As he watched his squad practice back in December, St. Thomas Aquinas coach Jack Palermo recalled thinking this could be the start of a special season.
"They had the makings of a championship team from the get-go," Palmero said. On Saturday, Aquinas lived up to the coach’s predictions by defeating St. Barnabas 40-20 for the Catholic Youth Organization Region Six boys’ basketball championship at St. John Neumann High. The win also clinched a spot in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia Tournament, which will begin this weekend. Aquinas’ opponent and the location of the game had not been determined at press time.
Strong defense played a major role in Saturday’s win.
"It helped a lot," eighth-grader Ernie Wilkerson said. "Defense wins games."
Grabbing the Region Six crown also helped atone for last season’s sour finish. At 17-1, Aquinas had the best record in the regular season, but was disqualified from postseason play after an Aquinas teacher failed to attend an athletic ministry certification meeting. Palermo blamed a scheduling mix-up.
For Palermo, coaching this group of players was extra-special, as he taught most of them back in second grade. Many of the students also had played as a team for a while.
"It made it more interesting," said eighth-grader Naeem Howard.
The basketball veterans each did their part to help St. Thomas finish 17-2 and clinch second place. Their only two blemishes came against Our Lady of Angels, who finished the regular season in first place at 18-1.
"We knew if we played them again, we would beat them," the coach said.
They didn’t have to. St. Barnabas, which finished the regular season at 15-4, defeated Our Lady of Angels in the semifinals. St. Thomas no longer had to worry about facing the regular-season champs. Instead, a win over St. Monica clinched the championship-game berth.
Eighth-graders Christian Jones, Bryant Adams, Nicholas Dagget, Dennis Carr, Howard and Wilkerson will try to keep the streak going in this weekend’s archdiocesan tournament.
After that? Some might eventually develop into high-school varsity players, others might not. But each will always have the memory of 2002-03 — that championship season.
Palermo won’t soon forget.
"It was very special to do something with them as eighth-graders," Palermo said.
The girls’ basketball team at Our Lady of Mount Carmel edged past St. Charles Borromeo for a long-awaited title victory.
Our Lady of Mount Carmel entered the girls’ Region Six championship game ready to put the finishing touches on a perfect 14-0 regular season (the team was 18-2 overall). All they had to do was beat St. Charles Borromeo, a squad they defeated by three points the week before.
"Our girls were made aware that they were a good team, and it was going to be a tough game," coach Maryann McGrory said.
It doesn’t get much closer than a 23-21 win. Mount Carmel clinched the title Saturday at St. Maria Goretti High School.
The champs built a 21-12 lead at halftime, and probably figured on scoring more than one basket in the second half. They didn’t. As St. Charles edged closer and closer, the coaches kept telling their players to be patient, not to give up and to keep hustling. With a Region Six title on the line, the players and coaches couldn’t help but show their frustration.
"We had some turnovers, but we did have some good shots that just didn’t go in," said McGrory, who shares the coaching duties with her sister, Rosemary.
Saturday marked their 11th championship together at Mount Carmel, which includes a string of five straight during the mid-’90s. It was their first crowning moment since 1998.
Last season, the girls fell one point short in a 25-24 championship loss to Sacred Heart. The local squad avenged the defeat this year with two regular-season wins, which were key to clinching the regular-season title. Mount Carmel didn’t face Sacred Heart during the playoffs.
Eighth-graders Katie Penza, Sara Slate, Kirstyn Edwards, Marinda Moore and Amanda Holt made up the starting lineup. All 18 players made contributions throughout the season, supporting the philosophy of the Mount Carmel coaches.
"My sister and I have been coaching together for a long time and we always tried to instill in our players that it’s a team game," said McGrory, who has been coaching with Rosemary for 20 years. "Our biggest thing is that they understand that it’s a team game."
They’ll need the whole team to be clicking this weekend with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and West Catholic tournaments. The players are well aware that the competition is about to get a whole lot tougher.
"If we go out there and play our best, we can win," McGrory said.
They have a Region Six championship to prove it.