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The Yankee Express

The “French River Rivalry” - short lived but with everlasting memories

Jan 08, 2021 08:13AM ● By Rusty Oleszewski

Welcome back to the next chapter reliving the early days of the athletic rivalry between Bartlett High of Webster and Shepherd Hill of Dudley-Charlton. In my opinion, which of course is up for debate, and several other seasoned participants or observers of this rivalry, the basketball season of 1974-75 was the ultimate catalyst in building the intensity of competition between the two schools.

   Shepherd Hill was entering its first winter season in the Border Conference. They were coached by Jim Ferdella, a fiery former Marine who had guided the Rams to a 10-9 record in their inaugural season playing an independent schedule. Ferdella was cautiously optimistic about his team’s first venture into the conference. He and Bartlett head basketball coach Don Cushing had been teammates for two seasons at Worcester State College. Peter Coyle’s father Don, coincidentally a Webster resident, was very instrumental in recommending and persuading Ferdella to apply for the coaching job at Shepherd Hill.

   As a true Worcesterite, Ferdella had little knowledge of the new regional school opening or even where it was located. But after his first set of player tryouts, there was little doubt that he was going to run this program based on one major component: defense. Coach Cushing utilized a suffocating full-court zone trap press but overall I would say that Bartlett was even more proficient at developing players who could put the ball in the basket.

   The Indians were coming off a Border Conference championship 20-4 season and were winners of two consecutive Clark Tournament championships. As a grade schooler I can remember listening to the Bartlett games on my transistor radio. Two superb guards, Gerry Nadeau and Stan Bydlinski, and super forward George Bair had been lost to graduation, but Cushing still had excellent talent returning for the 1974-75 season. Leading the charge were captains Peter Russell and Mike Szamocki, (have I mentioned his name before?)

   Ferdella, meanwhile, had a nucleus of seniors returning, including Ed Jarosz, Marty Paglione and Dave Burke. The losses in first baseball and then football to this new school had started to catch the attention of Bartlett players and Webster residents in general. But the critics felt that the basketball season would soon quell those concerns. Shepherd Hill started off the season with six straight victories including wins over conference contenders Southbridge and Auburn. Their next focus was a Tuesday night home game against the mighty Bartlett Indians. The Indians were 4-2 coming off a convincing win over Auburn.

   The preview of the game in the Webster Times presumed the game might be played in front of a full house. Halfway through the jayvee game the large roll-away divider doors which separated the two playing surfaces at Shepherd Hill had to be opened to accommodate the overflow crowd. Upwards of 1,000 spectators packed themselves in the bleachers or stood to witness the next installment of this developing rivalry. Cushing may have sensed the electric atmosphere when he kept the Indian jayvee team out on the court with the varsity for the pre-game warmups. Perhaps it was to let the jayvee players experience something special or was it meant to be an intimidation factor?

   Cushing and Ferdella exchanged the cordial good luck handshake, but surely the former college teammates wanted nothing more than to walk away smiling at the end of thirty-two minutes of intense competition. Hard working forward Steve Brennan scored 8 points to help the Indians take a 16-15 lead after the first quarter. The second quarter was described by Times reporter Steve Varnum as “the most amazing eight minutes of basketball seen anywhere in a long, long time.” Shepherd Hill ran, scored, played defense and broke the touted Bartlett press as few had ever done before. Shepherd Hill outscored Bartlett 29-10 in that quarter and went on to win by a final score of 77-49.

   In February the teams met at the Webster Intermediate gym for the rematch. Bartlett had recovered nicely from their disappointing loss in Dudley and currently held a half game lead over the Rams atop the Border Conference standings. They were showing their championship bloodlines and were looking forward to this contest on their home court where they had not been beaten in over three years. The anticipation of this game resulted in the implementation of the sale of advance tickets which became necessary for several future contests. Tickets were available for sale one week in advance and would not be sold at the door on the night of the game. In a hard-fought contest, the Rams ended the Indians home winning streak with a 56-53 victory. The win moved Shepherd Hill past Bartlett to the top of the conference standings. Bartlett would suffer another loss in their next game against Southbridge which allowed Shepherd Hill to clinch their first ever Border Conference championship.

   Later in the month of February, the basketball gods that be decided that two Bartlett-Shepherd Hill games were not enough for this season. Both teams were invited to the historic Clark University Tournament in Worcester. They were strategically placed in opposite brackets in the eight-team field so if they both won quarter and semi-final games, they would meet a third time in the finals. Bartlett was a two-time defending champion of the Clark Tournament. Over the years Clark University has become a second home for the Indians. Since the tournament began in 1939, Bartlett has played in 105 games at Clark bringing home to Webster eight championship trophies which ranks third on the all-time list behind only Sutton and David Prouty. After seeing Border Conference championship slip away, Coach Cushing and his team focused on returning to Worcester and defending their title. Come back next month to read about this championship game.

   Both Shepherd Hill and Bartlett won their opening round games. This put Bartlett into the semi-finals to face a very talented Hopedale squad while Shepherd Hill was given the daunting task of playing undefeated 20-0 West Boylston. West Boylston had set their scopes on Bartlett ever since the Indians had knocked them off in the finals the previous year. Shepherd Hill-West Boylston was the opening game of the doubleheader. Which team would Bartlett rather see in the finals? A new conference rival which had beaten them twice already or an undefeated senior-laden team looking for revenge? Shepherd Hill, despite trailing by 9 points beginning the fourth quarter, forced West Boylston into overtime where the Rams’ constant pressure finally wore out the undefeated Lions. The Rams narrowly escaped with a 3-point victory.

   Bartlett was not going to give up their title easily as they proceeded to beat the highly-touted Hopedale team to set up round three with Shepherd Hill. After their semi-final victory, Don Cushing told reporters that “a win over Shepherd Hill in the finals would be his biggest achievement” since becoming the head coach of Bartlett. Clearly he was acknowledging that Shepherd Hill was becoming a program worth taking notice of. He also might have been subjected to some good-hearted ribbing at home from his wife who was a teacher at Shepherd Hill at the time. The insertion of sophomore forward Tim Bazinet into the starting lineup and the development of junior guard Mark Dudek had the Indians playing their best ball of the season. There was no reason to doubt that Bartlett would continue their reign of the Clark Tournament.

   Dave Burke, the senior point guard and spiritual leader of Shepherd Hill, had missed several games due to a foot injury but with Ferdella giving him limited appearances was able to supply the Rams with an unexpected boost of confidence. Marty Paglione was not ready to hand over the title of best big man in the Border Conference to Bazinet quite yet as he and rebound partner, Rick Farraher, controlled the backboards. The Indians held leading scorer Ed Jarosz to a mere six points but unsung shooting guard Ray Zemski backed up his superb performance against West Boylston with several clutch baskets. The Indians, as true champions do, fought valiantly to keep their title run going. But their reign of the Clark Tournament would be passed on to this new rival from the opposite side of the French River. Ed Jarosz remarked after the game about all the adults in the stands on the Shepherd Hill side. “They have been waiting so long to cheer on their own school, this is so great.” Charlton High basketball once owned the longest losing streak in the state so to see the Rams and Coach Ferdella accept the championship trophy was very gratifying their supporters. Likewise, it was a bitter pill to swallow for those on the opposite side of alumni gymnasium. Five consecutive losses in baseball, football and heaven forbid, basketball to those farm boys from Dudley and Charlton would soon light a fire in the halls of Bartlett High. Southbridge was still the number one bitter rival, but Shepherd Hill was becoming an irritating pebble in their shoe.

To be continued