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St. Peter’s University basketball provided post-COVID boost: ‘We just needed a big dose of hope and to be able to smile again’

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Shaheen Holloway, head coach of the Peacocks of Saint Peter's University, is seen in Philadelphia March 27, 2022, during the team's NCAA March Madness game against the University of North Carolina. The Tar Heels won the East regional final 69-49. (CNS photo/Rich Schultz, Stockton Photography, courtesy Saint Peter's University)

Was it a miracle?

“Astounding,” is how Jesuit Father Andrew Downing described it. He watched with delight as the men’s basketball team at his small Jesuit university leaped into the national spotlight in a historic tournament run to the NCAA’s Elite Eight.

It was the first time a college basketball team ranked so low went so far.

Call it a Cinderella story. Or a David versus Goliath moment. Whatever it was, Father Downing and the entire nation couldn’t get enough of their Saint Peter’s University Peacocks.

“It was miraculous in that no one, even most of us at the university, really thought we could go that far given our limitations and budget for our athletic programs,” said Jesuit Father Rocco Danzi, parish administrator of St. Aedan’s: The Saint Peter’s University Church. “It’s pennies compared to the other bigger schools.”

Doug Edert of St. Peter’s University shoots against the University of Kentucky at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis March 17, 2022. The small 15th-seeded Jesuit school in New Jersey defeated second-seeded Kentucky 85-79 in overtime during “March Madness,” the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament. (CNS photo/Zach Bolinger, Icon Sportswire via St. Peter’s University)

In 2020, Saint Peter’s spent $7.2 million on all its sports programs compared to the University of Kentucky’s $138.3 million. The No. 15-seeded Peacocks upset Kentucky — a No. 2 seed — 85-79 to ignite their tournament run March 17.

Father Downing, vice president for mission and ministry and the director of campus ministry at Saint Peter’s in Jersey City, draws a Jesuit parallel to highlight the magnitude of the run.

Jesuit schools are some of the biggest names in college basketball, most prominently Gonzaga, which was a No. 1 seed this year. Among other notables are Georgetown, Xavier, Creighton, St. Louis and Marquette.

Even Loyola Chicago has made headlines in recent tournaments, along with the team’s 102-year-old chaplain, Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, a Sister of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

“There are bigger (Jesuit) schools, there are more endowed schools, there are a lot of schools with more prestigious basketball programs … but it’s because of Saint Peter’s that for the fifth consecutive year in a row, a Jesuit school is in the Elite Eight,” Father Downing told Jersey Catholic, the news site of the Newark Archdiocese. “Well, they were the most unlikely of those schools.”

Daryl Banks III of St. Peter’s University scores against the University of Kentucky at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis March 17, 2022. The small 15th-seeded Jesuit school in New Jersey defeated second-seeded Kentucky 85-79 in overtime during “March Madness,” the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament. (CNS photo/Zach Bolinger, Icon Sportswire via St. Peter’s University)

Two days after beating Kentucky, the Peacocks took care of Murray State, which had entered the game on a 21-game winning streak. By the time Saint Peter’s held off No. 3-seeded Purdue and strutted into the quarterfinals, the excitement reached a feverish pitch that held the nation captive.

So what is the great leveler between those with big pockets and those with small pockets? Those with rare athletic ability and those diminutive in comparison? Is there something bigger going on? Father Danzi seems to think so.

The answer comes from what he knows about Saint Peter’s head coach Shaheen Holloway, an alum of Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey, and St. Patrick High School in Elizabeth, New Jersey. (Seton Hall announced March 30 that it had hired Holloway to head its men’s basketball program.)

Back when Father Danzi was working at Saint Peter’s as vice president of mission and ministry four years ago, he met Holloway at a news conference introducing him as the Peacocks’ new coach.

“What people don’t see is he’s an extremely spiritual man,” Father Danzi said. “He gathers the guys for prayer before a game or practice, and he’s very serious about that. He doesn’t want anyone else besides the team and his staff in the locker room (because) that moment is just for them, about them, but also about God.”

And when it came time to represent on the national stage, Saint Peter’s modeled its school and faith perfectly, said Father Danzi.

“Catholic values, care for others, formation of the whole person: body, mind and spirit. We saw in those basketball players that Jesuit educational approach,” the priest said. “We saw their prowess, their human strength, but there’s also something more in the way they cared for each other, respected each other, and worked together. It’s pretty inspiring.”

That inspiration touched millions who watched along as Saint Peter’s made its run. The overwhelming support, in turn, transformed the spirit of the small campus.

“There was a lot of joy and pride,” said Father Downing. “Pride in the best sense of the word. When the whole country is looking at your school and rooting for you, then all of a sudden, being proud that you are a Peacock takes on a whole new dimension.”

That national support reached incredible heights for the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight matchups in Philadelphia. Father Downing attended both.

“The Sweet 16 game was a lot of fun, a lot of energy,” he recalled. “Whether you were wearing something with Saint Peter’s or not, basically the whole stadium was rooting for us.”

Saint Peter’s tournament run ended abruptly March 27 with a loss to North Carolina, but the university’s NCAA achievements will be celebrated with a parade April 1, hosted by Jersey City.

Having witnessed all the highs and the eventual conclusion, Father Downing glimpses God not in the many achievements but in the togetherness of the team and its university.

“We were just going to show ourselves for who we were, and for me, that was the proudest moment,” he said. “I’d like to think that God was in that moment, allowing Saint Peter’s to show through its students.”

Father Downing said the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, where the team played its final two games, was overwhelming and he was impressed with the composure of the players.

“The arena here on campus is not an enormous facility, so to be playing in that arena in Philadelphia with all the lights and all the sound and all the spectators, I think those guys have to just be proud that they got to (where they did),” he said. “I’m looking forward to telling them that when I see them. I think there’s not a single person here on campus who wouldn’t say the same.”

Father Danzi certainly agreed.

“I want to thank them,” he said. “I needed that shot in the arm. My parish and people are amazing; we worked hard (to fight through) COVID. But I’m tired. It’s all hands on deck. We just needed a big dose of hope and to be able to smile again.”

Saint Peter’s supplied that hope and inspiration, not only to its parish and its school, but also to a fanbase that has grown beyond human imagination in 10 days. This team made a whole nation smile, and surely there is God in that.

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The writer, Joe Jordan, is digital media specialist for the Archdiocese of Newark.