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Pierson’s 1978 Championship Team Remembered

Thu, 02/08/2024 - 11:23
Bob Vishno, who is 91, began coaching at Pierson (Sag Harbor) High School in 1956.
Jack Graves

Tonight, a banner attesting to Pierson (Sag Harbor) High School’s sole state championship boys basketball team, the 1978 one, is to be raised midway through the Babylon-Whalers game, and that championship team’s coach, Bob Vishno, who turned 91 in September, is hoping to be there.

Jeff Peters, whose coach Vishno was, and who arranged for the interview, said the banner will replace one that mysteriously disappeared some time ago. “Maybe it was stolen,” he said. “Nobody knows.”

As for his former mentor, whom he visits regularly these days, Peters said, “He must be one of the very few coaches in the state with 300-plus wins, or pretty close to that, in baseball, basketball, and golf. One thing about Coach: If you need him, he’s always there. He’s a good man.”

Vishno is the second longtime Sag Harbor basketball coach honored at the school in recent days. Kevin O’Halloran, who, in a long career that ended shortly before his death of cancer in August at the age of 69, was remembered Friday in a Cross Up Cancer fund-raiser that the present team proposed and oversaw.

Vishno, whose wife of 71 years, Lillian, died at the age of 91 on Jan. 10, remembered fondly their 1956 trip from Connecticut to Sag Harbor, where he, a recent graduate of what is today Southern Connecticut State University, was to be interviewed for a teaching and coaching job by Pierson’s superintendent at the time, “Mr. Crozier.”

“It was in the summer. I said to Lillian [whom he married that year on Saint Valentine’s Day], ‘Let’s look at a map and see where Sag Harbor is.’ We would take the New London Ferry to Greenport, and I figured we could walk the rest of the way,” he said with a smile. “We’d left the car in Connecticut to save a buck and a half. Luckily, there was a gentleman on the ferry from Westhampton, a helluva nice guy, who said, ‘I’ll take you.’ He drove us from Orient to Greenport to Shelter Island to Sag Harbor, where Mr. Crozier was waiting for us.”

The interviews with the superintendent and the school board members went well, but it was his wife, really, who sealed the deal, marveling at “ ‘all this beautiful water.’ ”

“We rented a house in East Hampton, on Dayton Lane, the first year, but we’ve lived in this one,” on Palmer Terrace, ever since. “Lillian liked it, she put it together, and we added rooms, furnaces, everything, over the years. We bought it,” he said, following a momentary pause, “for $16,000.”

Vishno began his basketball coaching career as the late Hall of Famer Ed Petrie’s assistant. “I was Ed’s assistant and his best friend forever and ever. He was the one who got things going here by starting Biddy league. He brought them up from here to here,” he said, raising his hand from tot to teen level. “He was way ahead of the curve. I helped him for 10 years, and then he went to East Hampton. I became the varsity coach in ’69.”

Vishno coached golf and baseball for many years at Pierson, and taught golf at the Poxabogue course in Sagaponack, as well as, following his and his wife’s retirements, aboard Queen Elizabeth 2 cruises. He continued Petrie’s Biddy league tradition, and the results were, as a consequence, good, though it wasn’t until 1978, when the Whalers began to be matched up with schools their own size in postseason tournaments, that everything came together.

Steve Bromley Jr., The Star’s sportswriter at the time — its first full-time sportswriter, as a matter of fact — described Vishno as “cautiously optimistic” when the 1977-78 season began. There were just four lettermen returning from the previous year’s 14-5 league champion team, he said, namely the Coffey brothers, Darnell and Willie, Eric Brown — the team’s center, and the best jumper for his size he’d ever seen, Bromley was to say in a “Between the Lines” column later that winter — and a guard, Rich King. “Nine other players, including eight from the junior varsity, round out the Pierson unit: Pat Schaefer, Tim Paris, Scott Simms, Erwin Daniels, Tim O’Brien, Peter Schaefer, Peter Pharaoh, Dave Dickerson, and John Guerin.”

Peters recalled the roster as comprising Brown, the Coffey brothers, the Schaefer brothers, King, Daniels, Paris, Steve McAree, Ted Schiavoni, Peter Pharaoh, and Dickerson. David Pharaoh, he said, was the manager.

In Rochester’s Final Four that year, the Whalers defeated Harrisville 77-65 in a semifinal, Brown’s 22 points and 19 rebounds leading the way, and went on to edge Alexander Hamilton 71-68 in the championship game, thanks to Peter Schaefer’s two free throws made with seven seconds left to play in overtime.

(A traveling call on Schaefer’s final-seconds layup that would have treated Pierson to an 81-80 win over Hamilton in a regional final played in Nassau County the next year was, said Vishno, “the worst call in my career, and I’ve had many.”)

“The first attempt was on the money,” Bromley wrote concerning Schaefer’s 1978 heroics. “The second shot bounced once or twice, rolled a little bit . . . and then fell for that precious 3-point lead.”

“Gee, what a super weekend,” Vishno was quoted by Bromley as saying. “Full of joy, and we’ve got a lifetime memory to store away forever.”

The Coffeys and Brown made the all-tournament team. Brown, who scored 20 points and grabbed 17 rebounds in the title game, was the tournament’s most valuable player.

When the state champions got back to Sag Harbor, said Peters, “Everybody was there in the gym, it was way late at night, 2 a.m., and Dr. Annacone declared that there would be no school the next day. That’s the year Queen had that big hit, ‘We Are the Champions.’ That song was blaring, and there was Bob, smoking a cigar with the biggest smile on his face.”

“We are the champions, my friends / And we’ll keep on fighting till the end. . . .”

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