Catholic League Playoffs at Palestra Reignite Philadelphia Tradition

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 07 AAC Women’s Tournament – Temple v UConn
UNCASVILLE, CT – MARCH 07: General view of the game ball during the women’s American Athletic Conference Tournament game between Temple Owls and UConn Huskies on March 7, 2020, at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, CT. (Photo by M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire)

Local basketball in Philadelphia is as important as independence, and the Philadelphia Catholic League has earned a reputation as one of the best high school boys’ basketball leagues in the country. The PCL playoffs took place at the Palestra on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania on Wednesday night in another chapter of a timeless local tradition. 

The semifinals returned to the “Cathedral of College Basketball” after unfortunate circumstances forced games to be held at regular high-school gyms last season. The electrifying atmosphere of high-school basketball reignited the passion that has characterized one of the greatest athletic traditions in the city of Philadelphia.  

Philadelphia Catholic League

High-profile NBA talent like Kyle Lowry, Marc Jackson, Eddie Griffin, and Cuttino Mobley help make up a list of 47 PCL players drafted into the NBA, according to Naismith Hall of Famers Paul Arizin and Tom Gola became the pioneers of the local powerhouse league in the 1940s and 1950s, and Big 5 legends Jack Ramsay, Phil Martelli, and Speedy Morris have also manned the sidelines in their respective coaching careers. 

Josh Verlin of City of Basketball Love wrote before the 2021-22 season that this year’s Catholic League talent pool might be the “most talented group of rosters ever assembled in one league in this state.” Upstart programs like Archbishop Wood, Archbishop Ryan, and West Catholic loaded up to compete with traditional powerhouses Roman Catholic and Neumann-Goretti.

Secondary suburban competitors Cardinal O’Hara and Monsignor Bonner have also shown considerable improvement in recent seasons. The two Delaware County programs will continue their trek to match the talent of the league’s top teams, as well as private schools like St. Joseph’s Prep and LaSalle College High School.

The Catholic League has survived hardships in the form of school closings and mergers within the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in recent years due to financial constraints and the changing social landscape of the city.

Every player on the 14 Catholic League rosters battled through league play this season with their sights set on advancing to the Palestra to play for the highest stakes of their young careers.

While Roman and Neumann-Goretti predictably earned their spots in the PCL’s final four, West Catholic needed one of their best seasons in recent memory as a two-seed to position themselves to advance. The sixth-seeded Ryan Raiders surprised Wood in the quarterfinals to secure a trip to the Palestra.  

Doubleheaders at the Palestra

Local basketball fans who enter the Palestra feel like they’ve walked backward half a century in a time machine. The musky sense, the seasoned bleachers, and the nostalgia of Big 5 glory send chills down their spines.

That sensation multiplies during the Catholic League playoffs at the sight of the rowdy student sections at both ends of the court full of teenagers hoping for the euphoria of neighborhood bragging rights as the top Catholic school in the city.  

“I think it’s hard to replicate the Palestra, and for some of these kids it will be their first time there but also their first time playing there. For them to have that opportunity, it’s a life experience.”

Roman Catholic head coach Chris McNesby told Philadelphia Sports Digest

McNesby’s opponent, Carl Arrigale, has won a league-record 11 titles in two head-coaching stints with Neumann-Goretti (and the former St. John Neumann). Their respective schools have accounted for an astonishing 26 of the last 33 PCL titles.

The fourth-seeded Neumann-Goretti Saints took down the top-seeded Roman Catholic in a 62-60 nailbiter in the first half of the doubleheader on Wednesday. They contained the league MVP and University of Cincinnati commit Daniel Skillings Jr. and came out on top in a back-and-forth affair that came down to the final possession. 

They will face a surprising Archbishop Ryan team, who continued their upset path by knocking off West Catholic in the second game on Wednesday night. Sophomore Thomas Sorber dominated in the paint for Ryan, using his 6-foot-9, 250-pound frame and impressive craft to make his way to the basket throughout the contest. 

The Catholic League finals will take place on Monday, Feb. 28 at the Palestra. The girls’ championship between Cardinal O’Hara and Archbishop Carroll will tip off first, and Neumann-Goretti and Archbishop Ryan will close another chapter in PCL history in the nightcap.

Photo by M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire