By John Knebels
Special to The CS&T
When the prospect of the Catholic League becoming involved with the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) gained momentum a couple of years ago, a stir developed among athletic directors, coaches and players.
Traditionalists asked the obvious question – “Why fix what isn’t broken?” Meanwhile, pragmatists offered a collective high five to the notion that, in addition to showing their talents against local competition, Catholic League athletes could finally showcase their abilities on a greater stage.
The man who fielded most of the pro-con sentiments was Auxiliary Bishop Joseph McFadden.
“It seemed like a great thing for teams and inspaniduals,” Bishop McFadden said. “For athletes like swimmers, wrestlers and tennis players, it gave them a chance to test their skills at the next level. The same thing applied to teams. They would be able to compare themselves against an entirely different competition. That’s what great athletes want to do. They want to play the best.”
Starting at the beginning of the current school year, the Catholic League commenced PIAA play in earnest. With the football teams from Archbishop Wood and West Catholic both making an immediate splash in District 12 by advancing all the way to the Class AAA and Class AA state final respectively, most reviews were favorable during the fall.
This past month generated even more positive ammunition when both Archbishop Carroll basketball teams captured Class AAA state titles. Along the way, both programs matched their expertise against schools they had never even heard of.
“It was so much fun playing in this atmosphere,” said Carroll star Kerri Shields. “It was like a whole other season for all of us,” she said.
And it wasn’t only Carroll making noise. Neumann-Goretti, which won the Catholic League boys’ basketball title and then easily won districts, appeared to be a shoo-in for state supremacy before being stunned by Carroll in the state quarterfinals. Meanwhile, Cardinal O’Hara’s girls were the Class AAAA District 12 champion and actually reached the state final before losing. A broken ankle to senior star Stephanie Holzer early in the third quarter sealed the fate of the Lions, who appeared likely to prevail before Holzer’s injury.
While the success of the basketball teams provided PIAA advocates an immediate infusion of positive energy, there was a more important issue that lent credence to intangible concepts such as sportsmanship and loyalty.
“I got so many text messages wishing us luck from different coaches,” said Carroll boys’ coach Paul Romanczuk. “There was clearly some rooting being done by the other Catholic League schools. They wanted us to win. It was really nice.”
While admitting that Carroll’s performance in the state championship was not the most important thing on the minds of her or her teammates after having lost in the state final, O’Hara senior Alicia Manning said she preferred Carroll to defeat Lampeter-Strasburg in the championship.
“I have some friends on Carroll, so I was happy for them,” said Manning. “I wouldn’t say we were cheering for them, but I think most of us definitely preferred Carroll to win.”
O’Hara teammate Alysha Womack, a three-time All-Catholic like Manning, felt similar sentiment.
“We have the tradition of a rivalry with them, and it is very intense,” said Womack. “We wished them the best.”
Womack said she received several email messages from basketball players from other Catholic League schools.
“They were saying ‘Good luck in states,'” said Womack. “When a team represents your league, it seems appropriate to prefer for them to win. It’s also nice to have something to look forward to after your own season would have usually ended. After we lost (to Carroll in the Catholic League semi-finals), our season wasn’t over, but it would have been if we hadn’t become part of the PIAA.”
Obviously elated with the early returns, Bishop McFadden described the entire process as a “unifying kind of thing.”
“You come out of District 12 and I think there is a bond that schools feel,” he said. “Whether it’s from our league or (Public League schools) Imhotep Charter or Girard College, it’s always nice to root for each school to go out there and rise to the highest level of their athletic ability.”
The Catholic League as a member of the PIAA? No more controversy.
John Knebels can be reached at email@example.com.