Roman Catholic coach Matt Griffin (above) has both played in and coached Catholic League playoff games. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
The Philadelphia Catholic League championship game won’t host 8,000-plus fans, no overbearing din for three straight hours between the girls’ contest and the boys, no packed sidelines and baselines and corners. It won’t have the aura and atmosphere of the Palestra seeping onto the courts and through every dribble, pass and shot; the history patrolling the halls, legends of games past soaking in the action and remembering their glory days.
But it’s still the Catholic League championship game, even if it is being held at Cardinal O’Hara instead of the Cathedral of College Basketball. Even if there will be fewer than 200 people in the building instead of thousands.
Top-seeded and unbeaten Archbishop Wood against second seed Roman Catholic for the city’s top annual bragging rights, Monday night at 7 PM. No matter where it’s played, in this city, there’s no high school basketball game that holds more weight.
“I think the Palestra is just unique, I don’t know that you can replicate that,” Roman Catholic coach Matt Griffin said. “But nothing changes in terms of the value and the meaning of playing the PCL championship.”
Griffin knows plenty about the game every high school hoop head has circled on their calendar from the day schedules come out. He was on the St. Joe’s Prep roster as a sophomore in 2004-05 when the Hawks made it to the league championship, though that was during the brief stretch when La Salle University played host. Since taking of Roman’s head coaching job in 2017, he’s coached the Cahillites to titles in 2018 and 2019, finishing as runner-ups to Neumann-Goretti a year ago.
As for his roster, however…
Not so much.
The only returning starter from last year’s squad is sophomore point guard Xzayvier Brown, who scored nine points in the game last year. Just about everybody else who played meaningful minutes for the squad last year is gone: Lynn Greer III, Nasir Lett and Kyle Maska graduated; junior wing Christian Kirkland went back to Friends’ Select, and juniors Jalen Duren and Justice Williams went to Montverde Academy (Fla.).
To help fill the gaps, Griffin brought in players from the far-away lands of Montenegro and New Jersey, with a couple juniors who were on the JV squad last year thrown into the mix alongside a couple other newcomers. There’s talent, for sure, but not a ton of Philly hoops history knowledge.
Xzayvier Brown (above, against Wood in the 2020 PCL semifinals) is the only returning Roman starter. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
“I think it would be impossible for me to explain to them what the Palestra is like, words can’t do it justice,” Griffin said. “But nonetheless, playing in a Catholic League championship game, I don’t care where it is located, these guys will be hyped up and amped up.”
One of those newcomers is Khalil Farmer, a 6-foot-3 junior guard who spent his first two years of high school at the Shipley School. Though Farmer hasn’t played in a Catholic League championship, he was in attendance at last year’s championship game, so he at least has an idea of what he’s missing out on.
“Definitely obviously disappointed that it’s not at the Palestra,” Farmer said. “It’s the best atmosphere in at least high school, at least I’ve ever been in...it’s the best thing just to see everybody in the city, almost, come to one spot and watch high school kids play.
“But it doesn’t matter for us, we look at it like regardless of where the game is being played at, we’re going to be ready to play.”
With 32 Catholic League titles in its rich history dating back to 1922, the first of nine championships won under legendary head coach Billy Markward, Roman Catholic’s presence in the PCL title game isn’t anything new. But this squad wasn’t expected to win No. 33, not after all the departures from last year.
Certainly the biggest losses were when Duren and Williams left for Montverde, one of the top prep programs in the country. Duren is a consensus top-five player in the 2022 class and a potential one-and-done prospect, while Williams is a top-30 shooting guard with offers from 15+ high-major programs including Villanova, Florida, Michigan, UConn, and more. If they’d stayed, Roman would have been a title favorite for the next two years; with them gone, there were a lot more questions than answers.
Instead, Farmer and Dan Skillings, a 6-6 transfer from St. Joe’s-Hammonton, both averaged 20+ points this season, while Brown took the next step in his progression towards becoming a high-level Division I point guard. Those three D-I prospects carried the majority of the scoring load for the Cahillites, though junior wing Matija Radanovic, junior guard Jahmir Martin, junior forward Chad Anglin and freshman guard Toby Ojukwu all have had their moments.
And in a Catholic League filled with talented teams, that core was able to work its way through and bring Roman back to the final for the fourth year in a row.
“We had a lot of doubts all year long with a lot of people not thinking we were going to be anything this year, because of our big losses, but we bounced right back,” Skillings said. “We’re trying to prove everybody wrong and keep working.”
“I really could not be more proud of this group,” Griffin said. “I know the circumstances are really difficult this year and things like that, but I could not be more proud of this group for being resilient.
“We’ve used the Salvation Army as our ‘home’ court, but it’s really a neutral court. We’ve had practices outside, it’s a brand-new group of guys, we have an international student, guys from different leagues, and basically one returning player from last year, and he was a freshman.”
This postseason didn’t come without controversy. Neumann-Goretti, one of the league’s other annual powerhouses, had put itself in position for a top-three seed before a COVID shutdown earlier this month. Then, a player on the Saints’ roster was ruled ineligible by the PIAA due to a fall transfer out of the school before returning, forcing them to forfeit half of their games and miss out on the postseason.
Instead of a likely Roman-Neumann semifinal matchup, Roman got to play Devon Prep — by no means an easy game, as the Tide showed by coming within 38-36 of making their own historic run to the championship in only their third year in the league. But there’s no doubt that a Neumann group led by Temple commit Hysier Miller would have also been right in the mix for a spot at O’Hara.
Rahsool Diggins (above) leads a star-studded Wood lineup. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
That’s not to take anything away from Roman, which earned its way to the championship game against unbeaten Archbishop Wood, finishing 9-1 during the league’s regular season. The Cahillites’ only loss came against the same Vikings squad it will face Monday night at 7 o’clock; Wood took a Feb. 17 matchup 79-69.
“They’re obviously a terrific basketball team,” Griffin said, “and undefeated for a reason.”
Led by five seniors — four of which are going Division I and the other with a handful of Division II offers — Wood has seemed like a shoe-in for the title game this year. The last time John Mosco’s Vikings made it this far, Villanova standout Collin Gillespie led the 2017 group to its first-ever title game appearance and first-ever championship before taking home the PIAA 5A crown.
This time, it’s UConn commit Rahsool Diggins who’s the shining star for the Vikings, but the entire starting five takes their turn offensively: Jaylen Stinson (James Madison), Daeshon Shepherd (La Salle), Marcus Randolph (Richmond) and Muneer Newton.
Wood fell short of the championship the last couple years, and it’s a group that’s had its eyes on nothing else since a semifinal defeat to Roman a year ago.
“I know those guys want it really bad, to get that ‘chip, man,” Farmer said. “That’s just going to have to make us have to come to play, they’re not going to back down at all. I think our loss earlier in the year is definitely something that’s going to give us motivation to go out there and get it back.”