January 2, 2024 // Diocese

Priests Claim Ninth Cupertino Classic

Fifteen young men stood circled together at midcourt, singing the Salve Regina in a packed gymnasium.

It was a display of sportsmanship moments after a hard-fought game, but it was more than that; it was a reflection of the brotherhood of the priestly life, an appeal to the Blessed Virgin to guide our priests as they shepherd their flocks, and a demonstration of the joy of embracing God’s call.

Photos by Eric Peat
Father Jake Schneider is blocked by seminarian Paul Cline during the Cupertino Classic at Bishop Dwenger High School on Wednesday, December 27.

Such is the unique nature of the Cupertino Classic, the annual basketball game featuring the priests of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend vs. the diocesan seminarians. The event is designed to raise awareness about vocations to the priesthood and to religious life, while also fostering a friendly spirit of competition and entertainment for the laypeople of the diocese who have come to cheer on their current and future faith leaders. For the first time since 2019, the priests claimed victory, earning a 50-42 win against their seminarian brothers in the ninth chapter of the Cupertino Classic, which was held on Wednesday, December 27, at Bishop Dwenger High School in Fort Wayne.

“First and foremost, I hope that they saw an authentic witness to the Gospel,” said Father Brian Florin, Parochial Vicar at St. John the Evangelist in Goshen, moments after the game. “Here are real men who are down to earth – they love playing sports, they love each other as brothers, they love the people in the crowds – but they’ve given their life away to something. … I hope that we were able to reflect back to the crowd that God calls real men to be priests and kind of instills that conviction, and that you can use your competitive talents to glorify Him and further His kingdom here on Earth.”

After the evening began with Mass and adoration in the Bishop Dwenger chapel, both squads took the court for the 6:30 p.m. tipoff. All eyes were on the heavily favored priest team, recently bolstered by free agent acquisitions via ordination, which was expected to dominate a young and relatively inexperienced seminarian squad. However, seminarian Greenan Sullivan’s deep three-pointer on the opening possession of the contest signaled that his team wasn’t going quietly. Sullivan scored nine points in the first quarter alone, helping to offset a pair of triples from Father Terry Coonan and stake the underdogs with a 16-15 lead. Both teams struggled to score in a sloppy second quarter, and the seminarians took a 22-18 lead into the locker room.

Fans show their support for the priests at the Ninth Annual Cupertino Classic.

“Our game plan was to win in aggressiveness, win in rebounds, and the game’s going to take care of itself,” said seminarian Paul Cline, who is spending his propaedeutic year at Bishop Simon Brute Seminary in Indianapolis. “It’s going to be a messy game because we don’t have the talent to make it a good game.”

To help provide a spark in the second half, the priests turned to a secret weapon: Father Daniel Niezer, Pastor of St. Dominic in Bremen and the Diocesan Promoter of Priestly Vocations, who had been working at the vocations table during the first half but suited up at halftime.

“Honestly, he said, ‘Hey, can I just kind of be in the vocations booth and be present to young men who are interested in vocations?’” Father Florin said. “Ultimately, that is the purpose of this, right? It’s a vocations event, so it’s like, ‘OK, absolutely.’ And it was advantageous; we had seven guys and then eight with him, so he had fresh legs, and he’s played enough basketball to know how to get open, so it worked out really well.”

Father Niezer scored all eight of his points in the third quarter to help the priests rally for a narrow 33-32 lead entering the final quarter. That’s when they finally found their long-range shooting touch. A barrage of three-pointers from Father Ben Landrigan and Father Florin turned a slim advantage into a double-digit lead, thwarting the defensive strategy of the seminarians.

“If they’re going to win, they’re going to win shooting threes,” Cline said of his team’s mentality. “And Father Ben hit like five threes in a row, so there’s not much we can do about that.”

The priest and seminarian squads pose together with Father Jonathan Norton, Director of Seminarians, after the conclusion of the Cupertino Classic, which ended with a 50-42 victory by the priests.

“I’d say the difference-maker for us was we started hitting shots in the second half,” Father Florin said. “I think at the end of the third quarter to beginning of the fourth quarter, I think we had five threes, so that kind of lengthened the gap. I gave Father Drew Curry the green light, and he took advantage of it. Then Father Ben had some shots, and I was finally able to get a few to go down, thank the Lord.”

It was enough to help the priests capture their first Cupertino Classic since 2019, giving them a 5-4 edge in the overall series. Father Florin led a balanced scoring attack with 14 points, while Father Landrigan added nine (all in the fourth quarter), Father Niezer and Father Coonan each notched eight, and Father Paolo Degasperi added six. For the seminarians, Sullivan led all scorers with 28 points, while Cline and Andy Barnes each chipped in seven.

“I love Greenan,” Father Florin said of his former seminarian teammate, whom he was guarding most of the night. “I’ve actually always looked up to him in terms of basketball. When I was at the seminary, we would do just a lot of training together for fun and really grew in brotherhood and friendship. So, to play him on the court now, it’s a real fun opportunity, because I know he’s going to pull the best out of me.”

Even though the crowd was predominantly rooting for the priests – a factor that Father Florin finally got to experience in his first year on the priest squad – Cline said it was still wonderful to have the support of so many from across the diocese.

“Seeing everyone come together, especially all the priests and everybody’s families, but then all the friends, too, from high school or the seminary, or even family friends that we haven’t seen in a couple months because we’re down at school now – it’s great to have everybody come back together, especially around Christmas,” Cline said.

Father Niezer concluded the evening by leading the entire gymnasium in prayer: “Bless all of our families who are gathered here, bless all of our parishes, and our diocese. Raise up saints among us, raise up great priests, great religious brothers and sisters, consecrated men and women, and beautiful families. May we always seek to do your will, and may we, through doing your will, lead others to the beautiful gift of your Son and to life eternal.”

He then gave a final blessing and yelled “Go Priests!” into the microphone, a sentiment all those in attendance were glad to share with a roaring applause.

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