All stories have a beginning, but oftentimes it’s the ones with the best endings that make the origins that much more meaningful.
The story of the 2013 Father Judge soccer team is one of them.
The final chapter to that story played out Tuesday night before an overflow crowd at Archbishop Ryan’s George Todt Field. After 80 minutes of soccer on a brisk autumn evening, the Crusaders held the prize they had coveted for so long — a Catholic League championship — after dispatching Lansdale Catholic, 3-1, to put a capstone on one of the more special seasons the school has seen in some time.
So many had a hand or foot in this triumph, be it sophomore Kevin Ceno, whose game-winning goal in the semifinals had helped place Judge on this stage, or head coach John Dunlop, who had taken teams into this game the last two seasons, only to exit with heartbreaking defeats.
But really, in the end, this night was about Judge’s senior captains. There were four of them: center back Joey Malvestuto, who put the Crusaders on the board with the game’s first goal in the 29th minute of the first half (sophomore Eric Trush and junior Abraham Krama added the other two goals); goalie Dan Sulpizio, who came in to his own as one of the stingiest keepers in the league; and midfielders Ryan Nork and Joey Hansen, players so talented that they both earned soccer scholarships to La Salle University to remain teammates for another four years.
The story of this quartet goes way beyond Tuesday night’s game. In fact, it stretches all the way back to the early throes of childhood, when these four became best friends around the age of 7. They met as kids, bonding over a game they all loved.
The game brought them together to the Father Judge soccer camp as seventh graders, where they set a goal to get to exactly where they ended up on Tuesday night, as champions at a school that had become starved for a title. There, at the camp, they met future classmates who would join them on this championship quest, names like Aaron Povlow, Geoff Degnan and David Rodriguez, all of whom became starters on this Judge team.
From the time they were 12, they knew exactly where they wanted to go together, which is what made this win, where it finally all came to fruition, so emotional.
“Oh my God, I’m just so overwhelmed by everything,” said Hansen, a First Team All-Catholic and all-state selection, on the verge of tears in a postgame conversation. “All of my best friends are on that team, and we’ve been waiting so long for this. We all love each other to death. I can’t even put it into words or explain what this means.”
“Twenty years from now,” said Nork, still cradling the game ball from the victory. “We’ll be able to look back on this day and remember how excited and happy we were to be here. We set a goal for ourselves, and we never took our foot off the gas.”
For awhile, this Judge program seemed to be snakebitten, a group that climbed and climbed the mountain only to be knocked down before hoisting itself on to the summit. After falling to St. Joseph’s Prep in the 2011 title game when this senior group were sophomores, they returned as juniors as the prohibitive favorites.
Then, the team lost its senior captains, Steve Smeck and Justin Hiltwine, to identical season-ending injuries in preseason practice. While deflating, it allowed the current senior quartet to get an early start as team leaders, and they led the Crusaders on an improbable run into the title round. However, Nork, Hansen and company were upended 3-0 by La Salle, and they trudged home unhappy once more.
But senior year was different. Judge began the season on top and never left, winning 19 of its 20 games, the lone blemish a 1-0 loss to Archbishop Wood in the Oct. 16 regular season finale. The seniors never took their eye off the prize, and there was never much doubt they would be the last team standing. That said, the moment was just as special as everybody thought it would be, if not more so.
“Me, Joe, Ryan and Dan, we’ve been best friends for I don’t even know how long,” Malvestuto said. “We were all so young. Then we met Aaron and Geoff and Dave at the camps, and they all just became my boys. We all played for each other. It’s the greatest feeling in the world, and I’ll remember it for the rest of my life.”
“This is what we’ve all dreamed of since grade school,” Sulpizio added. “We did it. Now, it’s come true. To do it with my boys who I’ve played with since freshman year, then those guys I’ve played with since I was 7. To be here with them as a senior captain, it means a lot to me. This was our year.”
By virtue of winning the Catholic League, the best part for this group is that it buys them more games to play. Judge (19-1) will play Public League champ Central on Friday night in the District 12 Class AAA title game (7 p.m., Northeast High School), with the winner grabbing a spot in the PIAA state tournament. The Crusaders, who many believe are the top team in southeastern Pennsylvania, now will likely have a chance to showcase what they can do at a statewide level.
“We know every game we win means another chance we get to play together, and that’s all we want,” Hansen said. “From freshman to senior year, we’ve been the tightest group around, so we want to stay together for as long as possible. These are my best friends for the rest of my life.”
“We obviously never want to stop,” Nork said. “Throughout this whole year we’ve just kept saying, ‘Let’s keep going, let’s keep going.’ Our foot is still on the gas.”
Sulpizio mentioned the game against Wood, the one blemish on a nearly perfect season, as motivation for wanting to march undefeated through the state tournament.
“We were down after that game, them taking our undefeated record away from us,” he said. “But it made us stronger. We kept moving toward our goal. We know that we never want to feel that way again. We’re ready to go on another run together and take it to that next level.”
And what a story that would be. ••