Roman Catholic soccer has heavy NE influence

Gradu­at­ing seni­or Joey Stew­ard (left), a Somer­ton res­id­ent, will pass the Ro­man Cath­ol­ic soc­cer reins to Diego Ramirez, an­oth­er North­east Philly res­id­ent (among oth­ers). RICHARD KAUFF­MAN / FOR THE TIMES


When asked why he thought his Ro­man Cath­ol­ic soc­cer team has what it takes to as­cend to the ranks of the Cath­ol­ic League elite, Joey Stew­ard kept it simple.

“We all like each oth­er,” he said suc­cinctly. “From top to bot­tom, we’ve been friends with each oth­er since we first star­ted play­ing soc­cer.”

Stew­ard, a seni­or cap­tain for the Cahil­lites and Somer­ton res­id­ent, is one of sev­en seni­ors on the Ro­man roster that hail from the North­east. In fact, the team’s depth chart shows a large per­cent­age of Ro­man’s play­ers come from North­east Philly, as well as nearby neigh­bor­hoods such as Port Rich­mond, Brides­burg and Fishtown.

So even though Ro­man Cath­ol­ic is loc­ated in the heart of Cen­ter City (at Broad and Cal­lowhill Streets), it al­most feels like the Cahil­lites are the third North­east-area team in the Cath­ol­ic League soc­cer play­offs, join­ing Arch­bish­op Ry­an and Fath­er Judge. (Ed­it­or’s note: Ro­man was elim­in­ated, 1-0, in Tues­day night’s quarterfi­nals match-up against Arch­bish­op Ry­an.)

“We’re really from all over the place (in the North­east),” Stew­ard said. “It’s pretty neat, be­cause you know that pretty much every team in the league you’ll know one or two guys, if not more. It’s pretty fun play­ing against those guys for brag­ging rights. Liv­ing up here, you know a lot of Ry­an and Judge guys es­pe­cially, and you want to beat them be­cause you know you’ll be see­ing them around later that week or month.”

In a high school cul­ture where kids play on club and travel teams out­side of their fall schol­ast­ic sea­son, many of these play­ers who will square off in these play­offs have been play­ing with or against each oth­er their en­tire lives, which adds an in­ter­est­ing dy­nam­ic to an already cut­throat league. And in an age of open en­roll­ment, it’s not un­com­mon for loc­al guys to shed neigh­bor­hood loy­al­ties in fa­vor of a dif­fer­ent op­por­tun­ity.

“I al­ways figured I’d end up at a neigh­bor­hood school like Ry­an or Judge, closer to where I live,” Stew­ard said. “When I picked Ro­man, I wasn’t sure I’d like it, but I’ve been in love with the school from day one.”

Sev­en of the team’s afore­men­tioned 17 seni­ors hail from the North­east, ran­ging from Somer­ton (Stew­ard and Justin Weiss), May­fair (An­thony Bot­toms and Chris Jones), Holmes­burg (Shane Stein­er), Rhawn­hurst (Daniel O’Bri­en) and Tor­res­dale (Kyle McHugh). There are play­ers from Fox Chase and Lawn­crest, as well as from nearby sub­urb­an com­munit­ies like Ben­s­alem. Even as­sist­ant coach Jerry Brind­isi, a former coach at North Cath­ol­ic, has area ties.

“I think a com­mon mis­con­cep­tion is that all the North­east kids end up at Judge or Ry­an, which just isn’t true,” said Mark Cas­as­anto, an­oth­er Ro­man as­sist­ant. “These guys have battled each oth­er and still do, which al­ways makes the post-game hand­shake a beau­ti­ful thing.”

Cas­as­anto likened it to the hand­shake line at the end of a gruel­ing post­season hockey series in which guys “beat the snot out of each oth­er,” only to come to­geth­er and of­fer each oth­er well wishes and good luck af­ter­ward.

“They’re sports­men on the field and friends off it,” Cas­as­anto said. “To me, that’s the biggest joy of watch­ing these Cath­ol­ic League games.”

Things will surely get more in­ter­est­ing as the post­season pro­gresses. Last year, the league was a one-trick pony, with La Salle bull­doz­ing its way to an un­defeated cham­pi­on­ship; this sea­son, the play­ing field is much more even. La Salle and St. Joseph’s Prep are still perched at the top, fol­lowed by Judge (who knocked off Arch­bish­op Wood in over­time in their quarterfi­nals match-up to ad­vance to the semis), Ry­an (a per­en­ni­al con­tender hop­ing to send le­gendary head coach George Todt in­to re­tire­ment a cham­pi­on one fi­nal time) and Ro­man, a pre­vi­ous fringe con­tender that has made the leap back amongst the elite.

The Cahil­lites’ suc­cess be­gins with Stew­ard, one of the league’s most feared cen­ter backs des­pite trans­ition­ing to the po­s­i­tion just be­fore this sea­son. Oth­er head­liners (of which there are many on a bal­anced team) in­clude mid­field­er Diego Ramirez (Lawn­crest) and goalie Dylan Rut­ledge (Port Rich­mond).

“Some of these guys were close en­emies grow­ing up,” said Ro­man head coach Ray DeStephanis. “Now, they get to ex­per­i­ence a nice broth­er­hood for one to four years and be here to­geth­er to see the oth­er side of it.”

The bal­ance and par­ity of the league has cer­tainly made things much more ex­cit­ing dur­ing the 2012 reg­u­lar sea­son. Ro­man, the fifth seed, de­feated Ry­an, the fourth seed, while los­ing one-goal con­tests to La Salle, the Prep and Judge, the top three seeds. Ry­an de­feated La Salle, but lost to Judge and Ro­man, while Judge de­feated Ry­an and Ro­man while los­ing to La Salle and Arch­bish­op Wood. Trans­la­tion? It’s any­one’s cham­pi­on­ship.

“That’s how the Cath­ol­ic League is this year,” Cas­as­anto said. “You know the phrase ‘Any Giv­en Sunday’ for pro foot­ball? That’s every night in this league. If you man up, get the job done and be the best team on the field for 90 minutes, then it’s wide open and up for grabs.”

This is surely an ex­cit­ing thought for Stew­ard, who un­til he ar­rived at Ro­man in ninth grade nev­er really saw him­self at a school out­side North­east Philly.

“I want to leave a leg­acy at Ro­man Cath­ol­ic,” he said. “I want people to look back on this sea­son and say, ‘That was the year, that was the sea­son to build off of.’ All throughout our team, we just want re­spect. We feel we don’t get men­tioned enough, and we want people to know we’re good too and that we’re ready to play.

“It doesn’t mat­ter where we are or what we’re do­ing,” he con­tin­ued. “We just en­joy be­ing around each oth­er no mat­ter what.” ••

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