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Bonac Football at the Century Mark

Thu, 09/07/2023 - 06:14
East Hampton High School’s 1952 team coached by Fran Kiernan has been the sole one in the past 100 years to go undefeated and untied.

This season marks the 100th anniversary of football at East Hampton High School, and while the win percentage over that span has hovered around 40 percent, the Bonackers have always been known as hard-nosed foes, defense being the name of the game in their championship seasons.

That gritty tradition, which has produced some soaring triumphs in the past century, is to be celebrated with a party at the Clubhouse in Wainscott at 5 p.m. on Sept. 23, following the homecoming game with Harborfields, which is to begin at 1. 

Known as the Maroon and Gray originally, East Hampton experienced growing pains in the early years, a period during which Southampton, East Hampton’s chief rival from 1923 on, was the dominant team in Suffolk County, if not on all of Long Island, according to Norton (Bucket) Daniels, who wrote about Bonac’s early years for a history that was published on the occasion of the sport’s 75th anniversary in 1998.

Dave Cheney, whose father, Robert (Pop) Cheney, a physics teacher, coached East Hampton’s first team, has said that “in the first game East Hampton ever played, against a much-bigger Southampton team, whose players were used to tossing 100-pound potato sacks up onto trucks, my father, figuring that we’d be stronger on defense than offense, which he hadn’t had time to work on, told them that when they got the ball they should punt it away.”

“Well, we kicked off to begin the game, Southampton fumbled on its 10-yard line, and when my father looked up he saw we were in punt formation! The ball sailed into the trees near where the L.V.I.S. is now.”

There have been seven coaches, Fran Kiernan, Gary Golden, Dick Cooney, Ted Meyer, David MacGarva, Bill Barbour Jr., and Joe McKee in the past 80 years; there were seven in the first 20, Frank (Sprig) Gardner, the “father of New York State wrestling,” among them. His 1934 team, whose roster included Bob Dominy, a tackle who went on to play at Carnegie Tech, Mark (Junie) Ryan, Howard Martin, Carroll Fithian, David Baker, Willie Jasunas, Vincent Barsdis, Tom Mott, and Patsy D’Andrea, was “the mythical Suffolk County champion.”

East Hampton defeated Southampton that year, 19-7, its second win in a row over the Mariners, who, according to Daniels, emerged victorious in all of the other East Hampton-Southampton games between 1923 and 1941.

Daniels said the ’34 team “was probably the best of any team in the 1923-1941 era. . . . Asked many years after he left East Hampton, who, of all his players, was his best, Sprig said, without hesitation, ‘Bob Dominy.’ ”

Initially, East Hampton not only played such eastern Long Island teams as Patchogue, Westhampton Beach, Riverhead, Bridgehampton, Sag Harbor, Southampton, and Greenport, but also teams from such places as Glen Cove, Hempstead, Amityville, Brooklyn, Queens, and New London, Conn.

Kiernan, who arrived here in 1945 and coached the football team through 1960, oversaw the only undefeated, untied squad in East Hampton annals, the team of 1952, whose roster included, among others, LeRoy DeBoard, Rich Cooper, Jim Clark, Fred Yardley, Fritz Schenck, John Tilley, Ed Ecker, Harry O’Rourke, George Cafiso, Augie Dragotta, Bob Yardley, Don Bovie, Charlie Gould, Bob Taylor, Dave Cheney, and Billy DeBoard.

Kiernan hired Gary Golden to succeed him, and Golden’s eight years here, before he left to assist Bob Blackman at Dartmouth — and later at the University of Illinois — were largely golden years. Under him, East Hampton won league championships in 1965 and ’67, and from 1963 through ’65 went 18-2-2.

Steve Marmon wrote in The Star in the fall of 1965 that “the Bonackers clinched the championship by routing William Floyd High of Mastic 63-0. John Henry Albert had an almost unbelievable average of 19 yards per carry. . . . The Bonac Red Devil defense was tops in Suffolk and gave up only 24 points all season. Bill McDonald, a high school all-American honorable mention, was the Red Devils’ sparkplug, blitzing, tackling, blocking punts, recovering fumbles, and intercepting passes, though he had plenty of help from, among others, Steve Cary, Ernie Green, ‘Big Jim’ Miller, Ray Bimson, Buddy Webb, and Rick Lawler.”

In the backfield with Albert were F.J. Kiernan at quarterback, Gary Greene at halfback, and Milton George at fullback.

Golden’s “idea,” according to his assistant, Bob Budd, “was that the defense should set up the offense. . . . He would have defenders tape to their helmets the number of points they had given up, ‘as a reminder.’ ”

Jim Brooks, who kicked the extra points for that 1965 championship team, has said that Golden was “old school . . . you were never to walk, never to take off your helmet, never to drink water during practice, and never to question his directions. However, whatever you thought of his methods, all he did was win!”

As good as Golden’s teams were, however, it wasn’t until 1967 that he and his charges defeated Southampton. Charlie Whitmore said of that wonderful day, “The entire town turned out to welcome the team, everything shut down, people were in the streets . . . they were kissing and hugging the players. East Hampton hadn’t beaten Southampton in 10 or so years.”

It should be added that it was only the sixth time an East Hampton team had beaten a Mariner team in 44 years.

Dick Cooney too had a winning record during his 16-year tenure. His 6-1-1 team of 1981 — a team on which East Hampton’s present coach, Joe McKee, played — won the Suffolk County Class B championship, a singular feat. It was, Cooney said in his 75th anniversary account, “a great defensive team that hit hard and pursued with abandon.”

Robbie Greene, Phil Siegal, Jamie Marley, Charlie Ecker, McKee, and Paul McGowan were on the line. Cooney’s son, Rich Jr., was the quarterback, and Ed Budd and Justin Winter carried the mail.

Wins have been a little harder to come by since 1982, which, of course, makes it all the more exciting when they occur. There have been some good teams since ’82, however — Ted Meyer’s league-championship 1990 squad and David MacGarva’s 1994 Division III champs in particular.

The Bonackers haven’t had a winning season since 2009, and the school wasn’t able to field a varsity in 2017, ’18, ’19, or, because of the Covid pandemic, in 2020. The persistence of Joe McKee, who was brought in to rebuild the program after Bill Barbour Jr.’s departure in 2011, and whose K-6 Friday night flag football games under the lights at Herrick Park have proved to be a big drawing card, has been rewarded this fall with a turnout of 64, which led an observer at a recent practice session to say, “Is this Sayville or East Hampton?”

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