TO HAVE NEVER LOST AT ALL: The Legend of Long Island’s Greatest High School Basketball Team of the 20th Century / Part 1

Written By: Michael  Mackey

In the dead of winter amidst the dormant off season peculiar to high society’s most celebrated summer resort, sons of regular year round folk lit up the east end sky. A distinctly brilliant cluster of schoolboy basketball bodies, before the eagle landed and returned home safely, these kids from the Hamptons had formed a first magnitude Long Island hoops legend.

Between March 9, 1967 and March 7, 1970 the Mariners of Southampton High won 61 consecutive games; a record which no school – public or private – in Nassau or Suffolk has ever surpassed. Yet Southampton’s schoolboy basketball champions of the late 1960s were more than Long Island’s greatest high school team of the 20th century; a basketball blockbuster three years running. They were more than a revolutionary, breathtaking blend of speed and quickness, skill and coordination; more than record smashing teenage hoopsters whose scoring statistics still stagger the imagination; more than the most exciting indoor spectator sports experience in Suffolk County, New York. No these local lads were more than a squad of superbly gifted jocks. They were the manifestation of their community’s soul, whose adventures on the court, off court, and in court capture for posterity an American microcosm – Southampton, U.S.A. – during a tumultuous time of transition.

In 1967, the east end seemed an entity unto itself. Although geographically contained in the state of New York, Long Island’s five east end towns more resembled a section of rural New England than the suburban sprawl of its five western neighbors. Antenna TV {there was limited cable access} and much of the listenable AM radio in eastern Suffolk was broadcast from stations in Connecticut and Rhode Island. Plans for extending the L.I.E. to Riverhead and Sunrise Highway to Southampton stood seven years from completion, accentuating the east end’s remote image. Growing up in a sparse and separate farming community, east end baby boomers were country kids. And grownups sought to sustain their hometown’s status quo. East end elected officials strongly favored the current system of county government whereby each of Suffolk’s 10 towns received equal legislative representation on the county Board of Supervisors, regardless of population. However, a recent Supreme Court ruling made radical, mandated, restructuring inevitable and imminent. Thus, in 1967 the 5 east end towns faced a significant loss of representative influence and political clout. Headlines in Newsday declared “E. Suffolk Vows Eventual Split.” “Progress Unwelcome In East End.” And in the Southampton Press, “Introducing Bill to Permit Peconic County.”

The tension surrounding Suffolk’s east/west schism played out on high school basketball courts as well.

Instituted in 1965, the annual Section XI Tournament included a mix of Suffolk’s best large and small school teams determining a single overall public high school basketball champion. The first and second place teams from each of the six leagues gained entry. League 1 being schools of largest enrollment; League 6 the smallest. All east end schools were in either League 5 or 6.

In their first games of the 1965 and 1966 Section XI Tournaments Southampton started fast, held a substantial halftime lead, then was beaten down by bigger, stronger western Suffolk opponents; aided some claimed by western Suffolk referees unfamiliar with and overwhelmed by the Mariners up tempo play and relentlessly aggressive defense.

In the 1967 semi-finals it happened again when eventual champion West Islip overcame a 10 point first half deficit to score a decisive win; making 40 free throws off a record 51 fouls called against Southampton. It would be S.H.S. last loss of the decade. Two nights later their victory over Half Hollow Hills begot the fabled three year long unbeaten streak.

The 1967-68 team entered the playoffs 17 – 0 after romping through their regular season east end schedule. The Mariners’ mind boggling per game point totals drew considerable attention back then. And 21st century observers might too ask, “HTF did they do that?” 120 vs Mattituck, 102 vs Center Moriches, 100 vs East Hampton, 112 vs Bellport…in a 32 minute game with NO 3 point shot! Newspapers at the time quickly caught on to the phenomenon. Newsday and its upstart competitor the Suffolk Sun plus Long Island Press, N.Y. Sunday News, Riverhead News Review, and the Southampton Press gave Mariner mania mass coverage. Reporters especially liked writing about Southampton’s dynamic, demanding, larger than life coach. Joseph P. Romanosky stood 6’ 3.5” weighing in at 260. A St. Bonaventure sports legend who became a hard coal tough western Pennsylvania semi-pro linebacker, Romo turned down an N.F.L. offer for the more secure professional field of education. Starting his career in upstate New York, he led football, baseball, and soccer teams to championships. In Southampton, coaching hoops for the first time, the ever imposing big guy remained humble and secure enough to keep it simple and fun for his boys. Romo’s Mariners didn’t work basketball. They played it!

But, western Suffolk skeptics forecast a comeuppance when Southampton faced presumably stiffer competition from larger schools in the tournament. Instead, the squad stepped up and blew Central Islip away in round one scoring a record 107 points! The Mariners then proceeded to decisively defeat League 1 champ North Babylon and in a thrilling semi-final beat highly touted Amityville 92 – 78. Then for the ultimate western Suffolk comeuppance, the final featured Southampton vs Pierson! The Mariners 99 – 79 victory in the championship game became the Sag Harbor boys second loss of the season; both to Southampton. The L.I. Press proclaimed “Mariner Win Glorifies East.” A Newsday banner read “East End Basketball: A Very Grand Season” and the Suffolk Sun headlined, “Southampton Has Fun and County Title.”

Southampton’s gloriously successful 1967-1968 championship season demonstrated an advanced game of high school hoops played at an accelerated level of raw and rapid sophistication heretofore unseen in the tri-state region and likely anywhere else. The team’s successful chemistry was no fluke, either.
The 21st century theory that 10,000 hours of practice can equal genius appears applicable. Growing up together in the 1950s and 60s these country boys spent at least 10,000 hours learning, internalizing and perfecting their craft playing in school gyms, Conklin’s Barn, outdoor playgrounds, family backyards – the most popular “Fanning Garden” on Layton Avenue in Southampton Village. Individually and collectively, in accomplishment and style, these local fledglings advanced beyond high school hoops’ previous paradigm. The Mariners’ new up tempo game of mach speed synergy – fresh and quick, individually free and creative, yet always unselfish – became a compelling competition to witness. Consequently, most of the Mariners 61 straight were played in east end gyms that were full or nearly so. At Southampton High School {Leland Lane/now S.I.S.} there were regular season home games where fans would queue up outside in the winter cold as early as 3:30 in the afternoon…for a 6pm game. The jayvee game! The varsity not starting until about a quarter to eight. For post-season playoffs staged at bigger western Suffolk locales against schools whose enrollments far exceeded S.H.S., one would marvel at how the large number of Mariner rooters present made this distant event at a neutral site seem more like a Southampton home game. For those county championship games at Long Island Arena with over 5,000 fans in attendance, the roar of the crowd indicated that at least 80% were cheering for the Mariners. It was as if the entire east end had been transported to Commack. A quip at the time spoken with an element of truth was that there had better not be a fire in Southampton tonight or the town will burn. Newsday sports headlined it a mass “Exodus.” For this 150 mile trek up island and back, a potato country caravan assembled including cars, trucks, vans, and 15 – 20 spectator buses…packed with hundreds and hundreds of celebrating students…escorted by a highly visible and audible police and fire department.

Upon conclusion of the Section XI Tournament, the hometown honored their teenage hoops heroes with parades, fireworks displays, full page newspaper spreads, and first class testimonial dinners which featured not only the current champs, but S.H.S. champions from as far back as 30, 40, and 50 years earlier. One ancient Mariner recognized during the ceremonies, Mr. Southampton himself – W.K. Dunwell – was from the Class of “ought three.” 1903!

As the 1968-69 season opened the Mariners lifted their game even higher. Winners of their first 8, the streak now at 30, and Southampton becoming as famous for its winter wizards as its magical summer scene, all is well when suddenly 2 Mariner starters, including the most heralded high school athlete on Long Island, are busted by local police for possession of marijuana and banned from “all extracurricular activities until this matter is adjudicated.” The tense situation presents and reveals a multitude of issues facing this multi-racial east end community. Meanwhile, teammates rally round the Mariner coach, seeking to sustain their illustrious record while certain town fathers work with Romo to clear a boy’s name and save his once promising future.