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St. Mary’s Gaels men’s basketball team makes history, heads to NCAA tournament

March 21, 2024 Catholic News Agency 1
The St. Mary’s mens basketball team wins the West Coast Conference, earning themselves a spot in the NCAA tournament. / Credit: Ryan Barnett

CNA Staff, Mar 21, 2024 / 12:30 pm (CNA).

The St. Mary’s Gaels men’s basketball team made history this season by winning the West Coast Conference regular season and tournament titles on March 12, earning them an automatic bid for the NCAA men’s tournament.

It’s the third time in program history that the team has won both titles in the same season. This is their fifth tournament title. Their previous tournament title wins came in 1997, 2010, 2012, and 2019.

Since the beginning of the calendar year, the Gaels have only lost one game, winning 17 out of 18 games and ended the regular season 26-7 overall. The Gaels going into the tournament as the No. 5 seed in the West Region. 

St. Mary’s will now face No. 12 Grand Canyon Antelopes in their first-round game at 10:05 p.m. ET on Friday, March 22.

St. Mary’s College, located in Moraga, California, was founded in 1863 by Father Joseph Sadoc Alemany, OP, who became the first archbishop of San Francisco. In 1868 the college was handed over to the De La Salle Christian Brothers, who still administer the school. The private Catholic liberal arts college has a student body of approximately 4,000 students. 

Several other Catholic colleges will be joining St. Mary’s in the “Big Dance,” including Creighton University, Gonzaga University, Marquette University, St. Peter’s University, and the University of Dayton. There are also eight Catholic universities that made it to the NCAA women’s tournament — University of Notre Dame, University of Portland, Gonzaga University, Creighton University, Fairfield University, Sacred Heart University, College of the Holy Cross, and Marquette University.

Denny Bulcao, a St. Mary’s alum and former play-by-play announcer for the Gaels, told CNA that he believes the team has a “good chance of getting to the Sweet 16, possibly farther.”

“This would be our first Sweet 16 since 2010,” he said. “We’ve come pretty close about two or three times since. The last two seasons we lost in the round of 32.”

Bulcao was in attendance at the Gaels West Coast Conference Tournament championship game at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, where the team beat Gonzaga 69-60.

“​​The energy and atmosphere in Las Vegas is always electric, especially the semifinal and final games because so many Gonzaga fans attend,” Bulcao shared. “This year there were more St. Mary’s fans than I’d ever seen, which was excellent!”

St. Mary’s “won the semifinal game against Santa Clara pretty easily,” he added, “and the final was a hard-fought win over Gonzaga, a team that usually wins the conference and tournament championship.” 

“St. Mary’s winning the regular season championship and the tournament championship is a really big deal, and it’s also especially fun to see St. Mary’s alumni and people that I worked with in the athletics department at the games.”

The former announcer highlighted the team’s defense and solid rebounding as its strengths.

“These are things that our head coach, Randy Bennett, has always stressed,” he explained. “We have a few talented shooters in guard Aidan Mahaney and forward Alex Ducas. Our ‘bigs,’ Mitchell Saxen and Mason Forbes, are usually solid. We also usually don’t make stupid mistakes or commit too many turnovers.”

Despite having a rocky start to their season, Bulcao said, “I think the team finally figured out who the true five starters would be and how they could play well together. Our point guard Augustas Marciulionis really stepped up and became the leader of the team, something we didn’t have and desperately needed for the first 10 games.”


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Christendom College women’s basketball wins national title

March 15, 2024 Catholic News Agency 1
The Christendom College Women’s Basketball team wins the 2024 USCAA DII National Championship. / Credit: Paul Aguilar

CNA Staff, Mar 15, 2024 / 17:45 pm (CNA).

The Christendom College women’s basketball team has made school history — bringing home the school’s first national title in women’s basketball. Christendom defeated Johnson & Wales Charlotte 76-65 in the USCAA DII National Championship in Petersburg, Virginia, on March 13. 

Christendom College is a Catholic liberal arts college founded in 1977 in Front Royal, Virginia.

According to the college’s press release, the team was ranked No. 7 going into the tournament and had major upsets against the No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3 seeds. 

After earning their first trip to the USCAA National Championship Tournament last season, the team had even higher expectations for themselves this season. They went 23-5 during the regular season, which was also a school record. 

Mary Pennefather, a freshman, and Catherine Thomas, a junior, led the USCAA in points per game with 24.6 and 27.3 points per game respectively, and total points scored, with 566 and 601. 

Christendom beat No. 2 Penn State Beaver and No. 3 Central Maine in the quarterfinals and semifinals — landing them their spot at the championship game against the No. 1 seed. Roughly 100 Christendom students made the trip to support and cheer their team to victory. 

The championship game was hard fought with Christendom losing the lead several times but pushing each time to gain it back, the release said. The women came out of the game strong in the second half and extended their lead to 56-40 to close the third quarter. With less than three minutes left in the game, they had gained a lead of 72-49. Johnson & Wales gave a strong last effort during those final minutes, but it wasn’t enough to beat the Crusaders.

Thomas was named tournament MVP for her outstanding performance over the course of four games, including setting tournament records in single-game points scored and three-pointers made in the quarterfinals. Pennefather, Regina Bonvissuto, and Miranda Keller were all named to the All-Tournament team as well.

Photos of the win can be found on the college’s web site.


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Shooting hoops for heaven: Boston seminarians form basketball team for God

November 6, 2023 Catholic News Agency 0
Ricky Reyes dribbles the ball up court as now-Father Peter Schirripa follows behind at the national basketball tournament for seminaries in 2022. / Credit: St. John’s Seminary

CNA Staff, Nov 6, 2023 / 14:40 pm (CNA).

Imagine the scene: The alarm clock starts beeping and it’s 4 a.m. Basketball practice starts in an hour. It’s time for a group of bleary-eyed young men to grab their gear, meet their teammates, and begin a one-mile uphill jog in the middle of New England’s freezing weather to the basketball facility. 

Once inside the gym, the work begins: stretching, sprints, layups, scrimmaging, shooting, defensive posture, all with one goal in mind — winning.

This type of intense training is all in a day’s work for one team of men in Boston.

No, it’s not the Division I team at Boston College, Boston University, or Northeastern University.

Rather, it’s how a team of seminarians at St. John’s Seminary in Boston trains. And their goal of winning is twofold: victory in the spiritual life and a championship trophy at the national tournament for seminaries, which is held once a year.

But what does playing basketball have to do with priestly formation? Well, according to the seminarians who play for the St. John’s Eagles, quite a lot.

St. John's Seminary's basketball team at practice. Credit: St. John's Seminary/YouTube May 18, 2023
St. John’s Seminary’s basketball team at practice. Credit: St. John’s Seminary/YouTube May 18, 2023

A ‘microcosm of the spiritual life’

When 27-year-old Deacon Marcelo Ferrari, the team’s co-captain, first entered seminary, he saw the game as more of an extracurricular activity, “a good opportunity to spend some time with close friends and maybe build some fraternity.” 

“But very quickly it became clear that the basketball team is just a microcosm of the spiritual life,” Ferrari, of Monterrey, Nuevo León, Mexico, said.

Playing the game together imitates the spiritual life in that “you experience a lot of humiliation, especially if you’re not as skilled like me,” said Ferrari, who has more experience in soccer than in basketball.

“But you also just learn a real sense of what sacrifice means,” he said. “Even practice just being at 5 in the morning is enough to demand a lot of the human heart.”

The experience of being on the team aided in Ferrari’s priestly formation in “so many ways,” he said, adding that “it became a critical space for me to recognize especially more of those subtle movements of the heart.”

“There’s nothing like team sports to bring out every part of you,” he said.

An uphill climb

Ferrari had never played organized basketball until he entered St. John’s Seminary. It wasn’t until another seminarian who established the team, now-recently ordained Father Peter Schirripa, asked him to join that he considered it. 

“He saw me playing soccer and was like, ‘Oh, this guy’s mildly athletic. Let’s see if we can get him a basketball and see what he can do,’” Ferrari said. 

This type of recruiting was par for the course for Schirripa, 30, who grew up in Lexington, Massachusetts, and had the idea for the team when he first entered seminary more than six years ago. 

But Schirripa, who had experience in basketball, track and field, and soccer, credits the founder of the media apostle Word on Fire, Bishop Robert Barron, with the conception of the idea. 

Schirripa was visiting his alma mater St. Anselm College during its 2017 graduation ceremony, the spring before his entrance to seminary, when he met Barron, who was giving the commencement address. Barron mentioned to him that there was a national basketball tournament for seminaries and encouraged Schirripa to put together a team from St. John’s.

So, Schirripa brought the idea to his superiors at the seminary and got a green light to start building a team for the national tournament. 

Deacon Marcelo Ferrari at one of St. John's Seminary's basketball practices. Credit: St. John's Seminary/YouTube May 18, 2023
Deacon Marcelo Ferrari at one of St. John’s Seminary’s basketball practices. Credit: St. John’s Seminary/YouTube May 18, 2023

“The leadership was like, ‘Sure, you can do it if you can pull it off.’ But I was a first pre-theologian. I’d been there for, like, three weeks,” Schirripa said.

“And let’s just say there was not a robust athletic or even really communal culture at St. John’s at the time. And so trying to inspire guys to do this and play on the team, it was like I was just taking whatever warm body I could get,” he said. 

Eventually, enough seminarians wanted in, and Schirripa’s idea came to fruition, which culminated in St. John’s taking a squad of 15 guys to the national tournament at Mundelein Seminary in Mundelein, Illinois, and winning two games in 2018.

“We went out to it and we won two games, which is crazy because we were so bad,” he said.

He noted that the games were livestreamed and their brother seminarians were watching. 

“The whole common room was watching it and I think people couldn’t believe that we did it,” he said.

“And the rest,” Schirripa said, “is history.”

St. John’s has been sending a team to the national tournament ever since. The best they’ve done is third place in a tournament that typically consists of between 12 and 16 teams.

The future of the church

Part of St. John’s success can be attributed to their volunteer coach, Patrick Nee, 44, a practicing Catholic in the greater Boston area who was a Division I basketball player at Brown University in the 1990s.

Nee had coached on the high school level, on travel teams, and even on his young children’s teams, but what made this coaching experience different was the “shock” of being immersed in seminary culture. 

“It’s not an experience like I’d ever had before, just being in a gym with 15 seminarians, being on a bus or being on a plane with them and just realizing how good it was,” he said. “And these guys are really holy guys that are just terrific. Getting to know them all, it has just been really inspiring for me.”

Patrick Nee coaches St. John's Seminary's basketball team. Credit: St. John's Seminary/YouTube May 18, 2023
Patrick Nee coaches St. John’s Seminary’s basketball team. Credit: St. John’s Seminary/YouTube May 18, 2023

Nee, a high school state champion from St. Raphael Academy in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, said that he stopped practicing his Catholic faith during his college years and didn’t come back to it until his late 20s. 

He said that when he returned to the Church it took him on “a journey.” And over the last five years, that journey has “intensified” even more, he said, adding that “this experience has played a role in that.”

Nee said that it’s overwhelming “in the best way” when he is at the tournaments and “every guy you meet is this on-fire guy who’s studying to be a priest.”

One of those men on fire for the faith is Brian Daley, a member of the St. John’s team, Ferrari said. He recalled an incident at practice one day when a newer seminarian began to indulge in “light mockery” of the other teams they would be playing in the tournament. 

Ferrari said that Daley reminded his teammate: “No, these men that we’ll be competing against are all giving their lives for Christ and they’re great examples for us.”

Ferrari called it a moment of “deep fraternity” for the team, who were all inspired by the wisdom Daley shared. 

The deacon also said that as a team that fire is seen at every practice through prayer. 

At every practice, each player is handed a sheet of prayer intentions to offer up their labor on the court so that all of their work is “done with an eye that sacrifice is fruitful.”

Seeing all of the hard work the teams put in for one weekend showed Nee that they care a lot about winning, “but they never lose track of the bigger picture.”

St. John's Seminary basketball coach Patrick Nee guides his players during the 2022 tournament. Credit: St. John's Seminary/YouTube May 18, 2023
St. John’s Seminary basketball coach Patrick Nee guides his players during the 2022 tournament. Credit: St. John’s Seminary/YouTube May 18, 2023

He said that being a part of the team has strengthened his faith and added that the whole experience inspired him to tell Schirripa that “we need to share this with people.”

“I wish other people could see this. I mean, if you know anyone who is negative about the future of the Church, it’s like, well, walk into this gym for five minutes and you’ll change your mind immediately,” he said.

Nee’s vision for sharing the experience with others became a reality five months ago when St. John’s Seminary released “Souls in the Game,” a documentary that “highlights priestly formation beyond the study of philosophy and theology.”

The 28-minute documentary follows the team’s journey from the early morning practices to the recruiting and training of the seminarians to the final tournament.

“There is no pressure at all. Go out and play. We have brought life to St. John’s Seminary. God has used this team and let’s go out there and show everyone that we love each other, we love our vocations, and we’re going to represent St. John’s,” Schirripa says to his team during a pregame speech in the documentary.

Viewers might be surprised by how competitive the games are, especially in the scene where 6-foot-4 Schirripa is shown slamming it down during the tournament, which resulted in a technical foul for the team.

Despite the penalty, the team was roaring with excitement at Schirripa’s slam dunk, a feat that not many players ever get to experience on a 10-foot hoop.

“We were ready to storm the court,” Ferrari said in excitement in the documentary. 

That documentary can be seen below.

Physical exercise such as can be had playing on a basketball team is something that every seminary should “absolutely” have, Schirripa said. 

“I think it’s absolutely essential because you need a physical outlet and you need to obviously have a healthy body, mind, and soul. But it also teaches you to work towards something that’s bigger than yourself, which ultimately is the apostolate,” he said.

“And so it’s such a great venue for formation,” he said.