The year is 1982. In the Catholic League Northern Division football quarterfinals, a Bishop McDevitt team that had squeezed into the playoffs with a 3-3-2 record blindsides Father Judge, 10-0, and leaves legendary Judge coach Whitey Sullivan staring in utter disbelief as the seconds drip away and melt what seemed like a sure Catholic League title.
In the Southern Division quarters, Archbishop Carroll edges Monsignor Bonner, 25-21, thanks mostly to a miraculous 39-yard connection from Chris Olivieri to Dan Dinsmore on a fourth and 10 from Carroll’s 45 with 1:47 left. In the other Southern Division quarterfinal, St. Joseph’s Prep beats Cardinal O’Hara, 7-0, surviving two attempts by O’Hara from the Prep three-yard line inside the final 25 seconds.
In the Southern Division semifinals at Veterans Stadium, Archbishop Carroll trails the Prep — quarterbacked by future NFL stalwart Rich Gannon — by one point and faces a fourth down on its own 47, but a stunning 53-yard touchdown pass from Olivieri to Dinsmore pulls out a miraculous 20-15 victory.
A week later in the Catholic League championship, Bill Wright boots a 23-yard field goal on the final play of the game to lift Cardinal Dougherty — aided by future NFL lineman Harry Swayne — to a 17-14 comeback triumph over Archbishop Carroll.
Yes. The days of the Northern Division and Southern Division really were a thing of beauty. The words “South” and “North” sparked excitement as soon as they were uttered. It didn’t really matter what teams were playing, and no one talked about how many students were enrolled in any schools. It was two Catholic League teams doing battle, and that was enough. Not only that, teams from the North knew about teams from the South, and vice versa.
But that ended in 1999, when the Catholic League switched to “Red” and “Blue” divisions. It was colorful, but because a great tradition had come to a close, it was disappointing.
Then in 2008, the Catholic League joined the PIAA and split into three enrollment-determining classifications — the AAAA, AAA and AA. In terms of Catholic League momentum, few were particularly excited about it.
While the best teams were anxious to compete against other teams in the state, the Catholic League product was a watered-down version of the past.
And now, with St. Hubert’s, Conwell-Egan, West Catholic and Monsignor Bonner-Archbishop Prendergast needing a near-miracle to remain open past June, the Catholic League next year will return to the two-division format, comprised of five AAAA teams in one division and a combined six in a second division.
Any time a school closes, it’s literally like a death. And while one can always spin a death as an opportunity for growth and renewal, it does little to assuage the genuine heartache and bitter feelings of those experiencing the brunt of the hammer.
What we’re left with are dwindling institutions that need to prepare for the future. It might seem cold, but it’s the only responsible thing to do. Change is rarely easy, especially when it comes to school closings.
But what tugs at the collective heart of most Catholic League purists is the gnawing feeling that this isn’t the last time the death of a school or schools will necessitate the athletic directors to propose yet another format change.
The real question everyone wants answered is this: When will the merry-go-round stop and what will the landscape look like when it does? Or, pardon the bluntness… will it ever stop?
John Knebels can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.