1961 Lightweight Basketball Team (2006)
Some stayed up all night, on their feet, often carrying weights on their shoulders, desperately clinging to the belief that they could shrink away that cruel quarter of an inch that might keep them from their dreams. For these hopeful Ramblers, the critical moment of their basketball lives had arrived. The next day was Measuring-In Day, and the tale of the tape would determine their fate. Those measuring 5'8" or under had survived and could compete for a spot on the lightweight basketball team. Those over the line, their dreams shattered, headed for the cold, empty gyms of the CYO circuit. One of the singular traditions of the Chicago Catholic League, lightweight basketball offered generations of talented hoopsters the chance to play against stiff league competition, to vie for a team title, and to display their wares to the local basketball world. Sadly, fifty years of tradition ended suddenly in 1974, a victim of the Catholic League's entry into IHSA competition. Veterans will long argue the relative merits of the top teams in Loyola lightweight lore, but none can dispute the credentials of the 1961 edition. A cohesive mix of indispensable parts, the 1961 Lightweight Basketball Team steamrolled to a 22-2 mark and its first Catholic League title in thirty years. In doing so, this team, along with its heavyweight counterpart, established Loyola basketball as a force to be reckoned with for years to come. Employing a systematic, up-tempo passing game and a suffocating, full-court defense, Coach Gene Sullivan's (Hall of Fame, 1998) Ramblers stormed through the pre-season with a 6-1 mark, their lone defeat coming at the hands of an earlier victim, south side rival Brother Rice. A close loss to St. Rita in the championship game of the annual Fenwick Tourney fueled the rising expectations among the Loyola faithful as the Ramblers braced for regular season play and their shot at a title. The 1961 Lightweights never lost again. They ran the table, downing thirteen straight opponents on their road to the title. They were a team without egos, just five good athletes working in concert toward a common goal. Leading a balanced attack were senior co-captains Dick Devine (Hall of Fame, 1998), Paul Stepan, and Connie Sullivan, with juniors Bob Barrett and Terry Kelly completing the starting five. On offense, Devine and Barrett worked the inside game, establishing a physical presence in the paint and combing the boards for put-back buckets. Ball handlers Kelly, Sullivan, and Stepan roamed the perimeter, with Kelly looking for the spot jumper while Sullivan and Stepan tested the defense for driving lanes to the basket. At the other end of the court, a tenacious, nose-to-the-chest defense was everybody's calling. Key contributions came from a deep bench led by senior Dick Baur, junior Carl Gebuhr, and sophomores Jeff Markey (Hall of Fame, 1998), Bob and Ray Ferrara, Dick Frankel, Dick Garvey, Jack Nieman, and Bill Springgate. Carrying a perfect 10-0 regular season record into the Catholic League playoffs, a confident Rambler team breezed through its quarterfinal with St. Patrick before facing the two teams that had delivered Loyola its only losses of the season. In the semifinal game, Loyola's lightweights dashed Brother Rice's hopes with a hard-fought 45-41 win, and a single team now stood between Loyola and the Catholic League Championship trophy. In the title-game showdown, the Ramblers vanquished St. Rita, 51-43, to claim their first CCL title since 1931. They did so in style, neatly avenging the only two blemishes on a sterling 22-2 record. Though post-season individual honors arrived in abundance — Devine, Stepan, Sullivan, and Barrett merited selection to numerous All-Catholic, All-Area teams — the 1961 Lightweight Basketball Team proved much more than merely a collection of all-stars. Forty-five years later, its members celebrate their year of glory, the esprit de corps that bound them together, and the memory of the coach who molded them into men.