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Teams show leadership and hustle to find success at CYO hoops finals

CYO boys basketball champs 1

St. Mary defenders Jimmy Leighty (left) and Aiden Austin (right) tangle up at St. Thomas More player Elliot Tapia (center) as his teammate Michael Fesko (top) looks on during the Catholic Youth Organization boys basketball finals at Andrean High School in Merrillville on Feb. 1. (Anthony D. Alonzo photo)


by Anthony D. Alonzo

Northwest Indiana Catholic


     MERRILLVILLE – Among the top diocesan boys basketball programs gathered at Andrean High School, one school fielded three teams and another two. Well represented among all participants in the Catholic Youth Organization championship finals were smart play, hustle on the court and good sportsmanship.

     On Feb. 1, the Wildcats of St. Mary Catholic Community School of Crown Point competed in the fifth-, seventh- and eighth-grade title games. The Saints of St. Patrick of Chesterton vied for championships in the fifth- and sixth-grade contests.

     The Our Father and the Pledge of Allegiance preceded each game and players quickly put their heart and soul into their final effort of the basketball season, or their grade and junior high school career.

     St. Mary’s eighth graders built an undefeated regular season, holiday tournament and CYO tournament record and faced St. Thomas More of Munster in the final.

     The Eagles were also soaring, having experienced only one loss to their 16 wins this season. That defeat, being handily beaten by the Wildcats during the Christmas event, became a rallying cry for the Munster squad.

     While the Wildcat’s 2-3 trap defense kept the Eagles off balance, St. Mary went to work setting a pace with baseline drives.

     Behind the double threat of identical twins and Andrean recruits Aiden Austin and Alex Austin, who each notched 10 points playing in opposite quarters of the first half, the Wildcats scratched out a 30-17 halftime lead.

     Out of the locker room, St. Tom’s was not resigned to defeat. The sure-handed ball handling of point guard Michael Fesko and the intense play of Nolan Kinsella, who led the Eagles with 12 points in the championship, kept them in the hunt.

     But it boiled down to the Eagles being outmatched in key positions. By the final whistle, when St. Mary prevailed 53-31, St. Thomas More players had reframed the season in positive terms.   

     “Today we lost, but we played our hearts out, and that’s all that matters,” said Fesko.

     Aiden Austin scored 20 points in the championship and his brother notched 14. The dynamic duo struck a modest tone and said there was no riddle to their success, just consistent preparation.

     “You just have to keep working and don’t listen to the haters,” Alex Austin said reflecting on his years at St Mary. “St. Mary has really helped me for religious reasons too. My last school we never had religion class. (St. Mary) does and it’s preparing me for Andrean big time.”

     “When we started out it was all about everybody knowing all the positions,” said St. Mary coach Will Vivo. “We had enough leaders on the court to direct everyone else.”

     Coach Vivo also tipped his hat to Scott Ballentine and Jimmy Leighty, who are public school students but who attend religious education at St. Mary. This arrangement allowed the Class of 2020 to bring together a team for the first time.

     St. Mary principal Tom Ruiz was in the audience to cheer on the three Wildcats teams.

     “We put a lot of effort into (practice); we’re a competitive school,” said Ruiz.

     In the highest scoring game of the tournament, St. Mary’s seventh-grade team squared up against the St. John the Evangelist Eagles of St. John.

     SJE coaches Michael Tuley and Dan Kasperan explained that the Eagles hold a 34-0 record going back to their fifth-grade season.

     Another built-in motivation for the Wildcats to pounce on SJE in the CYO finals was to avenge three losses to the team during the regular season and at a Christmas tourney.

     However, the Eagles had other plans and built a 29-19 advantage by halftime.

     In the the fourth quarter, the Wildcats had the hot hands, outscoring their rivals 22-12 to get within two points at the one-minute mark.

     Missed rebounds and fouls cost St. Mary a chance to upset their rivals, SJE, who won 54-49.

     “That’s what St. Mary’s is, that’s what the Catholic Youth Organization is,” said St. Mary coach Sean Granger. “Everyone played, everyone is a teammate. It was great.”

     SJE coach Tuley praised his core of players who are leaders.

     “They have a deep understanding of the game and a passion for it,” said Tuley. “When they take the court you can see everybody else gravitate toward that level of energy.”

     Sixth-graders from St. Patrick held St. Paul, Valparaiso, to just two points in the first half, propelling the Saints to a 22-10 victory over the Panthers.

     In the fifth-grade contest, St. Mary overcame an 8-9 halftime deficit to defeat St. Patrick, 31-13.


CYO boys basketball champs 2

St. Mary player Alex Austin (center) drives to the hoop as he parts St. Thomas More defenders during the Catholic Youth Organization boys basketball tournament finals at Andrean High School in Merrillville on Feb. 1. The St. Mary Wildcats prevailed over the St. Tom's Eagles, 53-31, with Alex Austin scoring 14 points and his identical twin brother Aiden Austin notching 20 points. (Anthony D. Alonzo photo)


CYO boys basketball champs 3

St. John the Evangelist player Charlie Sollars (left) takes the ball to the hoop over St. Mary, Crown Point, defender Jake Biederstadt during the Catholic Youth Organization boys basketball tournament finals at Andrean High School in Merrillville on Feb. 1. The SJE Eagles outlasted the St. Mary Wildcats 54-49 to earn the seventh-grade diocesan crown. (Anthony D. Alonzo photo)

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