Home Local Sports The 2023 De Sales Invitational brought out 150 seminarians to compete

The 2023 De Sales Invitational brought out 150 seminarians to compete

Players and coaches from St. Francis de Sales Seminary in the Milwaukee Archdiocese and St. Paul Seminary in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis gather in prayer and solidarity after the championship game of the 2023 De Sales Invitational near Milwaukee. The tournament brought together 150 seminarians for three days in late February. (OSV News photo/courtesy Joseph Glatczak)

ST. FRANCIS, Wis. — The outcome of the championship game near Milwaukee was in doubt until the final seconds of overtime. Clutch shooting, crisp passing and a swarming defense finally enabled St. Francis de Sales, the home team, to prevail over St. Paul of Minnesota 51-48.

Never in doubt was the postgame ritual — the rite that followed each of the 24 games of the 12-team basketball tournament. After the traditional handshake line between the teams, players from the St. Francis and St. Paul seminaries intermingled around the center court circle, knelt and bowed their heads in saying an impromptu prayer or the Hail Mary.

Seminary basketball is just basketball, and something else, too. Sports are celebrated for bonding teammates. The 2023 De Sales Invitational, hosted by St. Francis de Sales Seminary, bonded players on competing teams.

In its third year, the tourney brought together 150 seminarians for three days in late February. The seminarians ate together, shared dormitory accommodations and prayed together at vespers and Mass. “We’re all competitive young guys. It’s great we can do what we did as kids,” said Matt Heeder from Moreau Seminary inĀ  Notre Dame, Indiana. “But the camaraderie and brotherhood meant a lot.”

The seminary teams came from afar. Among them were St. John’s from Boston, Notre Dame from New Orleans, St. Vincent de Paul from Boynton Beach, Florida, and Kenrick-Glennon from St. Louis. The players had much more in common than love of hoops.

“Basketball is a great excuse to get together. You get to know your brothers in Christ. You realize we are all part of the church, whether you are from Boston or wherever,” said Alex Becker, a Saint Francis seminarian who attended the games as a fan. “We get together so we can encounter the Lord. That’s why we go on retreat. That’s why we go on pilgrimage. That’s why we play sports.”

Mirroring the popularity of basketball at Catholic universities, basketball has been a longtime staple at seminaries. The sport is cheaper, safer and more accessible than football. It’s both a recreational outlet for future priests and a celebration of the dignity of the full person, physicality included.

Several seminaries host tournaments for seminary teams. St. Francis is particularly well-equipped for hosting. Many of the games were at the sparkling campus gym used as a practice facility by the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks for 30 years until 2017. The other games were held at the rumpled, cramped, delightfully old-fashioned Miller Gym, where an imposing brick wall looms one foot from the baseline.

The games were not only spirited but well-played. Two or three players on most teams clearly had competed in high school and could knock down a three-pointer or weave through the defense for an acrobatic layup. Others had a knack for the game. “It’s pretty impressive play by guys who study and pray all day,” said Megan Heeder, Matt’s sister, who attends nearby Marquette University.

The games were notable for the sportsmanship. Players helped up opponents from the floor, didn’t complain over foul calls and even pointed in respect when an opponent blocked a shot or made a difficult shot. The games were competitive, not cutthroat. The play was physical, never macho. Teams passed the ball cleverly without showboating.

The post-game prayer circle sometimes also was an occasion for saluting an opponent. After a tough loss, Peter Schirripa, a talented, cool-headed floor general for St. John’s, clapped in the direction of his opponents and said, “A well-played game.”

His coach was similarly complimentary. “That’s a very disciplined team. They play well as a team,” said Coach Patrick Nee of St. John’s after losing in an early round to St. Francis de Sales. But being outscored did not mean all was lost. “We talked about we’re winners just by being here. There is a real brotherhood to this tournament,” Nee added. “It took real physical commitment by our players. They were running up a hill at five in the morning. It’s hard to explain, but that’s something that makes you holier.”

Still, it’s hard to replicate the joy that comes from winning in a team sport. Nick Ahrens of St. Paul clinched an early-round game by hitting a three-pointer. Just like players interviewed on TV after a heroic game, he grinned widely and his face flushed with excitement when asked about the shot. “Yeah. That’s my shot. I got a good look. My team did a good job of getting me the ball,” he said.

“This is so much fun,” he added. “They got us by a point last year, so had to beat them.”

Part of the fun was the fan support, definitely Catholic-accented. Megan Heeder waved a sign that on one side read, “Our Lady Loves You Matt, and So Do We.” The other side read, “Score More (au).” Players from St. Gregory the Great of Seward, Nebraska, wore warm-up shirts with a quote from their patron saint: “Where Love Exists, It Works Great Things.” Players dribbling toward the basket at Miller Gym were reminded that athletes, like fishermen, shepherds and everyone else, have an intrinsic value. Emblazoned on the balcony wall is the scriptural passage: “Vos estis sal terrae (you are the salt of the earth).”

Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki celebrated a Mass on the last day of the tournament. In the packed chapel, the archbishop recalled his own days of playing basketball as a younger priest and also the time he spent in graduate studies among priests worldwide. His experience in Rome mirrored this Feb. 17-19 tournament weekend for the hoopsters-seminarians.

The “coming together” of far-flung members of the faith “helps build the church,” he said.