By: John Knebels
Photos: Kathy Leister, Patty Morgan, Mike Nance & Zamani Feelings. Video Interviews: John Knebels.
PHILADELPHIA –The sound you may have heard emanating from various athletic fields – crowds cheering, athletes running around, coaches clapping, and the thud of something being kicked around – is not an illusion.
Yes, soccer is back. How long it will continue and where it will land remains to be seen. And while not exactly emulating state playoff tilts, there have been games – and that’s more than good enough these days.
“We’re happy to be out here,” said La Salle senior Brandon Curran. “People are coming out to the games and making sure they’re social distancing and wearing masks. We’re trying to do as much as possible to stay on the field because we love being here.”
Wearing a mask and standing between fellow senior tri-captains Sean Jennings and Sam Herron, Curran had just helped La Salle defeat Holy Ghost Prep, 3-0, on a perfect Sunday morning on September 20.
It’s one of three contests the Explorers have played – winning all three without allowing a single goal.
While not exactly in midseason form, La Salle coach Tom McCaffery appreciates the effort, fortitude, and determination displayed by those returning from last year’s Catholic League championship squad.
“Looking at the way they communicated during the summer, the guys wanted to get back out there,” said McCaffery. “The amount of commitment – ‘Coach, when can we get back out? When can we start our voluntary workouts?’ – was really, really awesome for us as coaches to see. We know how committed they are to get back on the field with us.
“It’s really special to see them wear their school colors this fall. At this point, with this group of guys, I really sometimes feel like I’m just steering the ship and making sure everyone’s moving in the right direction.”
When the archdiocese of Philadelphia announced last month that there would be no fall sports in deference to the coronavirus Covid-19, private non-archdiocesan schools were not affected by such a mandate.
So Catholic League schools La Salle, St. Joseph’s Prep, and Devon Prep joined forces with Holy Ghost Prep– an independent private Catholic school formerly of the Bicentennial League – and scheduled games against each other with plans to perhaps eventually crown one team a “champion” in a pseudo post-season tournament sometime in late October.
Then the archdiocese changed course a few days ago, allowing fall sports to be played under strict social distancing/mask wearing guidelines. As of last Friday, Catholic League administrators had yet to state any definitive plans regarding schedules or regular season/playoff formats. Citing Covid-19 concerns, Father Judge and West Catholic have opted out of playing any fall sports.
“Each school is making their own decisions on fall or spring options, then the league will formulate schedules,” said Archbishop Carroll athletic director Tom Quintois. “We are in a wait-and-see mode.”
And so, student-athletes, coaches, administrators, fans, alumni, and common spectators wait. In the meantime, the foursome is scheduled to meet each other a minimum of twice.
La Salle’s Herron is not looking past anything.
“I’m sure all of the guys – us, Ghost, Devon – are grateful to be out here playing even under these circumstances,” said Herron. “We never know when our last practice or last game will be, so the guys work really hard. We just love being out here.”
So far, behind a plethora of contributors, La Salle has been dominant. After defeating Devon Prep (8-0) and Holy Ghost, the Explorers again upended Devon Prep, 4-0, on Sept. 27. The Tide then followed with a 7-2 disappointment against Delco Christian to fall to 0-5, having had also dropped earlier decisions versus The Christian Academy and Life Center (N.J.).
“The (4-0) loss to La Salle was one of our best games of the year,” said Devon Prep senior Chris Walton. “We played well defensively. The Delco Christian game was one of our worst games. We played horrible in the first half and they scored six straight. We play them again (Oct. 1 at Devon) and want to bounce back.”
Devon Prep coach Tim Lazorko maintains an upbeat attitude despite the Tide’s early struggles.
A Holy Ghost Prep graduate, Lazorko is juggling the anomaly of playing during a better-controlled but still-relevant pandemic, and the life lessons his players are experiencing during a time of confusion and uncertainty.
“It’s super exciting,” said Lazorko. “We’re all very fortunate. Back in March, I don’t think any of us expected to be out here competing against each other. The fact that we have this opportunity is great.
“I think the kids are super excited after being cooped up in the house for so long – just having a chance to come out here and compete against other schools and following all of the guidelines and restrictions that we need to for Covid, and staying socially distant. I think everybody is all in on it, and we know the most important part is really following those directions and the guidelines so that we are able to continue to compete.”
Because of concerns related to a minor Covid breakout among the student body, St. Joseph’s Prep recently suspended all school activities for a week. Although the Hawks since have returned to the fields, they have not yet played. Needless to say, the players are anxious to don their Prep jerseys, shorts, and cleats.
Though certainly a virtue, remaining patient is becoming increasingly difficult.
“There’s definitely a lot of confusion and frustration,” said St. Joseph’s Prep senior Owen “OB” Brown, who shares captain duties with senior Seamus Schultz and junior Denis McBride. “Limited practices during the week . . . still haven’t played our first game . . . and we aren’t sure if we’ll choose to play against the Catholic League teams.
“The team has shown a lot of resilience throughout these first couple months of what our season would have been. It has been by no means easy, but we’re collectively excited to try and get our season back on track and start playing again – hopefully next week.”
The three Catholic League teams have welcomed Holy Ghost with open arms; well, with fist pumps actually.
Holy Ghost had expressed serious interest in joining the Catholic League in 2018 and actually applied for admission before being turned down by an official PCL vote.
Applying the “business is business” motto, the current Firebirds didn’t take it personally. Actually, most weren’t even aware.
“The fact that we can all get together and set this up, it’s all for the same reason – so kids can have games,” said Holy Ghost Prep coach Ken Lawson. “It’s good for us. It’s a really good test for us. If there are (PIAA) playoffs, it will make us better by having played these teams.
“Some of the things that we are doing, we will fix. We would have fixed them earlier in the preseason, but we haven’t had scrimmages, so it’s good to especially play against a team like La Salle, who is clearly one of the top teams out there. For us, our mistakes are magnified against this team.”
After the loss to La Salle, Holy Ghost Prep senior goalie Connor McGrogan was interviewed along with fellow senior captains Cole Stevens, Liam Fleming, and junior Tony Colon.
Neither McGrogan nor Fleming will be complaining regardless of HGP’s ultimate record.
“It’s definitely been more challenging because our preparations have taken a large hit,” said McGrogan. “We are kind of just taking it every day as it comes for the fact that we don’t know.
“As a senior, you definitely understand more just how lucky you are just to get out here and play. When you really think about it, it could be your last time on the field for Ghost. It’s just an honor to be out here.”
“You realize how blessed we are to actually play,” said Fleming. “It’s something you take for granted for three years. I don’t think anybody really realized how much of a privilege it is to play.”
(Contact John Knebels at Jknebels@gmail.com or on Twitter @johnknebels.)