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Glory Years: Middlebury basketball

The glory years of Middlebury College men’s basketball are right now.
This year’s Panther team is 15-0 after their win Tuesday night and ranked number one in the country in Division III.
Under Coach Jeff Brown, Middlebury has earned a berth in the NCAA post-season tournament for the last four years, making it all the way to the final four last April before losing by two points to the eventual national champions from St. Thomas, Minn.
The glory years of basketball were then, too, a half-century ago, in the 1950s.
The Panthers, with Tony Lupien as their coach, took on all-comers — Dartmouth, Harvard, Brown, UMass, UConn, Army, Boston University — and often emerged victorious. The State Series, home and home contests with UVM, St. Michael’s, and Norwich, was a big deal.
Lupien was a Harvard man, who played eight years of professional baseball, before coming to Middlebury from 1951-56. In 1956, Tony left Middlebury for Dartmouth and became a baseball coaching legend in 21 years with the Big Green.
“We had really good teams,” Tony said about his Middlebury years, coaching basketball. “I’ll be darned if I know how these great athletes got to Middlebury, but I was lucky to go there when I did.”
Foremost among those “great athletes” were Tom Hart and Alfred “Sonny” Dennis.
Tom Hart ’56 is arguably the greatest rebounder in the history of the collegiate game, averaging nearly 28 boards a game over his three-year Middlebury career, still a national career record. He pulled down 46 rebounds in a game twice. In his three years on the team, Middlebury won 40 games and lost 23 with that rugged schedule. In 1955, Hart averaged 18.5 points and nearly 30 rebounds a game.
In perhaps his best game, a 76-69 point win against UVM, he scored 36 points, a school record at the time, and pulled down 39 rebounds. Hart played five years of professional basketball, one with the NBA’s St. Louis Hawks and four in the Eastern League before starting a family and a career in sales and management. He lives in retirement now in Wilmington, N.C.
Sonny Dennis ’55 was a star in football, basketball, and track from 1951-55. He too stood over 6’4”, weighed about 200 pounds, and ran like the wind. In football, he was good enough to be drafted by the Chicago Bears.
As good as he was in football, he was even better in basketball. In his junior year, he averaged over 24 points a game and was selected by Collier’s magazine as first team All-New England with players from Holy Cross, Boston College, and Dartmouth (beating out a forward from Holy Cross named Tommy Heinsohn).
Sonny finished his Middlebury career with the record among all Vermont schools for most points in a single season (456) and in a career (1,544). Sonny Dennis succumbed to cancer in 1995 at age 62.
Only slightly less a basketball talent than Hart and Dennis in those years was their teammate Charlie Sykes ’57. Tall (6’2”) and lithe, Charlie could play anywhere on the court: He was acknowledged as a “scorer, feeder, and rebounder.” He was a four-year starter, captain of the ’57 team and its leading scorer with more than 16 points a game.
“He plays with the ease of a pro and is the picture of poise and composure,” reported the Campus.
In 1992, 35 years after his graduation, Sykes was awarded an honorary doctorate at Middlebury’s commencement for his extraordinary career in international relief for the CARE organization and development work in some of the poorest nations in the world.
The backcourt stalwarts on those Hart-Dennis-Sykes mid-50s teams of Tony Lupien were Rosario “Zip” (or “Zing”) Rausa ’57, Scotty Greer ’58, and the wonderfully named Johnny Hoops ’56. Charlie Sykes said Zip’s “always hustling, never give up approach prepared him well for a career as a Navy pilot, author and editor.” Johnny Hoops was described by Sykes as “a highly reliable point guard.”
In Tony Lupien’s first year at Middlebury he coached Donald “Dee” Rowe ’52, who went on to a brilliant career as a coach first at Worcester Academy, then at the University of Connecticut, where he serves now as a special adviser for athletics. Dee returns to Middlebury each January to lead a Winter Term course on “coaching young athletes.”
In Tony’s final year at Middlebury, he coached Carl Scheer ’58, a transfer student from Colgate, whose illustrious career in professional sports included positions as the general manager of the Carolina Cougars in the ABA (American Basketball Association) and the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers of the NBA. He now serves as senior community affairs adviser for the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats. “I have always had a passion for basketball,” he reports.
On Saturday, Jan. 28, next week, “now” will meet “then.”
On the alumni basketball weekend, when Middlebury takes on Williams in a highly anticipated game between two national powers, Charlie Sykes and Zip Rausa will return to Middlebury. They will be recognized at the game and honored at a post-game reception.
Zip, who still plays well into his 70s, has promised to play in the morning alumni intra-squad game.
Glory Days!

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