This weekend, three Section VI Baseball teams will compete for state championships. In 1983, the first year of the NYSPHSAA championships, Sweet Home won the large-school title, one of only two local teams to do so.
By JERRY SULLIVAN
Matt Smith, who was the designated hitter that day, put it best. “At that time at Sweet Home, winning was in the water,” he said, looking back 40 years later.
Victory was infectious at Sweet Home 1982-83. The Panthers won 13 ECIC titles that year, precisely half of their 26 boys and girls varsity squads. Nine of the teams went undefeated, and five won sectional championships. The Buffalo News voted it the greatest high school athletic season of the 20th century.
But looking back, one team’s triumph was the most improbable and inspiring, a tale of teamwork and perseverance that gets sweeter with each retelling.
On June 11 of ’83, the baseball team captured the first-ever New York State large-schools championship. They won two games on the final Saturday in Little Falls — over Northport (L.I.) and Our Lady of Lourdes (Poughkeepsie) — to culminate a title ride that had to navigate through a dance.
Sweet Home’s senior prom was the night of June 11 at the Niagara Falls Convention Center, 200 miles away. A dozen of the 17 players had planned to attend. The community was up in arms. Parents demanded that the game be moved. Bob Barczak, the athletic director, offered to buy back girls’ dresses.
“It sucked that we were put in the middle,” said Mike Torrillo, who scored the winning run in the title game. “It was awful. I remember the meeting at one of the girls’ houses. I want to say there was about 12 of us at the meeting. What do we do?”
(In an odd twist, Williamsville East’s baseball team, the sectional A champion is dealing with the same dilemma this week. Their prom coincides with the state championship this weekend in Binghamton).
In the end, four players went to the prom. That included Jim Dunbar, the all-league first baseman, and Chris Gurreri, a starting outfielder. Their top reliever, Mark Mende, stayed home. Some felt the whole team should have stayed back. There was talk of sending Albion, the Section VI runnerup, instead.
Head coach Joe Caggiano went to the coaches’ meeting in Little Falls on Friday night before the games. He told them he had left four players home. Someone asked why Sweet Home had bothered coming.
“Oh, we’ll put on a show for you,” he said. Caggiano, who died in 2018, was a master motivator. He went back and relayed that conversation to his guys.
“I remember Cage telling us, ‘They don’t think we’ll be able to compete against these guys’,” said P.J. Cauley, the center fielder and three-sport star.
“We’ll be ready,” Cauley told him.
Who could doubt a Sweet Home team in that golden era? The kids grew up together in Amherst, playing multiple sports and developing a confident competitive spirit that permeated an entire school. They say you couldn’t walk down the halls without bumping into a future Division I college athlete.
“We had played so much together for so long that it didn’t matter if we played the New York Yankees,” said Cauley, who became a coach and will retire as Hamburg’s athletic director this month. “We thought we were gonna win.
“We won Buffalo Evening News PAL when we were 12 years old. We had so much confidence in one another, and in our coaches. We had played against really good competition basically our whole lives in a lot of sports.”
There was a culture of belief at Sweet Home in the 1980s, an unspoken expectation of success.
“It wasn’t a conscious thing,” said Tim Gardner, who was a reserve sophomore catcher during the title run. “It’s just the way it was.”
That competitive bond drew them together. In some cases, it drew them back. Cauley went to St. Joe’s a freshman, achieving his mother’s dream, but felt like “a fish out of water” and went back with his Sweet Home buddies. Casey Davis went to St. Joe’s, but returned to Sweet Home for that senior year in ’82-83.
“I grew up with all those guys, loved ‘em all,” said Davis, who now lives in Dayton, Ohio, and runs the Bills Backers club there. “Funny story, I had all these credits and all I needed was first-semester English to graduate. I think I took four classes, like typing, which was the best skill I learned in high school.
“Caggiano and I hit it off,” Davis said. “He started me at third base. But before the first game, he comes up to me and says, ‘I’m not even sure you’re a student’. He researched it and said, ‘OK, we’re good.”
They were good, all right. The Panthers had a tough middle-infield combination in Torrillo and shortstop Kevin Sykes. Those two went on to play hockey and baseball for four years at Canisius College, and to this day Torrillo and Sykes are first and second on the Golden Griffins’ career hockey scoring list.
Cauley was a tough, speedy athlete who started for Sweet Home’s state basketball champs the next year. He played football and hockey and became an all-American runner at Cortland State. Dave Biondo, who caught one game and pitched the other on the final Saturday, played quarterback at Division II Ashland and became a small-college All-American.
Hackford, the Panthers’ top pitcher, played at UB. So did Chris Bos, who caught Biondo and batted cleanup in the championship game. So what if four guys didn’t go to Little Falls? This team had plenty of talent and will, and a rare competitive bond that carried them in the critical moments.
“We bonded so well together,” said Sykes, who had the winning hit in both games in Little Falls. “It was a good feeling, because we played as a team. That was the whole thing. It wasn’t just one guy, it was everybody, making plays, timely plays, timely hits.
“When we got those timely plays, they were in key situations,” he said. “That’s how we made it through sectionals. It was close games.”
Competition was fierce in those days. Sweet Home didn’t roll through the section. They won several close games. They were nearly ousted in the very first game, against a strong Jamestown team, which had the bases loaded with two outs, trailing 3-2, in the bottom of the seventh inning.
“They had a left-handed hitter up,” said Davis, who saved all the box scores and newspaper accounts from that season. “I’m playing third base off the line. He smokes a two-hopper down the line. I dive and make the play. Caggiano is screaming at me, ‘Step on the bag, step on the bag!’
“Not that I did anything special, but if I don’t make that play…”
They beat Gowanda in extra innings, as Sykes took a relay throw and threw a kid out at third base. They beat Orchard Park, 2-0, in the third sectional game as Biondi pitched a gem against a lineup that included Dave Hollins, who would go on to star for the Phillies and play in the 1993 World Series.
Their confidence was sky-high after beating Albion, launching them to the first-ever state semifinal. Then the prom issue hit. It was big news in Buffalo. The guys who went to the prom believed they had made a commitment to their dates and needed to stick to it. Hackford said others tried to persuade them to play.
“Our big argument to these guys was, ‘Well, you committed to the team before you asked those girls to the prom. What are the odds of you marrying that girl?’
But no hard feelings. It was their choice. We were all still friends afterward.”
Torrillo and Dunbar were close friends. Dunbar, an all-Western New York football player, was the center for him when he played quarterback (Dunbar later played football at UB). They’re good friends to this day.
“Jim told us the second it happened, ‘I’m not playing baseball, I’m going with my date to the prom, cause I committed’,” Torrillo recalled. “That’s how Jim was. He was a great guy, one of my truly best friends. If you ever had to trust somebody, Jim was that guy. He was our captain for a reason. You loved to be around him.
“I don’t regret my decision, and I still believe Jim doesn’t regret his,” said Torrillo, a teacher and coach at Williamsville East. He has won state championships as a coach in three sports. “That’s how life works. I’m going through it right now in high school.”
Gurreri, who went on to play volleyball for a NCAA champion at Ohio State, felt the same way as Dunbar.
“I didn’t regret it, either, because we won,” he said. “At that point in time, I knew I was going to Ohio State to play volleyball. But our baseball team couldn’t have been a better group of guys. We did EVERYTHING together, for really the last three years of high school. We were almost inseparable.
“It was a really tight-knit group. But I had made a commitment to my date and I felt my word was my word. Her family wasn’t going to let her go to the game.”
Gurreri said there was something “magical” about what happened, as if the fates were with Sweet Home. If he had played, B.J. McNicholas might have been on the bench. McNicholas, a fine defensive player, played left field in the states. He didn’t bat. Smith DH’d for him.
The underdog Panthers played Northport, a Long Island powerhouse loaded with college prospects, in the semifinals early on Saturday. The game was tied, 1-1. Northport had a man on second base with two outs against Hackford. The next batter hit a screaming line drive into the left-center field gap.
McNicholas raced from his spot in left. Cauley did the same from center. They dove simultaneously for the ball.
“I’d always look at B.J. and say, ‘I’ve got you backed up,’ and he’d say vice versa,” Cauley said. “But we didn’t communicate on that play, which was rare. We could have had an ugly collision, because we were both going, and we both dive extended, and he caught it.
“We still call each other Vice Versa.”
“P.J. and I still talk about how lucky we were,” McNicholas said. “If some of the guys didn’t go to the prom, guys like me probably weren’t playing.”
McNicholas, who made several big catches in the post-season run, dropped an easy fly ball earlier in the semifinal. Fortunately, it didn’t lead to a run. He came off the field, distraught, and told Caggiano to take him out.
“I’m like, ‘I’ve never dropped a flyball in my life. I don’t know what I’m doing.’ He said, ‘You’re one of the reasons we’re here. Get your shit together, you’re going back out there.’ I’m like, ‘I got it.’”
When his team needed it most, McNicholas had the ball. Sykes took it from there. He was the leadoff batter in the top of the seventh. He turned to his buddy Torrillo and said, ‘If this guy throws me a fastball, I’m taking him deep.’”
“We were still celebrating the catch and all of a sudden you hear the crack of the bat and Sykes and it just goes out,” McNicholas said. “A bomb.”
Sykes was a laid-back kid who never seemed to let anything faze him. Looking back, he says he was in a zone that day. He was riding that confidence and team bond. He hit a 380-foot home run over the left-field fence at Veterans Memorial Park, at the time the home of the Mets’ New York-Penn League team.
“I can still see the look on the pitcher’s face,” Smith said. “I don’t think he’d seen one of those that year.”
“I think we were all in the zone,” Sykes said. “We were just happy to be in that game. You’re missing four players. Caggiano made it sound like we are going to win the tournament. He never, ever slacked off.”
Hackford set Northport down in order on two strikeouts and a comebacker in the last of the seventh and Sweet Home was on to the title game that night against Our Lady of Lourdes.
That meant none of the players would get back to Western New York for the prom. The plan was to drive right back if they lost and catch most of the dance. But Barczak, who is in the Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame and died in 2016, had arranged to have the players’ prom dates bused to Little Falls so they could have their own prom after the Saturday night final, win or lose.
Things looked grim when the Panthers failed to get a hit until the fourth — a single by Davis. They trailed Lourdes, 3-0, against a pro prospect named John V. Crawford. But Sykes doubled with one out in the fifth. Cauley, who always seemed to get on base, walked. Tim Sykas hit a two-run double to make it 3-2.
Three outs from a loss, the Panthers came through again. Cauley walked to start the seventh, Sykas singled and Bos tied the game with a sacrifice fly.
In the eighth, there was another little twist of fate. Hackford, who normally didn’t play the field, was at first base with Dunbar unavailable. There was a hot smash down the first-base line. He snared it for the out.
“I’m a righty with a left-handed glove,” Hackford said. “Jimmy was lefty. There’s no way he could have reached across his body for that ball.”
Two other men reached in the eighth, so Lourdes likely would have scored. But it went to the bottom of the eighth, tied. Torrillo led off by reaching on an error. He stole second and went to third on Hackford’s bouncer to second.
Sykes was next, still in a zone. One would think the opponents thought to walk him on purpose. Sykes wanted to hit. Caggiano called for a suicide squeeze.
“I didn’t want to bunt,” Sykes recalled. “Then I looked down; I didn’t know if it was a suicide or a regular bunt. It was the suicide, I believe. I just had to put it down. I looked too late and fouled it off.”
Torrillo remembers Sykes sticking his bat out at the last instant to foul off the pitch. He said if Sykes had swung and hit a drive down the line, it would have killed him.
“I think I was standing right next to him,” Torrillo said. “If he had missed a sign and didn’t swing, I think I might have stolen home to win the championship. That’s how close I was to him.”
Naturally, Sykes then hit the ball down the right-field line to win the game and the state championship. That night, they held a prom for the dozen guys who had dates at the Herkimer Hotel. Some of the other guys went back to Buffalo so they could meet up for some post-prom partying at Akron State Park.
When the players got back to their hotel, there were bottles of champagne waiting. Some recall bottles being left in the rooms. Torrillo says there was a case in Barczak’s truck. After 40 years, it’s OK to finger the AD for the deed.
“He never admitted it,” Gardner said. “But it had to be him.”
Gurreri was with Dunbar at the prom in Niagara Falls when they announced that the baseball team had won. “We all went crazy,” said Gurreri, a successful businessman who recently started a non-profit housing venture for special needs adults in Ohio. “The place went nuts. It made the prom what it was.”
Over the years, Gurreri would occasionally run into Caggiano, who would ask him how he couldn’t regret missing the states. Gurreri said he had no regrets because Sweet Home won. Besides, it’s the memory of that team that sticks with him, the bonds they shared, the fun they had. They were kids, after all.
“Whether we won or lost during the season, we listened to music and went crazy on the bus rides home,” Gurreri said. “Every once in awhile, Caggiano would stop everybody and go, ‘Guys, you just lost the baseball game! Why are you always so happy, having fun?’
“It’s baseball,” Gurreri said. “You’re supposed to have fun.”
It was the time of their lives. Forty years. It’s hard to believe it’s been that long. For the guys who lived it, the memory is sweet and unforgettable, of a night when everyone got to dance.