Making it count

"I think what I'll al­ways re­mem­ber the most is hav­ing fun play­ing bas­ket­ball for an ex­tra few years with my best friends." — Dylan McHugh on play­ing bas­ket­ball for St. Mat­thew CYO.

Dylan McHugh goes air­bourne dur­ing Thursday’s prac­tice.


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.” ••


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