Wilson won the state Class C-D baseball title in June of 1983
By John D'Onofrio Lockport Union-Sun & Journal
It’s a small ball and a small world, really, when it comes to baseball.
Union-Sun & Journal Managing Editor John Hopkins grew up on the other side of the state, but he knows more about Wilson’s first and only New York state baseball championship than most Western New Yorkers.
That’s because 30 years ago this week, Hopkins, then just a tween growing up in Rome, witnessed the state Class C-D title game between the Lakemen and his eventual alma mater, Rome Catholic High School.
Led by pitchers Mark Woodard and Joe Okoniewski and sluggers that included George Cruickshank and Jim Voutour, head coach Pat Burke’s Lakemen defeated coach Bill Fleet’s Redwings, 5-2.
“I followed Rome Catholic teams closely because my brother Bill, eight years older than me, played hockey there,” Hopkins said. “I watched many of the 1983 baseball team’s games. The school and baseball field were only half a mile from home, so it was an easy bike ride for a 12-year-old.”
Woodard’s strong pitching and some defensive wizardry from Wilson catcher Paul Goodman led the Lakemen to their second straight state diamond title game in June of 1983. But this time, following a loss in 1982, it would be without their greatest hitter of all time, future Major League player Mike Twardoski, who Burke said was hitting nearly .700.
“I was extremely fortunate because Tim Schultz was the coach right before me and he already had the Wilson baseball program rolling. He was the architect,” said Burke, now the athletics director at Lockport High School and the 2013 state Administrator of the Year.
“I fell into a great situation. I had good kids who loved to play baseball — which was a sport at that time that the community embraced. The culture in the community was all about baseball — the year before being Twardoski’s senior year and Wilson was undefeated going to states.”
The ‘83 season started on a low note for the Lakemen, Burke said. Woodard’s pitching led them to big wins over the Niagara-Orleans League’s best, but he was having a difficult time finding a good No. 2 ace. Wilson opened the season 2-3 and finished just 8-6 in the N-O, well short of a second straight league title.
But Woodard, Voutour, Curt Hopkins and Rick Wiltse led the Lakemen offensively in a 12-4 win over Frewsburg as Wilson started clicking and repeated as Section VI champions. Earning the win on the mound was Ransomville’s Joe Okoniewski, who tossed five-and-two-thirds innings.
“The N-O was really good at the time and Woodard was almost unbeatable, but we didn’t have a second pitcher,” Burke said. “Then ‘Okey’ pitched a couple of good games in the playoffs and I think that was a big difference in helping us reach the finals.”
Hitting their stride in the state quarters, Wilson’s left fielder Doug Zipp, now the athletics director at Shenandoah University, led the way offensively in an 8-3 victory over Forestville.
Woodard earned the mound win as the Lakemen took a bus out to Little Falls for a one day Final Four Tournament at Veterans Stadium. Wilson’s semifinal game was scheduled that morning against Section II’s Mattituck with the finals slated that same afternoon.
Okoniewski said he roomed with Woodard and remembers a visit coach Burke made to their room the night before the Final Four tourney.
“Mr. Burke came in and said, ‘Mark will go the first game and if we win, Joe, you’re going the second,’” Okoniewski said.
“Mark was our ace. I only pitched in a few sectional games before that, so when Mr. Burke left the room, I said to Mark, ‘When we win the first game, how many innings do I need to pitch in the second to get to you?’ He said, ‘Let’s just win the first one and we’ll worry about that, later.’
“I was pitching in the championship game and it had to be the fifth inning. Mr. Burke came out to the mound and said, ‘How you feeling?’ I told him I was feeling okay, then he looked at our catcher Goodman and Paul says, ‘Coach, the ball’s coming over like a beach ball.’ So that was the end for me. Mark finished it up for the win.”
Burke had sent Woodard out on the hill to face Mattituck, while Fleet sent his ace, Rich DeSa, out to pitch in RCH’s semifinal. DeSa’s son, Ty, was a first baseman at the University of Hawaii two years ago during that Division 1 college’s run for a national and world title.
Wilson and RCH both advanced to 1983 state finals with the Lakemen edging Mattituck, 4-3.
“I don’t want to make any excuses because Wilson was a great team, well coached and deserved to win the championship,” said Fleet, now retired but still coaching.
“The pitcher we wanted to throw against Wilson jammed his thumb in the fifth inning of our semifinal game in the morning. We did get three innings out of him, but Wilson played very well. We were hitting the ball extremely well all through the playoffs and we had excellent pitching and a good defensive team. That was one game we didn't hit.”
Hopkins and his brother, Bill, were among those watching the title game in the stands.
“A strong Rome contingent made the 40-mile trip to Little Falls and its beautiful ballpark, home then of the New York-Penn League’s Little Falls Mets,” Hopkins said.
“I remember feeling confident that the Redwings could win. To a sixth-grader who couldn’t hit worth a lick, they were a joy to watch. It was a sunny day and it was cool to watch our team play in a minor league ballpark. Unfortunately for the Rome Catholic faithful, the baseball gods weren’t with the Redwings that day. DeSa had pitched the game before and I think he was tired. Wilson got to our pitcher early, and it was 5-0 before RCH scratched out a couple of runs.”
According to a copy of the original boxscore, Woodard drew a two-out, second-inning walk, then the left-handed batter Voutour smashed a monster home run to left centerfield to give Wilson a 2-0 lead.
Voutour, today the honorable Niagara County Sheriff, said he remembers the game as if it were yesterday.
“Channel 7 came down from Buffalo and taped the whole game,” Voutour said. “Woodard, through his connections, has a copy of that tape and I’ve seen it. My home run’s on it.”
When told it was one of the longest homers ever hit by a Lakemen player, Voutour said, “I remember it was a high outside pitch. I didn’t see it (land) because I had my head down running around the bases.”
The very next frame, Okoniewski reached base on an error, Cruickshank homered to give Wilson a 4-0 lead, then Zipp singled and scored on an RBI by Scott Perry. The Redwings scored one in the bottom of the third and another in the fourth, but Okoniewski hurled one of the best games of his career and the Lakemen took home the state Class C-D title.
“We had a good core of players — no superstars. Twardoski had graduated the year before. We missed the championship by one game in 1982. I was a sophomore on that team,” Voutour said.
“Everything just clicked in 1983 and Pat was an amazing coach. It was his rookie year, so he was just 23-24 years old at the time. I guess you could call it the perfect storm — a bunch of good players, no superstars and we won it with good pitching, good defense and smart baseball.”
In his memory of the title game, Cruickshank said four years ago, “Arriving on the bus back in Wilson from the game, I remember being escorted by fire trucks with lights ablazin’ to a late night rally at the school.”
For those on the other end of the state, however, the memory remains a painful one.
“It was a stinging loss, but we gave the team a nice ovation after the game. Thirty years later and I can only imagine how crushed the players on that team were at the time,” Hopkins said.
“Less than a year later, Rome Catholic did win a state championship — the first of back-to-back titles in hockey. They were coached by Bill Fleet, the same man who led the ‘83 RCH team to the baseball state finals.”
In 2009, the entire Wilson 1983 baseball team was inducted into the Wilson Sports Hall of Fame. Besides the players already mentioned, others from that team were Dan Eaton, Ken Davis, Mark Curran, Jim Thompson, Edward Kent, Tom Thompson, Todd Neumann and Bill Murphy. The Lakemen athletics director in 1983 was Bob Dinse.
Fleet, 69, retired from RCH in 1988 after serving 18 years as hockey head coach and 12 as baseball head coach. He works today as an assistant hockey coach at Rome Free Academy
“I’ve got a lot of grandkids in the area and when I’m not helping out with hockey or baseball, I love watching them grow,” Fleet said. “I’ve coached a lot of great kids here and I remember every single one of them.”
Okoniewski, who works as an accountant today, said he’s spent a lot of times in recent years coaching his sons in baseball and basketball and remains busy today “following my daughter around” in her softball and volleyball exploits.
Burke said this week that he fondly remembers what his father told him after that state championship run.
“I was only 23-24 years old at the time. My dad — the old-time wisdom guys — just looked at me and said, ‘That came way too fast to you.’ I didn’t understand what he meant at first, but I think I do now. You wouldn’t enjoy it as much as a 23-year-old than as a 50-year-old.”