One night every year, our diocesan clergy and seminarians exchange cassocks for athletic socks, set aside their stoles to make steals, and hang up their chasubles to chase loose balls.
Clerical collars? More like clerical ballers.
The ninth chapter of the Cupertino Classic will unfold on Wednesday, December 27, at Bishop Dwenger High School in Fort Wayne. The annual basketball game pitting our diocesan priests against seminarians is named after St. Joseph of Cupertino, a 17th-century Franciscan friar who was known to levitate during prayer. Seminarian Noah Isch, who helped organize this year’s event along with fellow seminarian John Hickey, said the night is about shining a light on religious vocations in a fun, faith-filled environment.
“The mission of the night is an opportunity to gather together as a diocese for a night of family fun,” said Isch, a second-year theology student at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland. “It is also geared toward spreading vocations awareness. It is an opportunity for young women to encounter religious sisters and young men to encounter priests and seminarians. It is an opportunity for people still discerning their vocations to ask questions. It is also to encourage people of all ages to support vocational discernment in their own parishes.”
The evening will begin with Mass in the chapel at Bishop Dwenger at 3:45 p.m., followed by Eucharistic adoration until 6 p.m. That’s when both teams will take the court for a 6:30 p.m. tipoff. While the event is free and open to the public, there will be an opportunity for attendees to give a freewill donation to the seminarian education fund, as well as to purchase concessions and event T-shirts. In addition, religious sisters and seminarians will both have booths before and during the game to answer any questions about vocations and discernment.
Supremacy in the series will be on the line this year, as each squad holds four wins against the other through their first eight contests. The seminarians have triumphed in four of the last five meetings, including last year’s 46-35 victory at Saint Joseph High School in South Bend. However, the tide may be turning this year, as the diocesan ordinations to the priesthood in June have bolstered the roster for the priests and depleted that of the seminarians.
“The amount of talent coming is sort of unjust,” admitted Father Terry Coonan, Pastor of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Fort Wayne, who has played for the priests in every Cupertino Classic since its inception in 2014. “But looking from the perspective of the priest team, as everyone says at Mass, ‘It is right and just.’” Father Coonan said the team acquisitions give some of the more seasoned members of the priest squad an opportunity to either hang up the sneakers or not carry so much of the burden. “I like to think of myself as a 20-something,” said Father Coonan, “but the reality is, I’m getting close to closing my fourth decade of life.”
Returning for the priest squad alongside Father Coonan are Father Dan Niezer, who Father Coonan tabbed as a versatile player with the ability to play in the post or handle the ball, and Father Ben Landrigan, whose quickness and ability to score in the paint or hit the occasional jump shot will come in handy, said Father Coonan. Also returning is fan favorite Father Drew Curry, a veteran who likes to launch from long range. “Deep three-pointers do not intimidate him,” noted Father Coonan. The priests also welcome newcomers Father Jake Schneider and Father Brian Florin to the fold – the latter of whome Father Coonan called “a good scorer and hard to guard” due to his agility and athleticism. Other potential team members include Father Ryan Timossi and Father Paolo Degasperi, both of whom Father Coonan noted are very good soccer players, which usually translates well on to the basketball court.
The top priority for the priests this year once again is to slow down Seminarian Greenan Sullivan, a former standout at Saint Joseph High School before playing collegiately at Ave Maria University in Florida. Sullivan, a second-year theology student at Mount St. Mary’s, led the seminarians to victory in last year’s matchup with a game-high 21 points and 11 rebounds. “If we can stop him from scoring as many points as he has in years past, we’ll probably be in good shape to win,” said Father Coonan. “For us, it’s about not turning the ball over or getting too excited trying to do something silly.”
On the other side of the court, the seminarian squad only returns two players from last year’s roster and will lean heavily on the experience of Sullivan.
“Our established leader and MVP continues to be Greenan Sullivan,” said Seminarian Andy Barnes, who is playing in his fourth Cupertino Classic and is the only other player returning from last year’s team. “He is a good shooter but an even stronger ball-handler and finisher at the rim. One of his strengths that benefits the team the most is his basketball IQ. He knows where to put each of us on the court to succeed.”
Sullivan and Barnes will be joined by Seminarian Sam Martinez and Deacon Caleb Kruse, both newcomers to the Cupertino Classic. Barnes said he hopes Martinez’s background as a hockey goalie will bring “a different level of athleticism and physicality” to the team, while Kruse’s build as a runner can “aid us in playing up-tempo to keep the priests off-balance.” Also on board are first-year seminarians Paul Cline and Thomas Bundy, who Barnes referred to as wild cards, since “their basketball skills are untapped and unknown to the diocese.” Rounding out the seminarian squad is Mason Bailey, who Barnes said was “extremely hesitant to be on the team, but we hope this is from humility and a desire not to embarrass the priests with his extreme basketball skills.”
Because of their roster turnover and relative inexperience, Barnes said his team will have to play a nearly perfect game to beat the priests this year.
“Everyone expects the priests to come out and take care of business early,” Barnes said. “We are going to need to finish with efficiency in the paint and shoot at a high percentage when we get open looks. On the defensive end, we will need to maintain a high intensity throughout the entirety of the game, minimizing high-percentage shots from the priests.”
Regardless of the result on the scoreboard, both sides are excited to take part in this unique tradition, which has become a highly anticipated event every year by diocesan clergy and laity alike.
“It is a very fun environment to be a part of,” Father Coonan said. “That’s kind of the reason that this thing works so well – in that fun environment, we can use that enthusiasm and excitement to point to the fact that the life of the priest is a life that is full of joy. We as priests can still partake in some of the good, clean fun of life. So, I really love that. It was an important thing of my own discernment: normalizing the priest, seeing that their life is more relatable.”
“The People of God are so good and so faithful,” Barnes said. “Whenever we come home from the seminary, they constantly remind us of their prayers and support for us. This game is such a tangible, visible reminder of this reality. Seeing the stands packed with people from all sides of the diocese is not only a beautiful image of the unity of our Church under the headship of Jesus Christ, but also shows the great love and joy that is present in our diocese.”
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