Saints are champions again

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Khaafiq Myers cuts down the net at the Palestra following a 61-57 victory over Archbishop Ryan in the Philadelphia Catholic League championship. Photo/Mark Zimmaro

The Palestra can be a special place to create special memories.

The Neumann-Goretti High School boys basketball team has had its fair share over the years, and when the 2021-22 squad needed to push through adversity, there was always a carrot of the historic gymnasium hanging in front of them.

“I really just wanted to get to the Palestra so that these guys could experience it for later on,” Saints coach Carl Arrigale said, sandwiched between sophomore guards Robert Wright and Khaafiq Myers. “Then once you get here, you get a taste and a little twinkle in your eye. We’ve won (championship games) with some really good guards. I got me some good guards. And we won again.”

Neumann-Goretti defeated Archbishop Ryan, 61-57, at the jam-packed Palestra on the University of Pennsylvania’s campus on Monday to give the school its 22nd Philadelphia Catholic League championship. Six were won under the former South Catholic and another six combined under Bishop Neumann and St. John Neumann, before the school merged with St. Maria Goretti. The Saints have won 12 titles under current coach Carl Arrigale with their last coming in 2020. 

Masud Stewart carries the ball for Neumann-Goretti in the Philadelphia Catholic League championship game at the Palestra. Photo/Mark Zimmaro

This year’s team had to battle with an extremely compacted schedule after the program was forced to shut down for more than two weeks due to COVID-19 contact tracing. The Saints ended up playing all 13 PCL regular season games in a span of 20 days. 

“It was hard because we had to practice every day and then when the season got back, we had back-to-back games every few days,” said senior Masud Stewart. “At one point we had three back-to-back games. It’s just been all practice and games.”

Stewart played a minor role in the Saints’ 2020 PCL championship as a sophomore. He played a major one this year, averaging about a dozen points a game. 

“I think it feels even better,” Stewart said. “I got it my sophomore year, too, but now I feel even better because I played a lot. I’m happy right now. I’m excited.”

Robert Wright brings the ball upcourt for Neumann-Goretti in the Philadelphia Catholic League championship game at the Palestra. Photo/Mark Zimmaro

The four-seed Saints upset Roman Catholic in the semifinal and found themselves in a dogfight against six-seed Ryan, which had upset Archbishop Wood and West Catholic. Neither team led by more than five points and the Saints had to dig deep into the reserve tank, which they had learned to do throughout their busy schedule in the regular season.

“We just do anything to win,” said Wright, who scored a game-high 22 points. “It doesn’t matter if your legs buckle or ankles snap, we’re still going out there to finish hard and get a PCL championship and that’s what we did today.”

Neumann-Goretti received a monster effort in the paint from junior Sultan Adewale, who scored 15 points and grabbed 12 rebounds. The Saints were able to seal it with clutch free throws down the stretch in front of a rowdy and relentless student section. 

A Neumann-Goretti cheerleader performs during halftime of the Philadelphia Catholic League basketball championship at the Palestra. Photo/Mark Zimmaro

“We have the best student section in the world,” Myers said. “There’s nothing like it.”

Arrigale agreed. He said he was happy to see students enjoying themselves at a basketball game, which is a privilege they haven’t been able to take part in much with COVID restrictions. 

“It was fun to see those kids have some fun,” Arrigale said. “It’s been tough the last two years at our place. A couple years ago, it was really building to something. We had a great following and our baseball team was unbelievable coming out to support us. Now I gotta get these guys to go watch a baseball game.”

The Saints took their trophy back to South Philly and will hunt for a new one in the District 12 Class 4A championship against West Philadelphia on Friday at Abraham Lincoln High School.

Stewart looked around the Palestra floor and took a minute to soak it all in.

“This is like a basketball Mecca,” Stewart said. “To have the chance to play here is an honor, honestly. Winning the PCL is crazy. But winning states would make it even better.”

Neumann-Goretti players celebrate after defeating Archbishop Ryan, 61-57, at the Palestra to win the Philadelphia Catholic League championship. Photo/Mark ZImmaro