- Associated Press - Saturday, March 26, 2016

HADLEY, Mass. (AP) - At the Hopkins Academy graduation of 1956, 10 girls and 11 boys received diplomas.

“That’s right, 11 boys in our senior class, and six were on the basketball team,” says Ted Kosior, now retired from a career in banking and still living in his hometown of Hadley.

For two years, that Hopkins basketball team put together a 42-game winning streak which captivated the region.

The streak finally ended in a 67-65 overtime loss to Worcester Commerce in the first round of the Western Massachusetts tournament at the Springfield College Field House.

“We were a small-school team like the ‘Hoosiers’ in that movie, except we didn’t win our last game. We should have won it,” says Joe Zgrodnik, a senior who played his heart out that night, as did all of his teammates. “Losing was so hard, but people in town kept saying you’ll get over it. Well, guess what? I’m still not over it.”

Kosior knows the feeling, but he also knows that he played the game of his life against Worcester Commerce. He scored his season-high, 19 points, including 13 in the second half.

“It was great to be playing at the field house with most of Hadley there, cheering us on,” Kosior recalled recently. “I had my best game, but right at the end I had a shot that ticked off the rim, and that was it.”

Before Hopkins’ achievement, the Western Massachusetts record for consecutive victories had been 39, set by the Westfield High School teams of 1939, 1940 and 1941. Springfield’s Classical High School snapped that streak early in the 1941 season.

Hopkins tied the record it a Feb. 14, 1956, game against Smith’s School, then broke it three days later with a resounding 86-46 victory over St. Michael’s High School from Northampton.

Hopkins’ record lasted until 1991 and 1992, when Springfield Central High School racked up 47 straight wins; the 1991 Central team, led by future NBA player Travis Best, accounted for 25 of those wins.

Sixty years after their “Hoosiers” season, the Hopkins Academy players involved still have vivid memories of life in the Pioneer Valley spotlight - and the heartbreak that went with it.

“We were just a bunch of Polish farm boys who knew how to work hard and play together,” said Kosior, who started alongside Gene Hoynoski in the Hopkins backcourt.

Of course, it helped that one of those Polish farm boys - 6 foot, 5 inch John Pipczynski - happened to be a dominating player. (He had 30 points against Worcester Commerce, a typical night for him).

“Pip was a cut above and so dedicated,” Zgrodnik said. “We had a big, strong, fast team. We liked to run, and we played good defense. Our coach, Bud Kneeland, was really a football guy, but he knew how to lead and he brought out the best in us.”

Pipczynski and Kosior both went on to the University of Connecticut, where they played for coach Hugh Greer. After college, Pipczynski returned home to teach and coach at Hopkins, where he later became principal. He passed away in 2015. Kosior played two years of professional baseball before settling into his banking career.

Zgrodnik went on to play at Amherst College, then studied dentistry at Tufts University. He recently retired after a career as an orthodontist.

“I’m back where I started, on the family farm in Hadley,” Zgrodnik said.

The Hopkins teams of 1954-1955 and 1955-1956 consisted of kids who had grown up together, playing basketball in Hadley’s tobacco barns. Fred Kowal, Pete Sadlowski, Stan Jekanoski, Ed Podolak and Robert Sullivan (he had a Polish mother) joined Pipczynski, Zgrodnik, Kosior and Hoynoski on a nine-man roster. They not only became teammates, they became friends for life.

Like Pipczynski, Jekanoski became a principal, at a high school in the eastern Massachusetts town of Billerica.

Rufus “Bud” Kneeland, the man who molded Hopkins into a small-school power, played three seasons of football at American International College (Class of 1951), where he excelled as a quarterback and punter. He was 24 years old when he started his teaching-coaching career at Hopkins.

“Basically, Bud knew how to handle us, and we responded. He stressed conditioning, so we were in shape to play both ways at top speed,” Zgrodnik said.

In December 1954, Hopkins opened its season by losing 50-49 to Easthampton High School in overtime. Four nights later, Hopkins lost 39-37 to Northampton High - a game in which both Pipczynski and Kosior were held without a field goal.

“At that point, who would have dreamed what was ahead of us,” Kosior said.

After that 0-2 start, Hopkins went undefeated for the rest of the season, capping a 22-0 run by winning the Small Schools Tournament in Curry Hicks Cage at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

In the 1955-1956 season, Hopkins won two tough games with South Hadley High School on its way to a third straight Hampshire League title.

Despite its tiny enrollment, the Hadley school became a strong candidate for the Western Massachusetts Tournament at the Springfield College field house. After all, its undefeated record was the region’s best.

At that time, the eight-team regional tournament had no divisions. Furthermore, its format called for Worcester County to get three berths and Berkshire County two. That left three for the Connecticut River valley, and those normally would go to large urban schools.

Despite those restrictions, the tournament committee wanted Hopkins because of its season record and its winning streak.

“It became an issue in town (about) do we accept the invitation to play in Springfield or do we go back to the small schools tournament to defend our title,” Kosior recalled.

“Finally, we decided to go for it, and we let the School Committee know how we felt. They gladly went along with us. I’m glad we did it. We played well against a good big-city team that went won the tournament. I’d say we did OK.”

Kosior, Hoynoski and Zgrodnik remain active as basketball fans. They’re regulars at UMass games, and this season, they rooted for a Hopkins team that included Greg Pipczynski, John Pipczynski’s grandson. The Hopkins boys won the Western Massachusetts Division III title before losing in the state semi-finals.

“They went 23-1, a great season,” Kosior said of this generation’s championship Hopkins team.

Yes, a great season that woke up the echoes of 1956 - a very special time in the illustrious history of Hopkins Academy basketball.

___

Information from: The Springfield (Mass.) Republican, http://www.masslive.com/news/

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