The Post-Journal

Swanson Has Been There From The Start

Mel Swanson is preparing for his 37th season of coaching the Sherman girls basketball team. His first season was 1978-79 which was Sherman's third year of girls basketball and the fourth year after the return of girls sports for area high schools. So Swanson has been there since the start of girls basketball to now when it is as popular as the boys sport, and at some schools it is even more popular.

A lot has changed in those 37 years.

When Swanson started at Sherman, his girls team didn't experience a lot of second-class treatment compared to the boys team.

"We didn't really get any different practice times because (boys coach) Frank Wasylink always liked practicing late, he practiced like 8 to 10 all the time," Swanson said. "Once in a while we'd rotate with the jayvee boys. We always got like an after-school time."

He added, "Uniforms were kind of sub-par. I think our first nice new set of uniforms we got in like '80, '81. We wore the old ones they got the first year until then. The first ones had sleeves, it was different."

Things were a bit spartan in equipment.

"Nobody had shot clocks at that time," Swanson said. "They were all on a stopwatch, which was really different. They had a stopwatch and a horn at the table. Our first set of shot clocks we got probably around that '80, '81 time also."

When asked about the crowds in the early years, Swanson described them as, "Small, pretty small. The parents and a few kids. Away games were even smaller, but that changed as we got into the '80s."

He added, "I think overall it was pretty well supported everywhere. The girls had been without sports for so long, when they first came back it was a little iffy because all of the schools didn't get into it right away. There became more pressure on each district and the first couple years more jumped in and then most everybody said hey, we've all got to get in. It's got to be an equal situation with the boys."

There was always support at Sherman.

"Since I've been in it, the administrations have been real supportive of the (girls) basketball program," Swanson said. "Obviously, Sherman basketball had been a big boys program for a long, long time and they really accepted girls, especially when we began playing better basketball. At first it was pretty rugged because we had so many kids that had never played anything."

In the two seasons before Swanson began coaching, Sherman went winless and the Lady Wildcats were 0-14 in his first season. Then came back-to-back 5-9 seasons.

"I remember the first game we ever won we were at Ripley and we had maybe 20 people there and Ripley had maybe 40 or 50," Swanson said. "The gym was so darn quiet that our practices are louder than that now."

Things are quite different now.

"In the early years I never thought we would play in front of 600 or 700 or 800 people like at the (Section VI) finals at Jamestown High School," Swanson said. "Even last year we played the semis at Chautauqua Lake and there were so many people in that gym that they put chairs along the end lines. In the early years when we had 40 or 50 people at the game if somebody would have said someday your team is going to play in front of nearly 1,000 people at Jamestown High School and you're not going to be able to hear yourself think, I'd have said, 'Yeah, right.' Now you better get there early or you're not going to get a seat. I would never have guessed that back in the early years."

But in the early years it took quite a while for some fans to catch on.

"A parent or a fan said to me once that watching girls basketball was like watching the paint dry," Swanson said. "When his daughter became a player, then all of sudden girls basketball became real interesting."

Sherman's first winning season in girls basketball was 1981-82 with a 12-9 record and then the team was 20-2 the following season after an appearance in the state tournament. So what led to the improvement?

"When more girls began to get more active and began playing in the summer in the camps," Swanson said. "In the early years a lot of those girls had never gone to a basketball camp and never played in any summer leagues. We started practice in November and ended it (the season) in February and we'd start the year again in November. When they really got involved in the Y leagues and the basketball camps, that really brought real improvement to the game itself. The girls just began to develop skills that were in their game that were equal to what the boys were doing in their games."

Also, coaching the girls just as basketball players, not girls basketball players, helped. Some coaches didn't do that.

"They handled the girls more with kid gloves instead of just coaching basketball," Swanson said. "I'd had no experience coaching basketball other than being coached in high school by some very good people and they were pretty intense, so when I got into coaching I was pretty intense. I didn't look at it from the standpoint of 'Oh yeah, they're girls. You can't really be intense with them.' But some of the coaches didn't feel comfortable being that intense."

The state semifinals in 1982-83 were played in Rochester and then only the title game was played at Queensbury High School near Glens Falls, site of the boys state tourney. Though Sherman lost in the semis, Swanson attended the Class D title game that year.

"It was a high school gym, no bigger than Jamestown's," Swanson recalled about Queensbury. "The crowd was good, it was not anything like it is now. We play now at Hudson Valley (Community College) and the crowds are good there. I don't think they're as big as the boys crowds, but they're good crowds at the girls states now."

He added, "It (the girls state tournament) was just growing. The boys tournament was going on at the same time so that drew away from it. Obviously when you're playing in a high school gym, it's still a high school gym."

It was about 10 years ago when the girls state tournament was moved to Hudson Valley in Troy.

"Obviously we would have liked to have seen it moved closer to the middle of the state so it's not always a seven- to eight-hour drive up there," Swanson said.

The goal was to move the event away from the boys tournament.

"It think that was a big part of it, but not to move to a facility so huge," Swanson said. "Even at Glens Falls (Civic Center), the support is overwhelmed by the size of the facility. There's so many seats in an arena like that, the crowd is not as into it. At Hudson Valley it's big enough that the seating is more on the court and the atmosphere can be a little bit better."

But all the atmosphere in the girls basketball has changed from the time Swanson began in 1978. Often he'll reflect back on how it used to be.

"It's been an interesting journey from those early years," he said. "I can remember in those early years when we were no good, we could not play and remember going to the gym and hoping we would get into double figures. I remember one time losing down at Pine Valley 45-10 and I was thankful after the game that we had just gotten to 10."

Sherman, and all of girls basketball, has come a long ways since then.

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