While upset victories are exciting and memorable and make for terrific stories, there’s something about the pure joy of watching the two best teams in a given league play for a championship.
And witnessing Neumann-Goretti and Archbishop Wood tangle for the Catholic League title Feb. 24 at the hallowed Palestra was just that — pure joy.
When Goretti’s players and cheerleaders sped toward midcourt at the buzzer to celebrate their 55-46 victory, it not only commemorated a Catholic League classic, it served notice that the days of the ultimate champion emerging from a suburban Catholic school being a foregone conclusion is now part of the past.
“It’s great for the Catholic League,” said N-G coach Letty Santarelli. “As a whole, it makes the league more competitive, and it’s definitely nice to see a school from the city join the conversation as a championship contender.”
When Santarelli inherited the program last year along with assistant coach Andrea Peterson — a 2004 graduate of Archbishop Carroll who won two championships during her career — Neumann-Goretti was, like most other teams, in a separate category when it came to Catholic League analysis.
Truth be told, the elite squads came from Archbishop Carroll, Cardinal O’Hara and Wood.
Last year, the visiting underdog Saints reached the playoffs before Jess Carney nailed a three-point shot at the buzzer to give Carroll a 38-36, first-round victory. While the Patriots were beyond relieved to move on to the semis, the Saints were obviously devastated.
Since then, amazingly, Neumann-Goretti has played 24 times and not lost a single basketball game.
In the meantime, an aura of confidence and dedication has come to define a program that had not captured a league title since 1978. Four years later, then-St. Maria Goretti would reach the Catholic League final by defeating Cardinal O’Hara in the Southern Division final.
The starting forward/center for O’Hara in that 1982 contest? Letty Huntzman, who would later marry Fred Santarelli — a product of St. Joseph’s Prep — and have three children and, last October, be inducted into the Immaculata University Hall of Fame to recognize her brilliant career as a collegiate player.
That Santarelli led Neumann-Goretti to a hoops title is ripe with irony. Her mom, Letty Moock, was a member of Goretti’s first graduating class in 1958, and her aunt, Mary Kane, was a gym teacher and basketball coach at Goretti who eventually coached Letty Moock.
It is that combination of tradition, athleticism, success, determination and humility — Santarelli was once cut from the O’Hara basketball team as an underclassman — that appears to have been inherited by Neumann-Goretti’s players.
“We go by what she has said all along and that is that we are one big family,” said dynamic junior point guard Ciani Cryor, whose 12 points, deft passing and crafty ball-handling drew comparisons to some of the city’s all-time great players from several media members during the game. “That’s not something we just say; it is something that we all believe.”
Watching Cryor’s antics on the court — clapping, wide-eyed wonderment after a particularly impressive play by her or one of her teammates — may aggravate N-G opponents or leave basketball purists a tad awry because of perceived showmanship.
Talk to Cryor after a game and one can’t help but understand that intended arrogance is not part of her agenda.
“I just love to play and I love to watch my teammates do well,” said Cryor, a first-year member of Goretti. “I’m not trying to show anyone up. I’m just out there having fun and enjoying what is happening.
“This is the Catholic League. This is the Catholic League. This is special. We’re joining some of the great teams that have won championships. It doesn’t get much better than that.”
The only graduating Saints — both third-team All-Catholics — are Tanesha Sutton (10 points) and Ella Awobajo, whose 10 points included an immense three-pointer with 1:51 left that increased N-G’s lead to 50-44 after Wood — which never led — had climbed to within 44-43 five minutes earlier.
Along with the first-team All-Catholic Cryor, N-G returners are highlighted by junior second-team All-Catholics Sianni Martin and AJ Timbers, not to mention sophomore Alisha Kebbe, who drained three three-point shots — two of which quelled growing Wood momentum — and finished with a team-high 17 points.
So this title is far from being one and done.
“We are building something here,” Santarelli said. “We believe that when you put yourself in the company of good people, good things happen. This is just the beginning. We are all looking forward to the future. Great things are happening at Neumann-Goretti.”
Proof of that is the Catholic League championship plaque that is now housed in South Philadelphia.
John Knebels can be reached at email@example.com.