Diocesan boys basketball teams vie for championships

MERRILLVILLE – Intra-diocesan rivalries heated up as Catholic Youth Organization teams met in tournament play last month at Andrean High School. Some games featured squads clawing back from deficits while other contests featured players keeping parity with their opponents.
All of the games played at the CYO boys basketball championships on Feb. 10 – fifth-, sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade, put the organization’s spirit of sportsmanship and learning in the spotlight, according to CYO executive director John Curtin.
“The CYO is the same as it was 20 years ago,” said Curtin. “We have athletes and students play together, and the student can learn athletic skills from the athlete. The athlete may, in turn, learn some science or math from the student, and they become friends.”
Before leading the Pledge of Allegiance and prayers with the backing of the CYO diocesan band, Curtin noted, “CYO is really an amazing thing.”
The Wildcats of St. Mary in Griffith hoped that playing with heart would help them capture the CYO championship trophy for their eighth-grade go-around. Unfortunately, their roster was smaller than that of the other diocesan finalist, the St. John the Evangelist Eagles.
The situation became even more of a challenge when player Noah Hebble broke his leg just days before the finals. “He’s very, very heartbroken,” the 14-year-old’s mother, Sara Hebble, said.

The undefeated Eagles soared past semifinal challenger St. John Bosco of Hammond in a familiar pattern – getting down and getting back up.
Early lead changes yielded to a fourth quarter where the shorter SJE players caged the Wildcats “with speed and full-court pressure,” according to coach Brad Lukac, who shared duties with his wife Jeanne Lukac.
“A lot of kids are going to the next level and they’re just trying to work on their game,” said Lukac. “We have some Andrean hopefuls here.”
Combo guard Josh Forrester felt the support of his family, including his brother, Andrean senior Tom Forrester, and grandfather Deacon Paul Krilich.
“Hearing them cheer for me gets me pumped up,” the eighth-grader said as the team celebrated a 48-41 win.
Eric Klocek, computer science teacher at St. Mary, Andrean varsity girls soccer coach and JV boys basketball coach for Griffith High School, said he simply “Looked to instill confidence,” in his eighth-grade team that went 10-6 with losses to the diocese’s strongest teams.
Assistant coach Andre Rhea offered words of wisdom to his son Dre-Dien Rhea, who notched 10 points for the Wildcats.
Coach Rhea said the young competitor has come a long way. “Ten years since playing Biddy Ball; just to see him develop into the young man he is now, I couldn’t be nothing but proud of him.”
Dre-Dien Rhea wiped away tears and explained that he was not happy with his shot selection and an untimely foul on defense. “We could have won; we didn’t give it our all, really,” he said.
Coach Rhea “plans on giving back” to St. Mary, a place he said his family has always felt at home, by staying onboard as a coach, while Dre-Dien said he’s “looking at Bishop Noll,” to enroll for his freshman year.
The St. Michael the Archangel Warriors of Schererville powered to a 50-41 win to earn the CYO seventh-grade title, defeating St. Mary Catholic Community School of Crown Point.
Both teams had three losses on the season and both played evenly through the first two quarters, with the Warriors holding a 21-18 edge over the Wildcats. Then, St. Mike’s 1-3-1 offense tightened up to control the tempo of the game.
Nick Sanchez, St. Mike coach, said he was, “Super happy with these guys and their effort.”
Finishing with 25 points for the Warriors, Benjamin Kain deflected praise for his own efforts: “I think we just moved the ball more and played more as a team,” he graciously said.
For the runners-up, Coach Dan Vicari may have been surprised at the results of the game, as the Wildcats beat the Warriors both during the regular season and at the SJE Holiday Tournament.
“This whole season the team showed Wildcat pride. I think the kids gave it their all today,” Vicari said.
If any of the grades witnessed parity in their play, the sixth grade boys earned that distinction. St. Thomas More battled to a one-point advantage by halftime and traded leads in the second half with the St. Patrick School of Chesterton Fighting Irish.
A pre-game rally near the St. Thomas More Church steeple had head coach Rob Kinsella looking forward to tourney play. “It’s always fun watching the kids play; that moment doesn't last forever,” said Kinsella.
The Eagles took a 13-12 lead into the locker room at halftime. Like warriors they fought off the Irish and claimed a 22-20 victory.
“We were up and down all day; it was always go-go from the jump,” said St. Tom’s guard Mark Lasota, wiping away beads of sweat.
Guard Mason Hines led St. Tom’s with 12 points and provided many sparks when the going got tough. “Bringing energy to the team helps us play better overall,” he said.
The St. Patrick squad suffered their first loss of the season in the title contest. Though head coach Geoff Laciak called the runners-up finish “disappointing,” he has a game plan for the future.
“These boys have always been very dedicated to the sport,” Laciak said. “We’ve had a successful two years. So, we’ll learn from what we’ve done wrong and try to improve the game.”
In the fifth-grade contest, the undefeated St. Paul Panthers met the SJE Eagles. Although the squad from Valparaiso found itself doubled up by SJE 24-12 at halftime, their defense pounced on the St. John team and held them to only eight points in the second half.
St. Paul head coach Chris Campbell rotated through his roster as the cheers of family and friends and teacher Nycole West increased with each Panthers trey that was nailed. The 31-point second-half sealed a perfect 13-0 season record.
Panthers assistant coach Sam Bramfeld said the fifth-grade boys battled “ a lot of nerves” in the first part of the game. “They got over that and hit ‘em pretty hard in the second half.”


Caption: St. John the Evangelist Eagles players celebrate their team's victory in the 8th grade game of the Catholic Youth Organization boys basketball diocesan championships on Feb. 10 at Andrean High School in Merrillville. The Eagles soared past the Wildcats of St. Mary, Griffith, claiming a 48-41 victory and the title trophy to cap off their last year at the St. John school. (Anthony D. Alonzo photo)