Left: The Lions softball coach Les Olson with senior players Lindsay Dwyer (left) and Samantha Caterina. Right: Sacred Heart girls basketball coach Steve DiPatri and Kennedy Johnson. He finished his Lions career with a 352-90 record in 16 years, and Johnson is one of America’s top junior players.
Photos by Sam Bonavita
VINELAND – The Sacred Heart High School Lions just completed a 10 month sports season that should inspire a Hollywood screenplay.
The Cumberland County school, with an 87-year history, told the students in April that their doors will close forever after classes ended in mid-June.
In 2008 there were 400 students matriculating at Sacred Heart. Then the Great Recession occurred and now only 170 students remain. And 100 of them are student-athletes.
Some athletic programs would have used the drastic news of closing as an excuse to just “play out the season” and coast to mediocre sports records.
That was not the case with the Lions of Sacred Heart. What the sports teams accomplished in 10 months was truly remarkable and borderline unbelievable under their circumstances.
Five Lions teams won Cape-Atlantic League Championships: Girls Tennis, Boys Soccer, Boys Basketball, Golf and Softball. The Girls Basketball squad was ranked Number 10 in South Jersey and reached the Cape-Atlantic Championship game.
The softball team won the South Jersey Championship with a 31-4 log (a school record for victories in one season).
“Some schools may have unraveled after hearing the news of a school closure, but these teams really came together,” says athletic director Joe Blandino. The highlight of the year was “the final sports dinner at the Savoy Inn. Every team was in one room and it was a celebration of success,” he said.
The emotional sports banquet was held on June 5 and the two veteran sports department secretaries, Jane Testa and “Honey” Luisi were visibly upset. “My parents, my children and I went to Sacred Heart, I am very sad, but we have to move on,” said Testa.
“It has been a wonderful 35 year experience for me. The school has been like my family. Now it’s time for me to really retire,” Luisi said.
Les Olson, head softball coach, just finished his 10th season with the Lions. His team won the Parochial-B State Title in 2012, and they won their third South Jersey Crown this spring by beating St. Joseph (Hammonton), 7-0. The Lions lost the 2013 title game to Immaculate Conception (Lodi), 6-4, on June 9.
“When the girls found out the school was closing, it meant more to them to have a successful season,” Olson noted. “Each game ramped up their emotions, beating their final South Jersey rival, their final home game, the final senior night, and then the ultimate final game.”
Samantha Caterino (senior, second base) said, “It was sad knowing this team was all coming to an end. It was a lot harder on the younger players because they all have to go to other schools and be separated.”
Lindsay Dwyer (senior, left field) stated, “On the field all of us were still a family. No one talked about the school closing. We played every game like we were never going to separate. We gave it our all.”
The girls basketball team finished a magical final season with only eight players on the squad the entire year. They logged a 21-8 record and reached the NJ State semi-finals.
Hoops coach Steve DiPatri finished his 16-year career with a 352-90 record with the Lions. He announced he will be the new head coach for the Wildwood Catholic girls basketball team next season.
Junior hoops forward Kennedy Johnson won the team’s Most Outstanding Player Award. She also gathered the most offers from colleges of any Sacred Heart student-athlete. “I have been playing basketball since the third grade and I was really looking forward to my senior year so I could score my 1,000 points entirely at Sacred Heart,” she said.
Johnson is one of America’s Top Junior Players and she will be a leading candidate for South Jersey Player of the Year next season. “Kennedy is the most talented player I have ever coached,” DiPatri said.
As the final sports banquet was coming to a close the emotional level in the room was reaching its zenith. Even the grizzled, no-nonsense 40-year veteran baseball coach Tom Ryder was reflective. “There was only one person who could have convinced me to coach the final season here. It was someone who went to Sacred Heart from K-12. My wife Linda,” said the former Princeton University baseball coach.
DiPatri summed up all of the 87-year sports history the best. When he came to Sacred Heart in 1997 there used to be only nine parents at girls basketball games with zero college scouts. This past decade there have been at least nine college coaches at various games in front of standing room only crowds.
“Once a Lion, you are a Lion for life,” DiPatri said. “Our legacy does not die at the end of this school year. We carry forward the lessons we learned through victory and defeat. We can be thankful for all of the time we spent together and the incredible relationships we all enjoyed. He concluded by saying, “Our sports programs have been sacred. And the passion comes from each and every one of our hearts.”