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.” ••