PITTSFIELD >> It may not have been fully unexpected, but last week's announcement that St. Joseph Central High School would close at the end of the 2016-17 school year was still a punch in the gut.
For the students, faculty and staff, it's especially tough. The great unknown may not be a great place to reside in for eight more months, but it is where they all are.
That, of course, is the most important part of the story.
Sports are only a part of the overall high school experience, but the demise of St. Joe as a high school puts an end to a long, and often glorious history of sports in Pittsfield and Berkshire County.
St. Joseph had the last boys team to win a state championship in basketball, when the Crusaders dispatched Lynn Tech in 2001. The year before that, the St. Joseph boys won a state alpine ski title.
There are championship banners that need to be displayed somewhere to document the amount of success the school on Maplewood Ave. had. Hang them in the Boys and Girls Club, where the Crusaders had their basketball successes over the years. But hang them somewhere.
The names involved in sports at St. Joseph are too numerous to mention all of them here. Bianchi, Borden, Robinson, McLaughlin, Steinman, Gleason, Kruse, Holland, Cronin, Unsworth, Roberson, Harrington, Quinn, Quetti, Marinaro, DiNicola, Hospot, Murphy, Pires, Downing. That's right, our outgoing state senator Ben Downing was the goalkeeper for the Western Mass. champion boys soccer team in 1998, and was in net when Medway beat the Crusaders 1-0 in overtime in the state championship game at Boston University.
Not having St. Joseph around for sports, and not having them good, is a definite loss for Berkshire County.
"I completely agree," said Gary Campbell Jr., the current football coach at Wahconah, and a former three-sport athlete for the Warriors who competed against the Crusaders as a player and a coach.
I have long believed that Berkshire County sports were better when St. Joseph had good teams. In the days since the closing announcement was made public, coaches and officials were in unanimous agreement with me on that.
"St. Joe brought out the best in our teams," Campbell told me. "Over the years, when I was able to play sports at Wahconah, they had the great basketball teams that we were competing with for the North.
"Then as I moved into the coaching ranks, they had such great football players and they had such great tradition and coaching. That brought out the best in our teams."
The St. Joe baseball team won state titles in 1972 and 1975 and last reached a state final in 2007. In basketball, St. Joe also won a state title in 1988, the year after Wahconah did the same.
Paul Brindle had a unique seat at the table in the Crusaders' long history. Brindle played for Taconic, and scored his 1,000th point against St. Joe. He guided the Crusaders to a Western Mass. title in 2012, and advanced to the state title game. It marked the last time a St. Joe team reached a state final.
Certainly in the modern era of St. Joe basketball, going back to 1980 or so, he is the only head coach who did not play for the Crusaders.
"Playing against them, you always knew you were playing against the best team in Berkshire County," Brindle said. "They always had the powerhouse basketball program. They had an incredible coach in Paul Procopio. In my high school tenure at Taconic, we beat everybody in Berkshire County, except St. Joe. We only beat them one time in my career at Taconic."
Brindle said he remembered former St. Joe players coming to see the Crusaders play when he was at Taconic. He felt that again when he was the coach, and came to appreciate the sense of "family" he felt there.
"You had this huge support system behind you. If you needed some money to go on a trip, to pay for uniforms, you could go to former players and alumni and get that," he said. 'I didn't know just how strong it was until I became the coach there. I also didn't know how much it meant for St. Joe basketball to be a major player, not only in Berkshire County, but in Western Mass.
"I used to get emails from former players, they stopped in at practice to lend any support. I'd get scouting reports when we were playing teams from out of town."
Nate Stump is a sophomore football and baseball player at Division III Beloit College, and a St. Joe graduate. He reached out via email, and he never mentioned the banners and the titles.
"St. Joe did more than just prepare me for college. A lot of people don't understand just how tight of a family it is. During my time at St. Joe I met some of my best friends and made memories that I'll have forever," he wrote. "I was lucky enough to have some amazing coaches during my years. It's too bad, that school did so much for so many people and it is going to be missed by a lot of people."
Contact Howard Herman at 413-496-6253.