It is doubtful the Bob Gleason era will ever be topped at Watertown High and the 1953 track team may have been the best among them. Topping off a stretch of a combined 11 Class B state championships in just 13 tries, the Red Raiders were loaded with talent that carried them to undefeated seasons in both indoor and outdoor competition.
“We had some very good seniors that year but we also had some good up and coming underclassmen as well,” Joe Maria, who as one of six seniors on the team that season, sparked his team with outstanding performances in the high jump and hurdles, said. “The juniors and sophomores supplemented our team really well.”
Maria, who would go on to be the high scorer in the Metropolitan Track League in the winter of 1953 with 46 individual points was just one of the many standouts. Fellow senior and co-captain John Karnikyan was an outstanding 50-yard dash runner, senior Robert Gandolfo was a record breaking 300-yarder and a state champion who was as consistent as sunrise in giving his team five points in his event, senior Sunny NG was a very valuable high jumper, and with junior state champion Martin Clynes in the 1000, Bob Barlow in the hurdles, Frank Vittimberg in the 1000, George Charshoodian in the 600, David Paolicelli running sprints, John MacDonald in the shot-put, and a young sophomore by the name of James DeSimone aiding the relay team and helping out in the 300, it is no wonder the Red Raiders went undefeated in the Metropolitan League in both winter and spring track.
“Quality depth was what we had,” Karnikyan said. “We had 38 guys who were very close and also very good. We had one of the highest scoring teams we have ever had there.”
The 1953 dual meet season started out with a convincing 51-26 win over Salem which gave them a lot of momentum heading into their second meet of the year against one of the Met League favorites in Arlington. The Spy Ponders along with Weymouth were considered the odds on favorites to win the Class B title but those predictions turned a little sour when with just two weeks to go before the January 31 state meet, Watertown defeated Arlington 42-35 thanks in large part to a sweep in the high jump with three Raiders occupying the first, second, and third spots respectively.
If that wasn’t impressive enough the Raiders went on to defeat Class A Cambridge Rindge and Latin 41-36 before defeating North Quincy and tying Somerville to go undefeated in the dual meet winter campaign.
Meanwhile at the Boston Garden on Saturday January 31 the Class B state championship was up for grabs.
Entering the gathering a Boston newspaper article stated that Weymouth coach Orel Page, Arlington coach Doc McCarthy, whose team came into the meet as the defending state champions, and even coach Gleason all predicted that Weymouth would leave the Garden as Class B champs.
However, the Red Raider performers had other ideas.
Headlined by Gandolfo’s win in the 300 yard run, Clynes win in the 1000 (2:24.8), and a high jump win from Maria, the locals outscored both favorite Weymouth and co-favorite Arlington to re-gain another state title.
Gleason stated in that article that the only way the Raiders would win was if they won the 300, the 1000, the high jump, and pick up a few odd points and as it turned out that is exactly what they did.
Adding to Watertown’s score was also Maria’s second place finish in the 45-yard hurdles, Ng’s third place in the high jump, MacDonald’s third place in the shot-put, Karnikyan’s third place in the 50 yard dash, and DeSimone’s third place in the 300.
The top three finishers were Watertown with 24 1/2 points, Weymouth with 19 1/2 points, and Arlington with 14 points.
“I remember going into that meet and hearing how Weymouth and Arlington were the only two teams that had a chance,” Maria said. “But I knew we were a very hard working team and that was going to give us just as good a chance.”
Maria, himself was obviously a big reason why the Red Raiders claimed another class B title in 1953. His hurdling ability was among the best in the entire state. To pardon the pun, Maria got a jump start on the competition by learning his craft in junior high.
“I had a friend who had a hurdle in his backyard when I was starting out in junior high,” Maria recalled. “He was on the high school track team and we would practice all the time together. I really enjoyed it and through practice I became good at hurdling and jumping by the time I got to Watertown High.”
At six feet 155 pounds Maria also tried out for football but by his own admition was not very good at it. He played junior varsity but coach Gleason wasn’t too pleased with Maria playing any type of tackle football.
“No more football he said to me,” Maria recalled. “You are too valuable to get hurt.”
Maria today admits coach Gleason was right and because of that is now a member of Gleason’s second track team to make the Watertown High Hall of Fame. The only other track teams to claim Red Raider immortality was the 1948 team coached by the legendary Arthur Perkins and Gleason’s 1958 squad.
“It’s great to be elected to the Hall of Fame,” Karnikyan, who is currently the President of Stormtitle Aluminum Products Manufacturing Corporation, an award winning business on Belmont Street in Watertown, said. “There were a lot of great teams in this era but not too many could say they went undefeated in the very tough Met Track League like we did in ’53. That was pretty unusual. But we had a lot of guys in Watertown go out for the team and I don’t think you could get that many around here today even in a sport like football. We were very close and all got along great and supported each other all the time.
” You know we were known as the “Red and Black corridor kids” because our indoor track facility was the high school corridor and when we went outside in the spring back then, Victory Field didn’t have even a quarter mile of space for us to practice. Yet no one complained and everyone performed really well. That era of Watertown boys track reminds me of the same success the field hockey team has today and I was really proud to be a part of it.”