By John Knebels

Special to The CS&T

They lost to Neshaminy by two points. Lost to Bensalem by one. Lost to Conestoga by one and to Devon Prep by four.

But no one was feeling sorry for Holy Ghost Preparatory School’s basketball team.

“We’re used to winning all different kinds of ways,” said John Glenn, a senior who endured an entire season with a chronic shoulder injury that would have understandably banished him to the mythical injured reserve list if he had so chosen. “We played some very good teams, but in the end, it’s who wins the games.”

After losing a hard-fought, 63-52 battle to one of the state’s best teams, Plymouth-Whitemarsh, the Firebirds stood at 9-9, which is about as characteristic as the city of Philadelphia making plans for a Super Bowl parade.

Five days and one victory later, the Firebirds survived a razor-tight, must-win skirmish at Devon Prep.

“I think at that point our players saw that there was still light at the end of the tunnel,” said Tony Chapman, who in 31 years of coaching at his alma mater has emphatically etched his name alongside the area’s all-time greats. “We were still in position to win the (Bicentennial Athletic) league.”

The Firebirds eventually tied for first in the BAL Independent spanision before dropping a 47-44 decision to Girard College in the final. But with district and state competition still ahead, Holy Ghost had, in all due respect to Austin Powers, found its mojo.

A brutally tough 68-67 loss to Strath Haven in the district semifinals set the stage for a spirited state tournament run that included three victories – two in overtime – before last Friday’s season-ending 55-44 to Hampton High at Shippensburg University.

After the game, Chapman complimented his disappointed teenagers for one of the most energizing turnarounds in the program’s rich history of excellence. At a season-ending meeting on Monday, Chapman noticed that the players remained visibly dissatisfied.

That told Chapman everything he wanted to know. Because, after beginning the year 9-9 and ending with a 9-3 flourish, the Firebirds had discovered that they now belonged among those rugged opponents that dotted the schedule as potential landmines.

Hence, Holy Ghost’s 2008-09 basketball campaign would have to be considered a rousing achievement by the crustiest of critics.

“The memory I will take from this team is where we were to where we got,” said Chapman. “This has been as good an improvement of getting from A to B as any team I can remember. We persevered through some tough times and our players should be proud of what they accomplished.”

What the Firebirds lacked in star quality was supplied by determination and grit. Although junior Mike Byrne usually led in scoring, performers such as Glenn, senior Phil Pastor, juniors Nate Lorence and Duffy Barrett and sophomore Tyler Juchno battled for position inside the post-game box score. Meanwhile, junior Owen Kirby provided both tangibles (rebounding and blocked shots) and intangibles (drawing offensive fouls, non-stop toughness all over the court).

Glenn said he wished he had one more year left.

“The team at the end of the year wasn’t the same team as the one in the beginning or even halfway through,” said Glenn. “We expected to win states. We weren’t happy with just making (the quarterfinals). When we were 9-9 we would have been happy to get as far as we did, but once we started winning some close games, we believed in ourselves.”

In the end, that’s what high school athletics are all about.

John Knebels can be reached at