For two teams, the CYO game at Our Lady of Mount Carmel School gym March 5 was more than just another game played on a Sunday.
It was for the Catholic Youth Organization Bronx County championship in the Bantam division (second-, third- and fourth-graders) of the Bronx. It was also the last time the two schools will play each other since the Feb. 15 announcement that the two Catholic schools will merge next school year. There will be one school: St. Margaret of Cortona-St. Gabriel School. And that will mean one team for each sport, including basketball.
For the parents and fans who showed up on Sunday, the game was about bringing out the best in the Riverdale community.
As for the game, Saint Gabriel was ahead at halftime, 12-10, and increased that lead to five points in the second half. But Saint Margaret rallied towards the middle of the fourth quarter to pull out a 29-25 win for the title by collectively defending and dominating the boards.
Saint Margaret went home as CYO County Champions for the Bronx with another battle remaining against Westchester next week.
The emotional roller coaster had players on both sides doing whatever it took to win the high-stakes game. Players were breathing heavily and wanted to continue fighting for their team to pull off the win. Even though Saint Gabriel poured it all on the court, the momentum shift of the Mustangs secured the win.
The players were crying and full of emotion on both sides. The coaches exchanged hugs and handshakes while they praised each other in a well-fought contest, and the parents congratulated and offered a welcome for next season.
“It is a big game for the community,” said Sean Riley, head coach of Saint Margaret. “Riverdale has two Catholic private schools, and we will be one school. So, there is a little bit of bragging rights, but we have to respect our future brothers and sisters on the other team and parents.
“It is a good game for the neighborhood; we must do it respectfully. After losing last year in a shorter season, we wanted to win the championship this year. It has been an outstanding season. I am really proud of the boys.”
Riley has been coaching for two years at the school and 12 years coaching youth sports. Riley was here before when St. Margaret fell short against Saint Raymond’s elementary.
Saint Gabriel coach Julio Olaizola was still in coaching mode looking ahead to next season.
“It was definitely tough to lose,” he said. “We had the lead, but the game went back and forth in the second half. I am proud of my boys. No one expected us to be here. To be honest with you, we will continue practicing toward the year’s end. We are not going to stop.”
There were multiple lead changes mid-game. Both teams were trading baskets as the game started to pick up. In the second quarter, Saint Gabriel made a nice run going into halftime with a two-point lead. St. Margaret’s guards were in foul trouble, and Coach Sean made multiple substitutions throughout the game to stay competitive. Saint Margaret was losing by two points at halftime by a score of 12-10.
This had parents from Saint Margaret nervous, but Jessica Galeas still had hope and confidence. Her son, Cruz Galeas, is in the second grade and has just started playing for the team. She said, “We are excited. We are ready to go. They are dedicated! These kids play really hard and are happy for an opportunity to win. It is bittersweet that the schools will merge, but I must root for St. Margaret. Next year we will be happy to merge together.”
Both of these coaches had a lot on their plate. But what was on their mind?
The build-up to the St. Margaret and Saint Gabriel game caused jitters in the pit of the stomach for players, coaches, and parents as the gym rumbled with parents trading predictions and coaches going over last-minute strategies.
Saint Gabriel School, which has been around since 1941, has served many children for years. This game came about when the school was dealing with the school’s closure and students losing the place where memories were created. That can put huge pressure on coaches and players to show up and play their hearts out.
Coach Olaizola has been coaching just this year, and his son Logan Olaizola, a third-grader, is on the team.
“It is ironic that we are playing Saint Margaret because we were supposed to play them two times,” the coach said. We only played them once. They cut the season short by one game. This is the second time we are playing the number two seed. We beat the number one seed. Our team is confident.
“We put in a lot of work throughout the whole season. We are proud of the kids dedicating their time, doing extra work, and putting in practice hours. This win would mean a lot to what is happening with Saint Gabriel and the community. No one expected us to get this far. Us making it this far is a major accomplishment in itself. To take the victory today would be the cherry on top.”
Both teams put a lot of pressure on each other. Parents from Saint Gabriel, like Maria Shkrelja, parent of Christian Shkrelja, have played basketball for two to three years and have been on the team for two years.
This game means a lot to them. “It would be a huge victory,” she said. “It was heartbreaking when we found out about Saint Gabriel’s closing. This would be a little easier for them because they have been through a lot this year.
“If this happens and they win, it would be a morality boost. They are great, the kids, the coaches, and the principal. This would be good goodbye.”
Coach Olaizola was impressed by what he saw on his side of the court and the other side.
“They were organized; they made it this far,” he said. “I am looking forward to potential opportunities in the future, particularly with the merger, and they have a good group of boys on that team. If the role was reversed, they would feel the same and look forward to it. The common thread is the love of basketball that will continue in the Riverdale area.”
In a well-fought battle, two teams will be joined by one. The victory came with fulfilling happiness for Coach Riley.
“The kids! Honestly, it was the kids,” he said. “I am happy for the kids. Six months, most of these kids for the last two years after losing at the championship last year. They were dedicated to winning this year.
“Going forward, I am proud of the boys, and it will be nice to have Saint Gabriel included. The program will get stronger.”
Assistant coach for St. Margaret Sean Brown concurred about Catholic school basketball in Riverdale. “Both teams showed how strong this community is,” he said. “Next year is going to be scary. Can you believe that we are joining forces? There was no better way to end the season than with one of the two teams from the community bringing home the trophy. They played hard, and we respect them; we welcome them with open arms next year.”