A passing comment wasn’t meant for dissecting. More than anything else, it was just food for thought.
Then Carl Arrigale starting thinking about it.
“You know,” he said, “when you put it that way.”
Neumann-Goretti edged Chartiers Valley 65-63 in the PIAA Class AAA state championship March 26 at Penn State University’s Bryce Jordan Center.
After winning the Catholic League, District 12 and PIAA Class AAA state titles, it was casually mentioned that this year’s edition of Neumann-Goretti basketball will undoubtedly be recognized as one of the best Catholic League teams of all time.
Arrigale let those words settle in, and he savored what they represented.
“You think about how many great teams there have been in the Catholic League,” said Arrigale, now in his 12th year as head coach and owner of six league crowns. “To be up there with them is something. And yes, there really is no way that we wouldn’t be included up there.”
Few respect the vast tradition of the Catholic League as much as Arrigale. Even though his team has garnered both state-wide and nation-wide respect this season, Arrigale’s focus continued to revolve around the Catholic League.
“You hear things, people saying things about this and that maybe in an attempt to bring us down, but we’re involved with something that brings a lot of joy and happiness to the entire school community,” said Arrigale. “It’s more than just basketball. Every one of our players knows that he has to do his work in the classroom, practice hard and stay out of trouble. If you don’t do that, then you don’t play.”
Neumann-Goretti began the season with a trip to Hawaii to play in the prestigious Iolani Prep Classic, which featured some of the nation’s most successful programs. After defeating eventual state champions from Illinois and North Carolina and a city champion from New York, the Saints lost 97-96 to Jack Yates High School of Houston, Texas.
Yates would eventually finish with a perfect 34-0 record and be ranked first in the nation. Neumann-Goretti was ranked nationally anywhere from second through fifth.
Tough to beat that.
“When you play a schedule like ours, it helps your confidence,” said Arrigale. “We’re used to playing teams that come into the game with nothing to lose. If they win, they shock the world. If they don’t, it’s not a big deal. We face that game in and game out.”
University of Hartford-bound senior Mustafaa Jones said he and his players like it that way. Along with fellow spanision I signees Tony Chennault (Wake Forest), Tyreek Duren (La Salle), and Danny Stewart (Rider), and fellow starter Lamin Fulton, Jones prefers to describe Neumann-Goretti’s team as confident but not arrogant.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with expecting to win,” said Jones. “We respect all of our opponents.”
All but three of Neumann-Goretti’s points against Chartiers Valley were scored by the starting five. Top sub Derrick Stewart hit his only shot of the night, a three-pointer that would, in the end, prove to be pivotal. Chennault and Stewart both hauled in a dozen rebounds; Duren contributed five assists, four steals and four points.
“It wasn’t our best game,” said Chennault, “but in the end, we got the job done.”
Finishing 30-1, the Saints became the first CL boys’ team to win the aforementioned trifecta. Last year the Saints appeared a lock to win everything, but after the first two legs of the journey, they were stunned by eventual state champion Archbishop Carroll in the state quarterfinals.
Now, that bitter memory has been exorcised.
“It’s amazing that people still talk about that game a year later, but that just goes to show you that it’s not an easy task to beat us,” said Arrigale. “Every time we’re in a tough situation, I just have to say that I believe in our players. I look around them and think, ‘They’re going to find a way to win.'”
And every time except once this year, Arrigale was correct.
John Knebels can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.