Dylan McHugh was as excited as he could be — and just a few hours from a 6 a.m. wakeup call and an eight-hour bus ride.
He’d be traveling to his final basketball tournament with friends he’d been playing with since fifth grade, and he promised himself that he’d cherish every minute of it.
McHugh is a senior member of the St. Matthew Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) high school team, which had just won its 18th consecutive game in the Archdiocesan Championship over St. Patrick of Malvern. As a result, St. Matthew was invited to the state CYO championship tournament over the weekend in Erie, Pa.
Although the team won just one of its three games over the weekend, it was the culmination of a journey none of the players will soon forget.
“Me and these guys, we all played together here (St. Matthew) in grade school, and then were lucky enough to keep it going when we got to high school,” said McHugh, who averaged better than 22 points a game during the team’s 11-game playoff run. “We’ve been friends since fifth grade, so I know how important it is to be in this position. We won’t get to recreate these memories down the line later in life, but we’ll always have this season and weekend to talk about. It’s been a great ride.”
McHugh is one of 11 members of the team; he’s also one of eight Father Judge High School players (the other three go to La Salle, Roman Catholic and Abraham Lincoln) on the roster. Seven are seniors, including McHugh, Judge classmates Riley McKee and Pat McLaughlin, and Lincoln student Pat Black, who make up the team’s strong nucleus of veteran talent.
The squad is part of a 17-team league composed of archdiocesan schools. For the most part the kids have played grade-school basketball for the school they are representing; however, if a school no longer exists (like St. Bernard), then players are allowed to participate with a school in a neighboring parish.
This year’s team went 10-2 in league play, defeated St. Jerome to win the regional tournament, and played last weekend in the state tournament by way of defeating St. Patrick in the Archdiocesan Championship. They followed closely on the heels of the 2010 team, which traveled to Pittsburgh and placed second in the state tournament.
This year, in Erie, St. Matthew lost its first game, won its second (thanks to 42 points from Judge junior Brandon Grant) and lost its final contest on Sunday on a three-pointer with six seconds to go. The group took the unhappy ending in stride.
“This team played with more heart than any other team I have been associated with,” said fourth-year head coach Tom Schickling. “This group of kids has been together in St. Matthew parish since they were young, and I am particularly happy they could achieve this success with their lifelong friends.”
Most of the players on the St. Matthew roster have jobs and play other sports for their high schools, so CYO basketball is somewhat of a secondary activity. However, the kids didn’t treat it that way, as their record in the standings would indicate. Participation in the program has remained strong, due mainly to St. Matthew’s history of a strong grade-school program; kids who play from fifth to eighth grade want to continue representing their school, parish and community with pride, and the players on this team have embraced that concept.
“Riley and I played for Judge freshman year, and Pat was with Lincoln until his sophomore year, so I think we all expected to be playing high school basketball for four years,” McHugh said. “To be able to come back here and experience this team with this group of guys for two years has been incredible. We’ve wanted to make these memories count, and I think we’ve done that.”
The excellence on the court came about mainly because of the familiarity the players have had off the court with one another for so many years. Playing with your close friends makes it easier out there, according to members of the team, who added that holding each other accountable on the court was a top priority, something Schickling said was evident all season.
“This year’s team was a dream to coach,” he said. “They’re dedicated, they play serious, they don’t bicker at each other or yell at the refs when things go wrong. As coaches, we want them to play their best and get better, but at the same time we want this to be fun, and they’ve had a ton of fun. They handled themselves like mature young men instead of spoiled brats who felt they were owed something. They take great pride in playing for this school and want to proudly represent the neighborhood.”
A mutual respect existed between players and coaches, another reason St. Matthew’s season lasted as long as it did. McHugh talked about how desperately the team wanted to win for Schickling, while the coach said he wanted the team to win the state tournament and get their banner and picture on the wall inside the St. Matthew gymnasium. They may have come up short in that goal, but this group won’t be forgetting what they accomplished together anytime soon.
“I think what I’ll always remember the most is having fun playing basketball for an extra few years with my best friends,” McHugh said. “At this age and level, a lot of the time people take it so seriously that they lose the ‘fun’ aspect of the games. We took it seriously, but at the same time we always allowed ourselves to enjoy it. To say we enjoyed it while we were here … that’s how it’s supposed to be.” ••EndFragment