As the sound of the final horn echoed through the Blessed Sacrament gym last Wednesday night, every fan was either storming the court with the excitement and anticipation that comes with a nail biting championship victory or still trying to pry their eyes off the scoreboard in utter disbelief of what just happened. St. Jude’s knocked off the regular season champions, St. James, who happened to employ the biggest lineup in the league. They carried three players over 6’3″, as well as a college football prospect, and a former Cathedral Prep starter. They also held the reputation of being the most feared team that CYO in this area has seen in a long time. It came down to the wire and then it finally happened; David took down Goliath. St. Jude’s narrowly escaped with a 58-57 victory and a chance at the state title.
St. Jude’s, or the self proclaimed “Jude’s Dudes”, managed to clinch a first round bye in this year’s playoffs due to the underwhelming play and late season collapses of the field down the stretch. Many fans were unconvinced of their potential. Doubts began to reemerge pertaining to the loss of star guard Matt Fessler (torn ACL) for the season (which plagued them during initial league rankings) and who would step up and match his production. Well, no one did. As defeating as that sounds, it proved not to be the downfall of Jude’s Dudes. A complete team effort joined together to replace Fessler, not just one single individual. A junior laden team led by Tommy Agresti, James Proper and Sean McEnery paired with only one significant senior, IUP baseball commit, Colin Williams, formed one of the most memorable teams in recent memory.
St. James had itself one heck of a year also. Led by three Cathedral Prep students along with help from some Harborcreek Huskies and Iroquis Braves, they were a force to be reckoned with. They are built around do-it-all big man and Mercyhurst University baseball recruit Nick Hess. Joe Campbell also proved to be a large factor along with Allegheny destined Kyle Mitchell and Harborcreek native, Adam Zielinski, who down some monster dunks this year that ignited the crowd on multiple occasions. Led by a steady coach and a culture that preached defense, rebounding and hustle, St. James looked absolutely unstoppable for stretches. They breezed through the regular season with no clear completion and were heading to the playoffs with what seemed to be a clear road to States.
St. Jude’s went on an absolute tear during the postseason tournament, edging out St. James to play them once more for a trip to Allentown (where the state tournament is being held this year). Coming into the championship game, St. James had a significant advantage on the extremely undersized Jude’s Dudes. St. Jude’s starting forward James Proper said before the game, “They’re big and strong, but we play with more heart than any other team in this league.”
With tensions high and adrenaline even higher, the two battled it out on the court. It was a back and forth affair the entire game with neither side holding a safe, secure lead. Joe Campbell, who finished with 18 points, led the way with Nick Hess, who was one rebound shy of a double-double (18 points, 9 rebounds), as St. James held the slight edge coming out of the half. James Proper (18 PPG in last two contests) got off to a slow start, Collin Williams (who has been the focal point of the offense the whole year) struggled shooting the ball, and Tommy Agresti was continually getting keyed in on by the strong interior St. James defense. Instead, it was the likes of Sean McEnery who kept the Dudes in the game on both sides of the ball paired with sophomore Jared Heidt, (7 points, 5 rebounds, 2 steals) who plays with the hustle and tenacity that coaches covet. McEnery came up with some big defensive stops early on that kept the game within reach.
St. James came out of the half with a head of steam, with Campbell and Zielinski beginning to run the floor and take advantage of the undersized St. Jude’s defense. As the 4th quarter began, it started to look like St. James wasn’t going to be stopped and began to resemble their dominant regular season selves. But bounce back second half efforts from Agresti (16 points, 4 assists, 2 steals) and Proper (10 points, 3 assists, 2 steals, 1 block) made it interesting again. Williams recorded a game high 4 steals and contributed heavily on defense. It was a complete rebounding effort from the Dudes, with 4 players hauling in 4 rebounds or more (highlighted by Agresti’s 8 and Proper’s 7). It was a 3-point barrage as both teams shot extremely well from the 3-point line in the 4th quarter as well, headlined by Zielinski’s shot late in the game to put St. James up 1. Out of the Jude’s Dudes’ timeout, Hess secured the rebound off the missed shot. Disappointed facial expressions could be seen of the St. Jude’s bench, assuming that the end to their season was imminent as the clock was winding down. That was before Sean McEnery came out of nowhere to intercept Hess’s pass and finish on the other end in the closing seconds to secure the win. The crowd roared in excitement and many students in attendance stormed the court to congratulate Jude’s Dudes.
In the aftermath of it all, Junior swingman Sean McEnery spoke on the experience, “Being the first year with Jude’s Dudes it’s really great. [We] started out as the 5 seed. No one believed in us, [but we] pushed all the way through and took down the best team in the league 3 times. And to beat them 3 straight times for a championship, it’s great. We’re going to Allentown.” He finished with 16 points while adding 3 steals and 2 blocks to his stat line. St. James senior Kyle Mitchell also reflected on the season saying, “Makes me wanna take a lot of different opportunities to do things differently, take things more seriously, just prepare a lot better for teams than we did.” When asked if he believed the season was still a success, Mitchell added, “I thought we definitely were a success. The last few years, St. James basketball has been down and we finally brought it back to the championship.”
With first-year coach Matt Squeglia at the helm, he’s taken St. Jude’s to the promised land in only his first year of work with many key players returning. The future is bright and Proper had this to say of the season in summary. “Getting here was a full team effort. Without Collin’s senior leadership, Agresti’s tenacity on the boards, Sean’s silky 3-ball, and most of all our coach that shows us what it means to be a true man and the way he inspires us before every game, we never could have made it this far.”
It was a picture perfect ending to a roller coaster season for Jude’s Dudes. They accomplished the seemingly impossible by beating the most feared team in the league three times in a row despite losing perhaps the best returning overall player in the league. They did this all while having a ton of fun and building many friendships. It was a special year for the Jude’s Dudes and all who got a chance to witness it.