From no-chance to champs: Remembering the ’69 NHS basketball team

COURTESY PHOTO Legendary Nashua High basketball coach Tony Marandos imparts advice to players Adam Gureckis, left, and Terry Briggs during the 1969 Class L state championship game, which Nashua won 56-48 over Manchester Memorial 50 years ago.

The same raucous contingent that had jammed the memorable Chestnut Street gym on many Tuesday and Friday nights now filled bleachers at UNH’s Lundholm gym in force, joined this time by reinforcements determined to push their beloved Purple and White over the finish line ahead of a sudden arch-rival wearing targets of revenge on their collective backs.

“Sorry, fellas, not this time,” the young men wearing white shirts with “Panthers” in purple letters seemed to be saying over and over ­ especially during the final period, during which the local boys turned a one-point deficit into an eight-point victory and left members of a very talented, but often disjointed, Manchester Memorial team looking around wondering what just happened.

“I can still picture it in my mind ­ Richard and Kashulines dribbling out the clock, and Flanagan with a disgusted look on his face,” then-Telegraph sports editor Greg Andruskevich told me the other day.

He referred to Panther Captain Lou Richard and backup guard Dave Kashulines, who went in for starting guard Gary Kopka when Kopka fouled out with a minute or so left.

Flanagan, of course, was the star of the Crusaders, an all-around athlete with a smooth, dead-eye left-hand set shot Memorial partisans loved and opponents dreaded.

The championship 1969 Nashua High Panthers earned a front-page editorial, which appeared with a photo of the late coach Tony Marandos being lifted up by his players following the March 15 victory.

Sadly, Flanagan, well liked and respected on and off the court or field, and who went on to a stellar MLB pitching career with the Baltimore Orioles, passed a number of years ago.

But back in the day Nashua had an answer for Flanagan: The pure, perfect-spin right-hand jump shot of a youngster named Adam Gureckis.

Give Gureckis even a little daylight and he’d burn you, opponents soon learned, and even if you played him tight he’d usually be able to elevate his 6-3 frame and clear most outstretched defensive arms.

Gureckis often launched “from way downtown,” as Andruskevich wrote, borrowing a phrase coined by the late great Johnny Most. Many of his bombs came from the top of the key, and plenty from the right and left of the key.

Safe to say that had the 3-point shot been around then, Gureckis, who played some as an eighth grader, more as a freshman then started for three years, could very well hold the NHIAA record for career high school points.

A series of photos surrounds then-Telegraph sports editor Greg Andruskevich's story, and a "Purple Patches" sidebar, on the NHS Panthers' unlikely championship run that culminated in a 56-48 win over rival Manchester Memorial in the March 15, 1969 finals.

He did hold the Queen City Invitational Basketball Tournament points record ­ until the advent of the 3-pointer.

Records are fine, of course, but what we folks who bleed purple (and who automatically dislike any team with “Manchester” in its name) appreciate most is how Gureckis so often vanquished the opponent with his not-so-secret weapon.

Take that final game for instance: Not only did Memorial run out to a 10-0 lead in the first few minutes, Tony Marandos and his crew knew their one-point deficit at the end of three periods could grow to double figures in no time.

Marandos, known as “the dean of NH basketball coaches” for his civility, grace and gentleman-like manner as much as he was respected for his coaching success, gathered his players between periods and issued his orders.

Stop Flanagan. Box out the big guys ­ Dave Puchasz and Chuck Smyrl ­ at both ends of the court. And play the pesky Dick Daigle hard and tight.

The Manchester Memorial side of the scorebook for the 1969 Class L championship game, which Nashua won 56-48 some 50 years ago.

If center John Terrell or senior forward John Pananos couldn’t shake free in the lane, pass it out to Gureckis or, if he’s bottled up, to Richard on the other side.

I love looking again and again at the fourth-quarter column in the scorebook, which Gureckis saved all these years and graciously let me borrow.

Flanagan, three free throws and three fouls. Puchacz, fouled out, no fourth quarter points. Smyrl, two points, four fouls. Daigle, four points. Starting forward Jim Masson, three fouls, zero points.

On the other side of the ledger (as Most liked to say): Gureckis, eight points. Richard, four points. Pananos, Kashulines, and backup Terry Briggs, two points each. By the time Kopka fouled out, the Panthers had three fingers and a thumb on the championship trophy.

Fourth quarter points: Nashua 18, Memorial 9.

The official scorer for the 1969 Class L championship game noted Nashua High's victory in the scorebook. The title game was played 50 years ago.

“The key guy, as I remember, was Johnny Pananos,” Kopka, now retired and living in Hollis, told me. “He played church league (basketball), hadn’t played much after that, but tried out and made the team” for the 1968-69 season.

Another key guy was the one on the bench wearing a suit and tie. “Tony was a great coach,” Kopka said, crediting the late coach for his ability to put a perennial contender on the floor just about every season for nearly 30 years.

Self-schooled on the fundamentals of the game, Marandos was never a fan of the zone defense, Kopka recalled. If a captain, or veteran player, suggested playing zone against the occasional opponent that had trouble with it, Marandos always responded the same way: “It’s a lazy man’s defense.”

Even in an era when the generation gap was considerably wider than today, Marandos preferred his players call him “Tony,” whether at practice or during games. I always wondered how Bobby Knight would have reacted if he knew.

Richard, meanwhile, chalked up the success of the ’69 team to “a few factors: A very motivating coach, a humble star, and a decent supporting cast.”

In his pre-game pep talks, Richard recalled, Marandos “often compared us to Notre Dame,” telling the players “we have the best facility, the best uniforms … and we were to play hard every game, whether the opponent was undefeated or hadn’t won one game,” he said.

The humble star Richard referred to? “In my opinion, we had only one star on the team, that was Gureckis,” he said. “He was our go-to guy … he could shoot the lights out in any gym. Mr. Clutch, for sure,” Richard added.

Whether a player started or came off the bench, the determination and hustle were always there. “We defeated a pretty good Memorial team that night in Durham,” Richard said.

Nashua, no matter if in the midst of a mediocre season or cruising along undefeated, became the team to beat.

“Like Notre Dame, everyone wanted to knock off Nashua,” Richard said. “It made (an opponent’s) season if they could defeat us.”

That reputation was very likely rooted in those pre-game pep talks Marandos was known for.

“We believed we were the best,” Richard said. “When we ran out of the locker room, we felt like we could beat any team.”