COAL TOWNSHIP — Numbers are only important if they add up to wins, if you are sharing them with your grandchildren, or for bragging rights at future class reunions.
But the numbers put up by the hundreds of players over 57 years of Shamokin Area boys’ basketball have provided this year’s Indians team with a unique opportunity.
When the Purple and White take the floor tonight in the gym they call “The Purple Palace,” this team can enter the school record book by claiming the 1,000th victory in program history.
Win No. 999 came at home Friday night versus Jersey Shore, but a loss Saturday night at home to the state’s No. 3-ranked Class 5A team, Abington Heights, moved the milestone possibility to tonight against rival Shikellamy.
Head coach Chris Zimmerman, who has 156 of those wins as a coach and is the school’s all-time leading scorer (2,061 points), said he learned of the approaching milestone at the end of last season.
“Brian Persing, our booster president, did some research and came up with the number so we knew we had a good chance to get it this year,” Zimmerman said.
As for the team, he said, “We told (the players) about it at the start of the season and then we didn’t talk about it. We look at winning each game and getting back out again and doing our thing.”
But there was no hiding the fact.
Persing contributed a plaque which has hung in the gym where the win total is updated after each game.
Although the 1,000th win is never discussed at practice or games, Zimmerman said that as the milestone got closer, they kept track of it in the gym.
“The kids are taking a real interest in it,” Zimmerman said. “They like changing the numbers in the gym.”
Seniors Cameron Annis and Connor Mattern, like the other players, are excited to be a part of such a milestone.
Speaking at practice last week, Annis said, “This team is so special this year. We have had a lot of great groups other years, but I think this team (12-3 on the season) is just different, every single one of them.”
Annis said they haven’t thought a lot about the 1,000th win during the season because, “That was not one of our main goals. Our main goal is to win the District (4, Class 4A) championship and the (Pennsylvania Heartland Athletic Conference) championship, and maybe even states.”
But he added that it would be great to do all those things as well as getting the 1,000th win.
“It would be great to be that team that gets the 1,000th win for our district,” he said.
After they get it, he said, “Then we can focus on the league championship.”
Mattern said, “It would be amazing. I would love to look back one day and know that we were a great team, that we got the 1,000th win and won the district championship, that’s what it’s all about.”
He and his teammates would like to get the school’s first D4 title since 2014.
Mattern said the players have a lot of confidence because they believe “we have the most talent, and a lot of great individual players, and once once we all play together that makes one great team and that’s really where our confidence comes from.”
Zimmerman, who was part of the program since 1996, except for his four years in college, playing at Bucknell and Susquehanna universities, said it was a lot of fun, but that the players all had pride in the program.
And that pride, something his predecessor, Joe Klebon, also credited with the success, continued after their playing days were over.
Sitting at practice, Zimmerman pointed to the players and coaches on the floor sand said, “These guys are all former players, players who played for me or with me. Look around the gym, it’s all Shamokin guys. When former classmates get a chance to come back and give back, that’s important too.”
One of those former players is 1969 graduate Tony Carnuccio, who has coached in the past and rejoined the team as an assistant this year at the urging of Zimmerman.
Carnuccio, whose sons Tony II and Chris, also played for the Indians, said it was a stroke of good fortune for him that he rejoined the coaching staff this year.
“I played for coach Klebon and coach Zimmerman played for coach Klebon and I knew we got a lot of wins, but I never thought it was close to 1,000 until this year,” he said. “Maybe it was a coincidence or the basketball gods, but we have a great group of kids and these guys are great coaches, and it will really be cool to be a part of it.
“Just to be a part of it and the history of Shamokin basketball with all the district titles, now to be part of it as a coach is really cool.”
Klebon graduated from Lycoming College, then coached at Warrior Run where he actually coached against his Shamokin mentor’s Indians.
After retiring, Probert became an assistant to another Shamokin great, Susquehanna University head coach Frank Marcinek, but later returned to Coal Township to join Klebon on the bench, a spot he held for 10 years.
“I had him as a teacher and a coach and eventually I got to be his friend and got to know him as a personal friend,” Klebon said.
As a coach, Klebon said, Probert “didn’t sugar coat it, he told it like it is.”
Klebon also had praise for his top assistant after Probert’s departure, Joe Gubernot.
“All the coaches and players had tremendous pride in Shamokin basketball,” he said.
One of Probert’s greatest players, 1983 grad Rich Tarr, who scored 1,965 points for Shamokin and went on to play at LaSalle University, said, “(Coach Probert) laid the foundation for everything that followed. “His dedication and loyalty to the sport of basketball and his players and school made people think of basketball and not just football in the Coal Region,” said Tarr, whose brother Joey, was also a standout player at Shamokin as well Joey’s son, Joe, a 2022 graduate.
Both Tarr (No. 14) and Zimmerman (No. 22) have had their jersey numbers retired.
The breakdown of wins and losses entering tonight is Probert, 326-153 (five D4 titles); Thiroway, 46-28 (one D4 title); Klebon, 471-187 (eight D4 titles); and Zimmerman, 156-95. The total: 999-463.
But it all started with Probert, a no-nonsense U.S. Marine from West Hazleton, who played at Susquehanna University. Probert who won the first 326 games for the program, starting with an 82-61 victory over rival Mount Carmel on Nov. 30, 1965.
Probert is so revered in Shamokin Area basketball circles; the school dedicated the gymnasium floor to him.
Klebon later used some of the wood to create miniature plaques recognizing the event.
Of course, there were tough losses as well as unexpected wins over the years that could have altered the course of history for the Indians’ milestone.
Klebon recalled a state playoff game against a highly-favored Susquehanna Township team in 1992.
The Indians rallied to make it a close game in the second half and one play set the tone for what would become a 20-point (75-55) victory at the old Shikellamy Field House.
“They called a timeout and ran an inbounds play under their own basket and Chad Richie cut in front of them and stole the ball and went all the way to the other end and dunked it,” Klebon recalled.
Klebon said it was a loud slam and the coaches were shocked because Richie stood 5-foot-9.
That will be just one of the stories sure to be told in the coming days when, according to Persing, there will be a celebration of the 1,000th win by the former players and coaches at a Shamokin restaurant.
And Probert and Thiroway will be beaming with pride.