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For Landmark locals, Palestra experience one they'll never forget

01/16/2023, 9:45am EST
By Josh Verlin

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

Kayla Yoegel admits she’s not usually the first one of her teammates out on the floor to take pre-game warmups. Sunday, however, was an obvious exception for the Moravian fifth-year forward, who along with her teammates and seven other teams from the Landmark Conference had the ability to play on one of the most famous courts in basketball.

So the West Chester East product made sure she was the first one on the Palestra floor Sunday morning, all by herself, before one of the most special games of her collegiate career. She had to get a few shots up, all alone, to soak it all in.

Kayla Yoegel (above) and Moravian were one of eight Landmark teams that played at the Palestra on Sunday. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

“I wanted to see it go through the net before I had eight balls bouncing around,” she said. “I definitely soaked it in today.”

She wasn’t alone in her feeling of awe. Yoegel was one of a number of local products on the eight Division III teams who played at the Cathedral of College Hoops on Sunday, the Landmark’s first showcase at the famous arena. Every single one of them had the same reaction.

“My coach is very big on ‘one game at a time,’ so I think we kind of pushed it out until literally yesterday, we were like ‘oh my gosh,’” Scranton junior and Villa Maria alum Maddy Ryan said. “I always dreamed of it as a kid; [the] Catholic League championship was always played here, and I would come to it every year of high school. It was surreal, I can’t believe I had the opportunity to do it.

“When they announced the starting lineup, the lights were off, it was just awesome. It’s not something you usually get as a Division III basketball player.”

Each of the league’s eight programs was represented in a quartet of games, two women’s and two men’s. Yoegel’s Moravian squad opened it up against Drew (N.J.), followed by Scranton and Susquehanna’s women; Juniata played Elizabethtown and Goucher played Catholic in the men’s contests.

And for each one of their players who grew up in the area but never had a chance to play at the Palestra, Sunday proved to be a special one, win or lose. The phrase "once-in-a-lifetime" came up often, and nobody took it for granted.

Tyler Lapetina (above) scored 12 points for Juniata in a win over Elizabethtown. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

“I came here as a kid for a PCL championship game,” Perkiomen Valley grad and Juniata sophomore Tyler LaPetina said. “But besides that this is my first time that I really remember, so this is really special to come out here and play.

“It’s a way bigger arena, way bigger stands, area behind the basket, people all around,” he added. “It was a little different, being such a bigger atmosphere, more energetic atmosphere.”

“To be honest, this is my first time in here,” Elizabethtown forward and Downingtown East alum Dylan Rowe said. “It’s a great gym, it’s really cool to be here, I’ve watched a lot of games online and on TV.”

It was an event more than three years in the making for the multi-state Division III conference, which was founded in 2005 and began competition in 2007-08.

“When I first started at the Landmark in July of ‘19, one of the first coaching groups I met with was our men’s basketball coaches,” Landmark Conference commissioner Katie Boldvich told CoBL, “and they had just talked about an event we could do to differentiate ourselves from different conferences in the region. And they brought up, almost as this pie-in-the-sky idea: ‘wouldn’t it be great if we could play at the Palestra?’”

The pandemic delayed that idea for a couple years, but in the summer of 2021, Boldvich started pursuing it as a possibility; she said in the span of about a month it went from idea to reality, getting the numbers from Penn and other vendors and getting the go-ahead from the eight athletic directors.

Even though the conference doesn’t have a team located in Philadelphia, the city’s central proximity to a league with members in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, D.C. and Maryland made the most sense. Many of the schools also have significant alumni bases in the area, which contributed to a sizable crowd inhabiting the building for much of the day.

Villa Maria's Maddy Ryan (above) had come to the Palestra for many a PCL championship game, but never played there. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Though the event was finalized more than a year ago, it wasn’t until this fall that it was announced as part of the Landmark’s schedule. Most of the players found out from their coaches, either in team meetings or chance one-on-one encounters. 

The latter was the case for Yoegel, who was in a meeting with Moravian head coach Mary Beth Spirk when Spirk mentioned they were going to have to make an adjustment to the schedule.

“She kinda just slid it in there, ‘yeah, we have to rework the schedule, we’re going to have to play on a Friday, because we’re playing at the Palestra on Sunday,’” Yoegel recalled. “And I was like ‘the Palestra??’ and she said ‘yeah, yeah, we’re going to the Palestra.’

“The initial reaction was like, speechless. I had no words. I was like, ‘holy crap, I’m playing at the Palestra.’ One, I haven’t been here in years, and two, it’s on people’s bucket lists.

“When it was announced, I was like ‘man, my last year of college basketball, and I’m going to the Palestra.’ That’s the way to do it.”

“She’s a kind of basketball junkie and historian,” Spirk said. “I think for her, it meant a whole lot.”

It wasn’t just the players who felt that way.

“I got chills thinking about it, I’ve been here watching some games and watched on TV, so I never thought I’d get a chance to coach on the Palestra floor,” Spirk said. “Honestly, walking in here, I had to take a little time to myself because it was pretty amazing.”

Even the non-local players who didn’t know much about the arena beforehand were instantly impressed.

“I’ve never been here before, but as soon as I walked into the gym today I was like ‘oh my gosh,’ I was so excited,” said Drew senior Joey Meyers, a Mendham (N.J.) product, who entered the weekly mostly ignorant of the Palestra’s history and aura. “This is an unreal experience, I’m really thankful to be able to experience this.”

Dylan Rowe (above) had 20 points on 10-of-16 shooting for Elizabethtown. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Many of the locals who took the court on Sunday played well:

  • Yoegel finished with 11 points and 6 rebounds as Moravian lost a close one to Drew, the league’s co-leader

  • Ryan scored 13 points and grabbed 8 rebounds, while Sara Walsh (Haverford High) added 4 points and 2 rebounds in Scranton’s win over Susquehanna

  • Lapetina scored 12 points and grabbed 7 rebounds as Juniata beat Elizabetown; Rowe scored 20 points (10-16 FG) with seven rebounds as the only Blue Jay in double figures, and Ben Stanton (Penncrest) started at point guard and contributed 3 points and 4 rebounds with 0 turnovers in 25 minutes

  • Unionville product Sean Neylon had the best day of all, scoring 24 points in 21 minutes as Catholic beat Goucher; La Salle HS alum Jake Timby added 10 points and three assists off the bench

This won’t be the Landmark’s only year at the Palestra. The league plans on coming back for at least one more season, with all the teams who didn’t play this year getting their chance in 2023-24, though there is one wrinkle: two new schools joining the Landmark next season, Lycoming and Wilkes. 

“We’re trying to walk through a few options right now,” Boldvich said. “I don’t know how feasible it would be to play five games [...] we don’t want to force a fifth game to not make it a great experience. We still want it to be incredible for the students.”

Based on the feedback from all who participated, that it was. 

“It felt great — amazing atmosphere, great experience,” Yoegel said. “There’s really no words to describe it.”

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