Philadelphia is home to some of the finest, most talented high school student-athletes in the state.
Later this week and weekend, Ed McArdle hopes to prove it.
McArdle has coached various sports and age levels over the course of a 20-plus year career, most notably with the Somerton Youth Organization Junior American Legion baseball team. This summer, he has taken on a new head coaching gig, leading a group of high school juniors and seniors to Harrisburg from Thursday through Sunday for the Keystone Games, the “largest multi-sport event in the state of Pennsylvania,” according to an official press release by Owen Costello, the Keystone Games CEO.
The Keystone Games feature more than 15 sports for male and female student-athletes. In addition to baseball, competitors will participate in popular mainstream sports such as soccer, softball, lacrosse and field and ice hockey, as well as additional games in bowling, judo, karate, gymnastics and powerlifting, among others.
Philadelphia will send two teams for baseball: a junior roster of freshmen and sophomores, as well as McArdle’s scholastic group of juniors and seniors. Players come from high schools throughout the Philly area, but Northeast schools, namely Father Judge and Archbishop Ryan, are very well represented: Judge boasts five players on each roster, while Ryan has three on the scholastic squad and another five on the junior team. Other area institutions such as Franklin Towne Charter, New Foundations Charter and Philadelphia Academy Charter are represented, as well.
“Last year, we went up there a little short,” said McArdle, who is in his second year with the Keystone Games but his first as head coach. “So I emailed every high school coach in our territory, mostly from the Catholic, Public and Inter-Ac Leagues. The last few years, our junior team was successful enough to advance to the medal round on Sunday, but our older guys have struggled. We wanted to attract the best players we could. We want to go there and represent Philadelphia. Our expectation is to win it, or at least get to Sunday and see what happens.”
It will certainly be a whirlwind couple of days for McArdle and company. Beginning Thursday morning, the scholastic team will participate in a showcase event, working out in front of college scouts and coaches, hoping to get noticed. Then, they will play doubleheaders on Thursday, Friday and Saturday in the round robin style tournament in hopes of being in the running on Sunday.
All of those involved know it won’t be easy. Tryouts began in early June, but as McArdle said, due to other summer commitments that the players have, it’s been difficult to get the entire roster together at once.
“I’m not sure we’ve had a practice yet with every player there,” McArdle said. “Are we ready? I think we’re as ready as we can get them. The thing I like about this year is we’re a lot deeper and more talented than in years past.”
As a result, McArdle is leaning on a handful of players who have been here before. Leading the pack is Ryan McArdle, Ed’s son, a senior-to-be baseball and football player at Archbishop Ryan (Ed’s nephew and Ryan’s uncle, Frank, is the head football coach at the school). It will be Ryan’s third Keystone Games; it will also be the third go-round for Judge catcher Austin Mikula, and the second for his Judge teammate, junior Justin Bradley, who played on the junior roster last year. Because it’s challenging to get the entire team together to gel as a unit, Ed McArdle is hoping this trio draws on past success and failure and applies those experiences to the 2013 games.
“I honestly think we can get to the medal round and win,” Ryan McArdle said. “We have a solid team with some nice pitchers. Really, I just want to win a few more games this time, as well as having fun with these new kids I’ve become fast friends with. As a leader, I just want to bring us all closer together.”
“We haven’t played a whole lot together, but I still feel like there’s some good chemistry,” Mikula added. “Since we all go to schools around here, we’ve played against each other. Personally, I know how good they are. We’re basically the same kind of people, which is why I can see us working together and having fun.”
Bradley, a pitcher and third baseman, shared his teammate’s sentiment.
“It’s all for one, one for all,” he said. “You get to play with guys you compete against and see they’re just regular, neighborhood kids, like you. Take the Ryan guys, for example. Those guys are good kids. After something like this, you don’t look at them as ‘Ryan kids.’ They’re just players, players who become friends at the end of the day. We want to come up big for each other.”
After speaking to some of those making the trip to Harrisburg, it’s clear the teams aren’t going just to show up. They want to make an impact, to show the scouts and competition from across the state that Philadelphia does indeed have some of the best high school athletic talent.
When he built the roster, Ed McArdle focused on tabbing players that could play multiple positions. Having a team full of interchangeable parts will provide more versatility, which will come in handy with the team playing two games in three consecutive days.
“We have pitchers who can play multiple positions,” he said. “We also have catchers who can pitch, infielders that can play the outfield, and vice versa. We’re treating it as a business trip, but also we look at it as a big life-learning experience. Really, its about the kids getting the best experience they can. They’re the ones who keep me going.”
What is really motivating the players is seeing how they stack up against the rest of the state. If they have success, then odds are it will attract more attention from potential colleges down the line. It won’t be easy, but then again, it probably wouldn’t be as fun if it were.
“What I’m looking for is a challenge,” Bradley said. “During the year it’s a challenge playing in the Catholic League, but these kids, they’re the best in the entire state. I want to see where I rank and my team ranks on the leaderboard. Kids up there will be good, no question. I want to see if we can beat them, and I think we can. It’s a huge challenge, but our team is good, and I know we can push through.” ••