DII basketball: Veteran coach Harvey Shapiro looks back on special season
The New Britain, Connecticut, native and UConn grad led the Springfield College women’s basketball team to first NCAA Division II Tournament 35 years ago in 1982.
SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — Harvey Shapiro had a lot of successful teams during his long collegiate coaching career. The 1981-82 Springfield College women’s basketball squad was one of them.
Thirty-five years ago, Shapiro’s team established a program record with a 23-3 mark and participated in the inaugural NCAA Division II Women’s Basketball Tournament. SC also led the division in winning percentage (88.5).
There were only 16 teams in the national tournament and the Maroons (now the Pride) defeated host Bentley 68-57 for the New England Regional Championship. The victory over Bentley avenged an 80-65 home loss to the Falcons in the first Northeast-8 Conference title game after SC took an earlier regular-season meeting 71-52 on its home court. Springfield and Bentley shared the regular-season conference crown with 5-1 marks.
Springfield then dropped a 66-61 decision at top-ranked Tuskegee (Alabama) in the national quarterfinals, just missing a chance to advance to the Final Four at the Springfield Civic Center.
Still, it was a season to remember.
Springfield started the year with 12 consecutive victories beginning with a 57-55 win over Boston College that was the first contest held in the school’s new Blake Arena. The Maroons posted wins over seven Division 1 opponents, the others coming over Harvard, Brown, UMass, Siena, Northeastern, and Rhode Island.
Shapiro’s squad ended the regular campaign with a 21-1 mark and was ranked fifth nationally by the Associated Press.
Senior guard Anita Thomas (left) of Greenwich, New York, led the conference with an 18.5 scoring average, finishing her outstanding career with a then school-record 1,417 points (which is now second). She earned numerous awards highlighted by receiving a NCAA Postgraduate Scholarship and making both the 1982 All-American and College Sports Information Directors of America (CoSIDA) Academic All-America Teams.
“He wanted things done his way and he called every move on the court if it was not a fast break,” Thomas said. “He was prepared, knowledgeable, treated us like athletes, not woman athletes, pushed us to improve every day and was relentless in pushing the reserves or ‘scout team.’
“With that being said, one could argue that was a huge part of our success. The starters are always a better team if they have better players to practice against. He saw the talent and used it appropriately. Players had their own specific plays to get open. Most of those plays were geared around me, and I am very appreciative of the fact he saw my strengths and helped me become very successful,” Thomas pointed out.
Senior guard Sharon Price (left) of Worcester, Massachusetts, led the conference in assists with a 7.6 average while scoring 6.5 points per game. Sophomore forward Sharon Playdon of Salem, New Hampshire, made a big impact averaging a double-double with 15.8 points and 11.3 rebounds. She had 24 points in the regional win over Bentley and was the tournament MVP.
Thomas and Price (who served as team co-captains), and Playdon, all were selected to the All-Northeast-8 Conference first team. “Those players were as good as any three in the nation,” Shapiro said in a recent interview.
“Anita had a quick jump shot and was our best offensive player. I wish she could have played in the 3-point era. Anita could run the court and score in transition. She was our top outside threat and deadly from 15-17 feet. Anita also was an outstanding free-throw shooter.
“Sharon Playdon was a complete player who could score facing the basket, driving to the basket, and posting up. Like Anita, she ran the floor well. Sharon would play the opposing team’s center who was usually a bigger opponent or its top scorer who was usually a small or power forward. She was quick enough to do that.
“Sharon Price was the player I could least afford to lose because of her ability to handle the ball. She set the tone for both our offense and defense. SC men’s basketball coach Ed Bilik gave her the ultimate compliment by saying she could have played on his team,” Shapiro stated.
Two freshmen who made significant contributions were guard Jen Crawford of Mercer, Pennsylvania, who averaged 10.5 points and forward Laurie Larkin of Manchester, New Hampshire, who totaled 5.2 points and 7.1 rebounds.
Junior center Val Peterson (Chelmsford, Massachusetts) junior guard Lynne Thrasher (Bridgewater, Mass.) sophomore forwards Ellen Thompson (New Braintree, Mass.) and Dottie Curran (Canton, Mass.) and freshman forward Kathy Urbanowicz (Trumbull, Connecticut) all appeared in more than half the games.
Springfield College outscored its opponents by a 13.8 margin and held a 6.9 rebounding advantage while holding its rivals to just 37.4 percent shooting from the field.
“We had a pretty good feeling entering the season because we had a tournament savvy team and our top three players back. We faced a lot of adversity the year before without playing any games on campus and doing a lot of traveling in the post-season. All our players stepped up and we finished with truly a season to remember,” commented Shapiro.
Road to success started the previous season
Springfield’s success in 1982 actually began the previous year when Shapiro rejoined the program after serving as interim head coach in 1976-77. His team posted an 18-7 record during the 1980-81 campaign and came within a game of advancing to the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) Championship despite not playing a home game on campus all season.
The team’s venerable Memorial Fieldhouse was condemned in 1979 and while the school’s new facility was being built Shapiro’s squad practiced and played its home games at the Greek Cultural Center in downtown Springfield.
At the Eastern Regional AIAW Championship in 1981, Springfield defeated host Niagara, defending champion St. John Fisher, and Hofstra (87-80 in double overtime) for the regional title. SC completed a 3,000-mile, three-week odyssey with a loss against Abilene Christian (Texas) in the AIAW Sectionals at Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, North Carolina, just missing a trip to the AIAW Nationals in Dayton, Ohio.
Thomas emerged as one of the top players in the nation averaging a school record 20.5 points that still stands today. She netted 26 points against Hofstra in the EAIAW playoffs.
Senior forward Randi Zola of West Hartford, Connecticut, averaged 13.8 points and became the first SC woman to reach 1,000 points. Playdon averaged 10.3 points and 8.0 rebounds in her rookie season while Price dished out a program best 168 assists while scoring 7.4 points a contest.
A coach for all seasons
Shapiro was the perfect person to lead Springfield College during its transition from the AIAW to the NCAA.
A native of New Britain, Connecticut, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Accounting from UConn in 1970 where he played baseball under the late Larry Panciera. Shapiro worked two years for the Internal Revenue Service and planned to join his uncle’s Accounting firm in Hartford before deciding to enroll at Springfield College where he earned his master’s degree in Physical Education in 1975.
Shapiro originally coached the Maroons to a 10-7 record during the 1976-77 season on an interim basis (that also included teaching responsibilities) with one of the wins a 69-41 decision over his alma mater UConn. Springfield went on to place fourth among 16 teams in the EAIAW tournament after defeating Brooklyn and UMass before falling to Queens and St. John’s.
He led Springfield to a 14-10 record during the 1982-83 season, completing his four-year tenure with a 65-27 record and a 70.7 winning percentage. SC’s 41 victories from 1980-82 were the best two-year total in program history for 17 years.
Shapiro coached five 1,000-point scorers in Springfield history — Zola, Thomas, Playdon and Crawford. Shapiro also recruited forward Michelle Busa who became a 1,000-point scorer.
Shapiro served as the women’s basketball coach at Division III Bowdoin from 1983-98 compiling a 185-147 record (55.7 percent). While there, his team won the 1995 ECAC Division III New England Championship and finished as runners-up three other times. (One of his assistant coaches during that time was Anita Thomas who still works at the school. She also is a field hockey and women’s lacrosse official.)
Shapiro posted a combined 250-174 mark (59 percent) in 19 seasons at both Springfield and Bowdoin.
Shapiro also coached the baseball team at Bowdoin for 15 years before making his final college stop as the baseball coach at Division I Hartford from 1999 through 2004. He totaled 265 victories in 21 seasons at the two schools.
While at Springfield, Shapiro became a tenured professor of physical education while serving as an assistant baseball coach under Archie Allen and men’s basketball assistant under Ed Bilk.
Shapiro’s experience led to the position of Dutch National Baseball Coach from 1984-1986. He also conducted clinics throughout Europe and South Africa.
The highly-regarded and respected Shapiro has been a fixture in the prestigious Cape Cod Baseball League for almost a quarter century.
He guided the Falmouth Commodores from 1994-98, earning Cape Cod Manager of the Year honors in 1996. This summer he will begin his 15th season as the manager of the Bourne Braves, who won their first Cape title in 2009.
Shapiro has compiled over 400 victories in the Cape League and coached several major leaguers, including Darin Erstad, Mitch Moreland and Eric Wedge, who later became the 2007 American League Manager of the Year while in Cleveland.
Shapiro has accumulated over 1,200 victories in four decades of coaching on various levels in basketball and baseball. In 2014 he was inducted into the New Britain Sports Hall of Fame.
Now 69, Shapiro can look back and take great pride in knowing he made a significant impact on the growth and success of the women’s basketball program at Springfield College.
The 23 victories his team achieved during that record-breaking season in 1981-82 will always occupy a special place in his heart.
Special thanks to Springfield College archivist Jeff Monseau, Coach Harvey Shapiro, and All-American Anita Thomas for their assistance with this article.
(Ken Cerino served as the Springfield College sports information director from 1986-2000. He retired in 2016 after working 42 years in college athletics.)