HEISER: Three decades later, reflecting on last area boys' team to win state hoops title

Former York Catholic boys' basketball coach Mike Keesey is shown with his 1990 AAA state championship jacket at his home in West Manchester Township, Thursday, March 26, 2020. Keesey shaved his head during a fundraiser to purchase the jackets for the team. Dawn J. Sagert photo
  • On March 30, 1990, York Catholic won the PIAA 3-A boys' basketball title.
  • York Catholic is the last York-area team to win a state boys' basketball crown.
  • The Fighting Irish finished the 1989-90 season at 32-2 overall.
  • York Catholic finished the 1989-90 season on a 26-game winning streak.

For a man who will turn 74 in less than a month, Mike Keesey still has a head of hair that is the envy of many males 20 years his junior.

It’s gray, yes, and thinning a bit, but it’s still there in decent abundance.

That hasn’t always been the case.

Nearly three decades ago, Keesey sported a head with nary a hair on it — and he couldn’t have been happier about it.

That’s because 30 years ago, Mike Keesey and his York Catholic Fighting Irish boys’ basketball team were celebrating a PIAA Class 3-A state championship.

On March 30, 1990, the Irish downed Perry High School from Pittsburgh, 63-52, at the Hersheypark Arena, known to many as the “Old Barn.” That capped a 32-2 season that ended with a 26-game winning streak.   

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It’s the last time a boys’ basketball team from the York area won a state crown.

The price of winning that title for Keesey was a shaven head. More on that later.

Keesey recently reflected on that long-ago state championship. The retired coach lives in York County during the winters, where he still takes great pride in annually making his West College Avenue home in West Manchester Township a Christmas showpiece featuring 15,000 lights.

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He spends his summers near Vero Beach, Florida, which is the exact opposite schedule of most northern snowbirds, but he says the summer heat in Florida and the winter cold in Pennsylvania don’t bother him much.

What does bother Keesey, however, is his current inability to play golf, a sport he’s loved nearly all his life. He said it’s “killing” him to have stay off the course during the conroavirus pandemic.

Still, the outbreak did give Keesey some extra time to recall some of the highlights from that 1989-1990 season.

Former York Catholic boys' basketball coach Mike Keesey pauses on one of his favorite photos of him, his wife Peggy Keesey, right, and his uncle Frank Benkert, back right, while flipping through a photo album at his home in West Manchester Township, Thursday, March 26, 2020. Dawn J. Sagert photo

State title hardly a lock: Early in that season, winning a state championship was hardly a lock. One of York Catholic’s best players, senior Kahsan Jenkins, was just coming off a severe knee injury, and after a Christmas tournament loss, the Irish sat at 6-2 – a good record, to be sure, but nothing that screams a state title is looming.

During a practice after that loss, Keesey and one of the team’s other stars, junior Brian Pearl, were bantering back and forth. Pearl insisted the Irish could still win a state title. Keesey, in typical coach-speak, rebutted that he just wanted to win the next game.

After a while, Keesey finally told Pearl that he would shave his head if the Irish won a state title. They did, and Keesey did, using the hair-cutting event as a fundraiser to purchase state title jackets for the team. A picture of a cleanly-shaven Keesey, with his wife Peggy laughing heartily, is one of Keesey’s favorites.

Keesey also keeps some other memorabilia from that state championship season. One item he doesn’t have, however, is a state championship ball, signed by all of his players. His German shepherd chewed up and destroyed that ball.

The memories of that championship campaign, however, can never be destroyed.

Stellar run by the Irish: At that time, winning state titles was pretty much business as usual at York Catholic, which won four PIAA crowns from 1978 through 1990.

That’s a testament to Keesey and the program he led for more than 20 years. He finished with an overall record of 465-167 at York Catholic, including seven District 3 titles and two state crowns. Keesey also led the Irish to a state championship in 1987, finishing off an unbeaten season. York Catholic’s other two PIAA crowns came in the late 1970s under Gary Markle.

Since then, however, the York-Adams League, despite some close calls, hasn’t been able to produce another state boys’ basketball champion.

Mike Keesey's gold medal from the 1990 state championship team at York Catholic.

Jenkins, Pearl lead team with talent: Keesey will be the first to tell you that no coach can win a state championship without talent, and the 1989-1990 Irish team had talent, most notably Jenkins and Pearl, who both earned NCAA Division I scholarships.

Both are among the top five scorers in York Catholic’s storied history, with Pearl finishing with 2,175 points, while Jenkins sits at 1,409. Jenkins started as a freshman on York Catholic’s 1987 state title team.

“I thought it would be a good team,” Keesey said of the 1990 squad. “(Before the season) we didn’t know when we would get Jenkins back or how well he would play. He worked hard to get his knee ready. We were just a completely different team when he came back. We went from good team to a very good team when he came back.”

Keesey said Jenkins’ defensive performance in the state title game against Perry’s Will Macon was particularly impressive. Macon, who many regarded as the top player in the state that year, went on to start for DePaul.

“If you talked to anyone who saw that game, they would probably tell you that Jenkins was the best player in the state that night," Keesey said. "He did a great job defensively on Macon and really shut him down.”

Keesey said Jenkins and Pearl almost always saved their biggest games for the biggest stage. As a freshman, Keesey said Jenkins had his best game in the state finals. The coach said Pearl was no different.

“Brian was our leading scorer, but he was such an unselfish player. I think he averaged 20-plus points per game, but he could’ve averaged a lot more,” Keesey said. “The thing about Brian, when there were big games, he always responded in the big games. In the games that were close, he always had a lot of points and always played his best.”

Former York Catholic boys' basketball coach Mike Keesey at his home in West Manchester Township, Thursday, March 26, 2020. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Role players did their jobs: Of course, you don’t win a state title with just two players.

York Catholic also boasted a strong core of role players who knew their jobs and performed them well, such as Billy Khayat, Kevin May, Shawn Calhoun and Shaun Small. Khayat would go on to play NCAA Division I football for Duke and is now the head football coach at Brevard College in North Carolina. Among the other members of the team were Pat Dennis, Mike McPaul, Kelby Ritter, Kevin Zilligen, Charles Sleeger and Blaine Claiborne, who graduated from York Catholic in 1993 with 1,242 points.

Together, they formed a group whose sum was greater than the individual parts.

Together, three decades ago, they formed the last state boys’ basketball title team to emerge from these parts.

Steve Heiser is sports editor of The York Dispatch. He can be reached at sheiser@yorkdispatch.com.

Former York Catholic boys' basketball coach Mike Keesey preserved a strand of netting from the basketball hoop used during York Catholic's last basketball state championship title win at his home in West Manchester Township, Thursday, March 26, 2020. Dawn J. Sagert photo