way.

“He coached those teams to attack from the get-go and use their instincts. Get the ball and go on the break. He believed the magic occurs when you think and react so fast that it’s just natural.”

In an era with no shot clock or three-point shot, the Mariners averaged more than 90 points in the last three seasons of the streak, according to Mackey.

“Teams didn’t play basketball the way we played,” said Steve Fanning, Class of 1969. “With Foots and Ronnie, we were relentless.”

‘Kitchen,’ ‘Beaver’ and the barn

The Mariners were not just a team of character. They also were a team of characters. The nicknames speak to that.

Walker was first called “Foots” at a young age because he was considered to have big feet, even though he said he still wears the size 12 he wore in high school. But in conversations with his former teammates, he was sometimes referenced as “Footy” or “Footsy.”

Ronnie Baxter’s nickname was “Kitchen” because whenever his teammates went to his house to invite him to play pickup, his mother said he couldn’t come out until he cleaned the kitchen.

Fanning explained that older kids first gave him the nickname “Beaver” because “they thought I put up a ‘damn’ good fight.”

And Dozier said most of the players who came off the bench on those great Mariners teams called themselves “The F Troop.”

“There was a television show called ‘F Troop’ with a bunch of misfits, and we named ourselves after that,” he said. “Those were guys like Andy Walker, Rick Roy, Jim Banks, Tim Rumph and myself. Don’t get me wrong; we were good enough to start on most of the teams in the county, and we got to show it because we got into a lot of games because of the scores and the [exhausting] style we played.”

The players from that era of Southampton basketball also had an uncommon love for the game. They would play pickup out of season or even after practices, on the weekends and at night. McNamara said they could break into the middle school gym, but it was always “because a custodian or someone left a window open for us, and when we were playing inside, everyone knew.”

But the most memorable pickup games were the ones in the potato barn at the Conklin Family Farm in Water Mill. Most of the former Mariners credit McNamara — who, with some of his family, worked on the farm — with convincing Tom Conklin to hang up a pair of baskets at the ends of a concrete floor inside.

“You’d come out of there and you’d be covered with potato dust and it would be in your mouth and nostrils, but those were good games,” said Shaun Harrington, Class of 1970. “The good players from all the neighboring towns knew we had games there and came out [because they] wanted to play with us.”

“It could be chilly in that barn, but not if you were playing in a game, and usually there were enough players for three or four teams to play pickup,” Pierson’s Vacca said. “I didn’t really get playing a game there, but the games were competitive.”

“Sometimes we would pull our vehicles in and turn the lights on and play with just us, and it was a place where we could be by ourselves and play,” said Rumph, Class of 1971. “[Sometimes]  we played until the wee hours of the morning.”

High peaks and a deep valley

As the wins began to pile up in the ’67-68 season, the Mariners became a drawing card. Home games offered town solidarity, and the chance for a seat was reason to leave work early. Road games were a chance to see the spectacle of a squad that could score 100, even with the rules of that era.

“Southampton started to draw big crowds at home as the winning streak grew,” Mackey said. “And they not only brought out plenty of their fans to the road games, the fans of the schools they played against wanted to see them. It was a little like it’s been when the [Golden State] Warriors play a road game. A game against Southampton was a must-see.”

Their local following traveled to road games and threw welcoming parties in town when the team bus returned.

“The scene was a little like ‘Hoosiers,’ ’’ Rumph said. “We’d come back on the bus and everyone would be waiting in town to greet us. It was the East End at its best.”

Home games were a show, too. The Mariners began coming out to warm-up music — “Soulful Strut” by Young-Holt Unlimited — and by the end of the three-minute instrumental, their crowd would be worked into a frenzy.

“I believe we were the first team with a song,” Clark said. “We came out to that song and people went crazy.”

There was kismet to the Mariners in that there were so many top athletes in one small school in a single era. In addition to Walker, there was 6-4 Tom Tarazevits, a Newsday Hansen Award winner in football who played football for Dartmouth. McMahon played football for New Mexico State. McNamara and Fanning both played basketball for Quinnipiac.

“It was a sort of an oddity,” Rumph said. “People on those teams went on to play professional sports and college sports at the highest level. Not bad for such a small school.”

Southampton’s 1968 championship game win over Pierson holds a special place in Suffolk lore because it pitted a pair of tiny schools that slew giants to reach the title game. Pierson had only about 90 boys. The Mariners’ 99-79 victory before 4,350 at Long Island Arena in Commack gave them just their second championship in 30 years.

“That championship game was the coolest thing,” Vacca said. “Suffolk was very divided. In the west, the schools were big and they considered the teams in the east inferior. There was nothing inferior about either team.

“Everyone from both towns turned out for that game and we were winning at halftime. But they were so fast and so deep we couldn’t keep it going. We didn’t know what hit us in the second half. Going against Foots and Baxter? If you had the ball, you were under attack.”

It was the 1969 postseason when the records began to fall. Southampton’s quarterfinal win brought the streak to 41, tying it with Mattituck for the record set in 1963. An 88-73 semifinal victory over Half Hollow Hills at Long Island Arena gave the Mariners the Island record.

“When we broke Mattituck’s record, it was nothing,” Mosley said. “We thought ‘that’s not good enough’ and we felt we needed to win much more.”

“We never talked about the streak while it was happening,” McNamara said. “There was always another game coming and we wanted to win it.”

Southampton became the first team to win back-to-back Suffolk championships by defeating Copiague, 83-55. Walker, who had 24 points, was the tournament’s MVP. The junior became only the third non-senior named All-Long Island by Newsday in 1969.

The Mariners were 18-0 as they entered the 1970 quarterfinal against North Babylon. McNamara had missed the previous game with an ankle injury and tried to play through the pain. Second-leading scorer Tom Woodby got whistled for three fouls in the first quarter and spent considerable time on the bench. According to Newsday’s account, those two factors allowed North Babylon to dictate the pace. It held a 15-point lead in the fourth quarter before the Mariners twice cut the margin to two in the final 3:19. But Southampton never pulled even.

Jerry Hartz scored 30 points and Bill Morris 29 to lead the Bulldogs, who went on to win the championship. Walker scored 29 in his final contest for the Mariners.

“I didn’t feel good about losing that last game,” Walker said. “Today, I can appreciate what we did, winning 61 straight. But for me it was never about The Streak. It was the time I spent with those guys, my teammates. It was a special time with a lot of great memories.”

With research by Laura Mann

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