By John Knebels
Special to The CS&T
As the scholastic academic calendar rounds third and heads for home, so too have the spring sports teams.
For the first time in history, one Catholic League team from each of the three different classifications will qualify to compete in the District 12 and Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) tournament.
The large-school classification of AAAA is comprised of Archbishop Ryan, Cardinal O’Hara, Father Judge, La Salle College High School, Monsignor Bonner, North Catholic, Roman Catholic and St. Joseph’s Prep. Archbishop Carroll, Archbishop Wood, Cardinal Dougherty, Conwell-Egan, Lansdale Catholic and Neumann-Goretti represent the middle-sized schools (AAA), while Bishop McDevitt, Kennedy-Kenrick and West Catholic compete in the small-enrollment category (AA).
However, in the Catholic League, the eight AAAA schools compete in the Red spanision, while the AAA and AA schools battle in the Blue spanision.
With a little less than one month in the books, about the only thing that’s been established is that there probably won’t be a juggernaut dominating the respective standings. That, of course, is a favorable development for the Catholic League. The more balance, the more fun the games tend to be and, research clearly shows, the better the attendance.
An impressive host of players return in hopes of emulating their All-Catholic performances from a year ago. The lengthy list includes Neumann-Goretti junior Mark Donato, senior Joey Armata and junior Mike Riverso; Kennedy-Kenrick seniors Christian Walker and Evan Basile; St. Joseph’s Prep seniors Perry Russom, Kyle Mullen, Jeff Lynch and Kevin Gillen; Archbishop Wood junior Brian O’Grady, sophomore Kyle McCrossen and senior Jim Heilman; Father Judge junior Kevin Conroy; Cardinal O’Hara senior Bill Pace; North Catholic junior Ryan Etsell, senior Bob Hopkins and sophomore Mike Zolk; La Salle seniors Shawn O’Neill and Tyler Freeman; Archbishop Ryan seniors Jon Schmidt, Bob Steffney and Jerry Smith; Archbishop Carroll senior Neil Gilman; Conwell-Egan seniors Pat Sevick and Kevin Cahill; and Monsignor Bonner senior Ryan Haley.
Early-season highlights have included some blistering contributions and interesting tidbits.
At Archbishop Wood, the Vikings’ 5-1 start includes red-hot hitting from Heilman and McCrossen. Both are hitting better than .560 and have combined for 17 runs scored and 16 runs batted in. The pair were instrumental in a surprising 8-7, 2-1 sweep of powerful Neumann-Goretti. It would not be surprising if the two teams met deep into the playoffs.
Then again, Conwell-Egan will have a lot to say about that. The first-place Eagles have been an early factor in the Blue spanision, and they have also been noticed nationally. That’s because in the Eagles’ 7-2 win over Kennedy-Kenrick on April 7, scouts from the Boston Red Sox, Kansas City Royals and Toronto Blue Jays were present to watch Walker, the K-K star third baseman who has already signed with the University of South Carolina but, according to sources, may be pried away from his college commitment depending on how long he lasts in the Major League draft.
As for league supremacy, until proven otherwise, St. Joseph’s Prep remains the proverbial team to beat. Such is life when you have captured two consecutive titles in an often-absurdly talented Catholic League.
Prep coach Chris Rupertus, whose approach to winning has been textbook when it comes to exhibiting humble sportsmanship, fully understands that every team will celebrate a tad more loudly should they defeat the Hawks.
Through six games, the Prep is 3-3 overall and 2-2 in the Catholic Red. Both spanision losses were of the heartbreak variety. After scoring two runs in the top of ninth to go ahead of North Catholic, the Falcons – whose 17-man roster includes 11 sophomores – responded with three in their half for a 6-5, extra-inning comeback victory; the winning tally scoring when Bob Hopkins scored on a sacrifice fly by Ryan Hires.
In a 4-3 loss to Archbishop Ryan, the Raiders scored two in the home sixth to erase a 3-2 deficit. In a 2-1 win two days later, the Prep avenged its loss to Ryan by scoring the winning run in the home seventh.
“It’s no different than last year,” said Rupertus. “We had a target on our backs and dealt with it very well. But most of the players were returning. This year, we have a mix of players who helped out last year and some were on the (junior varsity) team.”
Through four spanision games thus far, Monsignor Bonner and North Catholic are in first place with 3-1 records, followed by O’Hara, Ryan, La Salle and the Prep at 2-2. Father Judge and Roman Catholic are 1-3.
In the Blue spanision, an early-season scratchfest has emerged. Conwell-Egan leads the pack at 7-1, with Neumann-Goretti and returning Blue spanision MVP Donato – the first sophomore in league history to achieve such an honor – second at 6-2. After Wood (5-1) comes Lansdale Catholic (5-2), Kennedy-Kenrick (4-2) and Archbishop Carroll (3-4). West Catholic, Bishop McDevitt and Cardinal Dougherty are still in search of their first spanision triumph.
A month from now – heck, a week from now – much of that can change dramatically.
Hence the beauty of Catholic League baseball.
John Knebels can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.