Emma O’Connor now plays basketball for Marist College, but she got her start as part of a Nassau County Catholic middle school league.
“I really enjoyed it. It was a great experience,” said O’Connor, now a sophomore at Marist, who competed for Our Lady of Peace School, Lynbrook, in the Catholic Middle School Athletic Association of Nassau County. “I made a ton of friends who I’m still friends with and I really developed as an athlete.”
She went on to play at Kellenberg Memorial High School in Uniondale where she won All-Long Island honors and was Nassau County Player of the Year in girls’ basketball.
O’Connor is one of many athletes from a dozen schools who have competed in various sports for the past decade in the association, which includes Catholic grade schools from all over Nassau. A similar league exists in Suffolk.
On Feb. 16 the league had its annual championship tournament at St. Agnes School Gymnasium, Rockville Centre. “It was exciting,” said Dominican Sister Kathy Carlin, principal of St. Agnes and founder of the league.
“It was about nine years ago that I noticed that we were losing a number of students at the upper grades who wanted to play sports, which we didn’t have at the time,” Sister Kathy said.
“We started out with basketball and with a few teams,” Sister Kathy continued. Dan Melia, a veteran referee, got involved to recruit and organize referees for the games.
“I became the unofficial commissioner,” Melia said. In time, more schools joined and they added baseball and softball, soccer, volleyball, and lacrosse.
“Sister Kathy and Dan got it started and did a great job,” said Skip Gehring, an early member of the league and longtime girls’ and boys’ basketball coach at St. Christopher’s, Baldwin.
Gehring still coaches boys’ basketball at St. Christopher’s in addition to his job as boys’ basketball coach at McGann-Mercy High School in Riverhead. “That’s how much I think of the league,” he said.
His four daughters played for St. Christopher’s, including Tori and Kati, who now play for DeSales University, Pennsylvania, and Dani and Cari, who play for McGann-Mercy.
“The level of competition is so good that it helps gets them prepared for playing high school ball,” Gehring said. His wife, Brenda, operates the league’s website and is former cheerleading coach.
In addition to the quality of play, coaches, parents, and players praised the league for its atmosphere, its emphasis on sportsmanship, and its Catholic focus, illustrated by praying the Athlete’s Prayer before games.
“I started coaching the girls at St. William the Abbot in Seaford a few years ago and it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” said Jim Seidell, a veteran coach. “I love the kids and I love the atmosphere, the way it pulls the school together.”
He commended the league’s coaches, including some who coach both boys’ and girls’ teams “because they love it or there is no one else.” Seidell said. Coaching is time-consuming, “but some good-hearted souls have stepped up to help.”
“We’ve never had trouble finding coaches,” Sister Kathy said. “And everyone is a volunteer.” She also praised the principals of the various schools and the emphasis on sportsmanship.
“I’ve refereed in public, Catholic and nonpublic schools and this is the best league I’ve seen for sportsmanship,” Melia said.
“The way I learned to play in the league is the way I play today,” said Emma O’Connor. “I’m happy to say that I’ve never gotten a technical foul and never gotten into a fight. Some of the friends I made I played against at Kellenberg. We competed hard but when the game was over we were still friends.”
“We had played CYO ball, which was great, but this was an opportunity to play for our school,” said Tom Callaghan, who along with his brother, Michael, played for St. Christopher’s. This year, both were co-captains of the basketball team at Holy Trinity High School, Hicksville. He and his brother still wear the championship shirts they won at St. Christopher’s.
“I think this expands their whole understanding of the Church” by meeting teams from other parishes, said Teresa Callaghan, mother of Tom and Michael. Her daughter, Jennifer, also played for St. Christopher’s. “It also helped prepare them for the transition to Catholic high school.”
Though the leaders in the league are proud of the athletes who have gone on to compete in high school and even college, Melia said, “there is a range of skills among the participants but everybody gets a chance. There are kids who will never pick up a ball again but they will never forget having played with us.”