Football brings these teams, boys together

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It was a nasty night for football, but the boys played through the rain, and so St. Teresa football went out not with a bang, but a drizzle.

The last Golden Bowl was played Saturday night at Martorelli Stadium in Ross. At least it's the last one between the K-8 schools St. Teresa of Avila, in Ross, and Northside Catholic. With the size of the squads shrinking, next year the two longtime foes will play as one, with St. Teresa boys playing for Northside Catholic.

"Let's go, boys,'' St. Teresa's assistant coach, Dave Tonery, yelled as the varsity game was about to begin. "One last dance!"

Catholic grade schools have gone down like duck pins over the past several decades, and with parents of young athletes increasingly concerned about concussions, finding enough players to compete has become a bear for small schools. Hence this merger.

The junior varsity already plays together; these fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-grade boys all wear the same blue jerseys beneath either green St. Teresa helmets or yellow Northside Catholic Schools ones.

Tim Burnett, who played for St. Teresa as an 8-year-old in 1962, stood on the sideline watching the team he also coached for 32 years, ending last season

"St. Francis Xavier, St. Leo's, St. Peter's, St. Cyril's, Annunciation, Most Holy Name ...'' Mr. Burnett, 58, said when I asked if he could name all the rival schools he'd played as a youth.

Those were just the North Side schools, and he wasn't sure he got them all. There were about 40 Catholic school teams in and around Pittsburgh, he said.

So, yeah, watching the last purely St. Teresa game was bittersweet.

Two boys who'd played for the team last year stood nearby feeling the same way. Kevin Simpson and Eric Yoest, now playing ball for Avonworth and Shadyside Academy, said there is something special about lining up together with the same guys with whom you've walked the halls since your school years began.

But Mr. Tonery, who has three sons at St. Teresa and directs its football program, realized this past summer he had just 10 boys to fill out both the junior varsity and developmental squads.

He called Bill Kenny, the Northside Catholic athletic director and father of two boys himself. They hashed out a merger over lunch at Mullin's, the venerable North Side diner.

They needed the blessing of their respective boards, but within four days the junior varsity boys were practicing together. Now, they're very much one team, and the coaches have the same vision for the varsity next year -- but there had to be one last contest.

Shortly after stadium announcer Bill Murtha made a final plea to the small, damp crowd to put a dent in the mountain of chicken sandwiches at the concession stand, parents of the eighth-grade players and cheerleaders were introduced as families. These duos and trios walked onto the field beneath umbrellas to a smattering of applause from an audience that had shrunk in the rain. Then the game began.

It was never close. Northside Catholic started with just 11 players, and it had that many only because a junior varsity boy joined them.

"It was a great, valiant effort for them just to field a team,'' Mr. Tonery said.

So when late in the second quarter a Northside Catholic boy had to leave with a knee injury, the St. Teresa coaches immediately decided they'd play with just 10 boys, too.

"We're trying to teach the boys sportsmanship,'' Mr. Tonery said.

St. Teresa won easily, but youth football is not about the final score. That will be recorded somewhere, then forgotten. What should be remembered are the small moments.

There were three games played in the rain Saturday, with the combined development and JV squads playing before the varsity. Up in the press box during the JV game, Liam Kenny, 9, walked in with a buddy as his father scanned the field with binoculars to help the announcer get the players' names right.

Liam had knocked a ball from an opponent's hands during the developmental game and his team had recovered it, and so he asked, "Dad, did you see me do the fumble thing?"

Mr. Kenny, 44, smiled, said he had, and Liam smiled back up at him.

Uniforms change. Adults get wistful when they do. Boys -- they just want to play.

brianoneill

Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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