Sports

A Strange Year in Diocesan Sports Comes to an End

The year 2020 started out with lots of excitement in the diocesan sports scene. Longtime St. John’s University, Jamaica, baseball coach Ed Blankmeyer had just been named the new manager of the Brooklyn Cyclones. The Johnnies also enshrined sports legends Keegan Bradley and Felipe Lopez into the school’s Hall of Fame.

Speaking of Halls of Fame, Naismith Hall of Famer Bernard King put on an entertaining basketball clinic for the youth of St. Kevin parish, Flushing. St. Francis College, Brooklyn Heights, also added to the early-year sports highlights with the founding of the school’s men’s volleyball team and the retiring of hoops great Al Inniss’ No. 19 jersey.

NBA Hall of Famer Bernard King put on a basketball clinic for the youth of St. Kevin parish, Flushing, on Jan. 11. (Photo (C) Jim Mancari)

All seemed well heading into March, with the optimism of Spring Training baseball, the local Catholic League basketball playoff s, and of course the start of March Madness. On March 7, I covered the GCHSAA ‘AA’ varsity girls’ diocesan championship game. It was a great matchup between St. Francis Prep, Fresh Meadows, and Xaverian H.S., Bay Ridge, that the L’il Terriers eventually won thanks to the heroics of senior Destiny Howell.

Yet in Xaverian’s gymnasium on that crisp late winter afternoon, something just didn’t feel right. News headlines about a novel coronavirus began spreading like a wildfire, and the sports world desperately searched for answers.

Just a few days after the GCHSAA game, the unprecedented occurred. Playing in front of an empty Madison Square Garden, the St. John’s men’s basketball team led the No. 1-seeded Creighton University, Omaha, by three points at halftime on March 12 during a Big East Conference Tournament quarterfinal matchup.

The St. John’s men’s basketball team played in front of an empty Madison Square Garden during the first half of a Big East quarterfinal game on March 12. (Photo: Courtesy St. John’s Athletic Communications)

In an astounding twist, the announcement was made during the break that the Big East Tournament was canceled, effective immediately. Soon after, the NCAA Tournament and the entire collegiate spring sports season were no more.

One by one, local staple sports events were postponed, including the CHSAA basketball city championship game; the GCHSAA, CHSAA and Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) Hall of Fame ceremonies; and the St. Francis Prep Red and Blue Terrier Ring of Honor gala.

Then the COVID-19 crisis began getting much worse. The Mary Louis Academy, Jamaica Estates, made the unthinkable announcement that beloved athletic director Joe Lewinger passed away from the coronavirus at just 42 years old. Jarrod Sockwell, an assistant varsity football coach at Nazareth H.S., East Flatbush, also succumbed to the virus.

New York Yankees pitcher Edward ‘Whitey’ Ford died on Oct. 8 at
the age of 91. (Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Sports — normally a means of entertainment — took a back seat to public safety. Here in New York City, we needed to be solely focused on stopping the spread of the virus rather than on the spring sports season.

Some local CHSAA programs made the best of their situation. The St. Joseph H.S., Downtown Brooklyn, varsity step team choreographed their routine over Zoom video conferencing in what wound up being their final performance before the school closed permanently in June. The Cristo Rey Brooklyn H.S., Flatbush, track team, and the Msgr. McClancy H.S., East Elmhurst, girls’ varsity basketball team also used Zoom to stay active during the pandemic.

Without a steady influx of sports, I turned to honoring the great moments of the past in our diocesan sports history. My roster of CHSAA baseball players who made it to the pros as well as my all-time starting fives for the three local Catholic colleges sparked plenty of debate. Yet they were also a needed diversion, as COVID-19 hung around over the summer – albeit at a much smaller scale than in March and April.

Though we experienced more loss — CYO track icon John Bennett; longtime Bishop Loughlin H.S., Fort Greene, track coach Ed Bowes; former Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., men’s basketball coach John Thompson; and MLB Hall of Famers Tom Seaver and Whitey Ford — there were a few memorable moments of hope that lifted our spirits.

On July 27, Father Christopher Heanue, right, biked 100 miles to raise money for the Holy Child food pantry.

On the hottest day of the summer, Holy Child Jesus, Richmond Hill, administrator Father Christopher Heanue biked 100 miles from the church to East Hampton, L.I. In keeping with a riding theme, Swiss Skydiver — a filly owned by St. Francis Prep and St. Francis College graduate Peter Callahan — won this year’s Preakness Stakes.

Meanwhile, not even the pandemic could stop the Rockaways hoops tradition of hosting the annual St. Francis de Sales, Belle Harbor, Summer Basketball Classic. The same goes for Xaverian’s annual P.O. Christopher Hoban Memorial 5-Mile Run, which was held virtually like so many other events in 2020.

More good news came in the fall, as the CHSAA was able to start up soccer, swimming, bowling, tennis, cross-country, and softball. Football and volleyball were pushed to the 2021 spring season, though football enjoyed an experimental 7-on-7 one-hand-touch schedule to keep the student-athletes ready for the full gridiron season.

The St. Francis Prep varsity football team compete in the new 7-on-7 format.

Unfortunately, the college sports and CYO fall seasons were fully postponed. As of this writing, CYO and high school winter sports do not have an anticipated start date.

However, college basketball has begun for the St. John’s and St. Francis men’s and women’s teams. St. Joseph’s College Brooklyn, Clinton Hill, decided to postpone all winter sports activity.

So where do we go from here?

The good news is that frontline health care workers have begun getting vaccinated against COVID-19, which is the first step
toward a return to normalcy. The bad – or better said as “not as good” – news is that we still must be patient for another few months before we can truly experience diocesan sports in full.

As we look ahead to 2021, keep an eye on two local basketball products – Obi Toppin of the New York Knicks and Cole Anthony of the Orlando Magic – who were both selected in the NBA Draft. We’ll also hold out hope that the CYO and CHSAA sports seasons return – even if that means in a limited capacity.

Our diocesan sports scene is known for its many personalities who all tell great stories and share a common bond of wanting to help young athletes establish themselves as respectful men and women in society. So when they’re finally able to meet again in person, I’m sure they’ll resume right where they left off.

And here’s another of many reminders throughout 2021: Brooklyn Dodgers fan-favorite Gil Hodges is once again up for Hall of Fame consideration. Talk about an Amazin’ way to celebrate next year after basically an entire year indoors!

As we say goodbye to 2020, we remember those sports figures we lost, commemorate the sports moments we did get to enjoy, and realize what sports truly mean to the fabric of our diocese.


Contact Jim Mancari via email at jmmanc@gmail.com.

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