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November 14, 2017

After sidelining top team, CYO football league consents to 'unofficial' championship

Bucksmont Conference coaches march on in playoffs as Visitation players sit at home

A Catholic Youth Organization football league will go without an official postseason champion this year after a group of coaches defied an archdiocesan order to include a top-ranked rival in its playoff bracket.

But that won't stop two of those coaches from putting players on a field this weekend for a title game – without a legitimate title at stake.


RELATED STORY: CYO football coaches disobey archdiocesan order to play rival

The Bucksmont Conference varsity playoffs continued last weekend without Visitation B.V.M., a Norristown-area team accused by opposing coaches of using ineligible players en route to a spotless 7-0 regular-season record.

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia had ruled that Visitation must be included in postseason play – and that the ineligible players would be allowed to suit up. "That decision was made in the spirit of fairness to the young people," archdiocesan spokesman Ken Gavin said last week, noting administrators were only recently alerted to the roster irregularities.

Archdiocesan administration said it would not force the teams to play Visitation, nor stand in the way of rival mock playoff and championship games. It further ruled Monday that, with rivals snubbing Visitation in defiance of the archdiocesan decision, no official champion will be named – even as an ersatz championship game was being planned. 

The ruling came after the Buxmont Saints defeated the St. Agnes and Sacred Heart (SASH) Knights on Saturday in what should have been the semifinals. 

But Visitation was never given an opponent. Its players were forced to sit out – at home.

"ALL the kids just want to compete, this is YOUTH sports," Visitation coach Tim Young wrote in an email. "Neither the Visitation kids nor our opponents' (players) could care less about being 'official champions.' They just want to play."

Instead, Buxmont coach Joe Meehan said his Saints will play the top-ranked team remaining – believed to be the St. John of the Cross Crusaders of Roslyn, Montgomery County – in an unofficial championship this weekend. But he declined to provide details about where and when that game will be played.

As far as Meehan is concerned, the winner will be the true champions, whether or not the archdiocese formally recognizes them as such.

"At this point, I don't know what's official or what's unofficial," Meehan said. "We just know that the teams that were left, that remained in the playoffs, all agreed that we would not play Visitation. We know these kids deserve to play postseason play."

"It's a shame no one stood up to these men and forced them to do what's right." – Tim Young, Visitation CYO football coach

The pastor of St. Cyril of Jerusalem of Jamison, Bucks County, who oversees the Saints' CYO program, supported the coaches' collective refusal to play the Gladiators.

"The two top seeds left in the playoffs, they're going to play a game," the Rev. Msgr. Robert Powell said on Monday. "The winner of that game will at least know that they are, in their minds, the legal winners of this particular division. 

"Whether that's agreed upon by Visitation, or even if it's agreed upon by the diocese, doesn't really matter. But these kids need closure."

COACHES 'MANIPULATED THE SITUATION'

The CYO board initially excluded Visitation from the playoffs after questions were raised about the eligibility of several players.

Visitation appealed to the archdiocese, which determined that six players did not meet registration and/or residency requirements, according to Gavin. Yet, the archdiocese also ruled that the Gladiators could proceed into the playoffs.

But the remaining postseason teams refused to play Visitation, Gavin said. And the archdiocese will not make them compete against the Gladiators.

"Central administration has not, nor will it, take action to force them to do so," Gavin wrote in an email on Monday. "Options available (include) postponing the entirety of the postseason or naming a champion by forfeiture. The option to declare a champion by forfeiture will not be pursued."

"I think they need to start doing some soul-searching themselves as a parish. This is youth football...." – Jim Hotham, SASH CYO football coach

Under forfeiture, that champion would have been Visitation.

Rev. Terry Weik, pastor of Visitation, did not return a call seeking comment. But Young expressed disappointment at the archdiocese's decision not to take action against teams that refused to play his team.

"It's a shame no one stood up to these men and forced them to do what's right," Young wrote in his email. 

He again defended the eligibility of his players, saying he has never received a list of specific infractions. He has claimed his roster faced a heightened level of scrutiny due to a mixture of jealousy and bigotry. Several of the players whose eligibility was challenged are minorities.

Young said CYO football coordinator Chris McCune did not even schedule Visitation last weekend, allowing Bucksmont and SASH to ignore the archdiocese's ruling to include Visitation.

"Had McCune scheduled us, we would have been matched up against SASH and their coach would have actually had to tell his parents they were not going to play us, as he had previously told (PhillyVoice,)" Young wrote.

Young claimed McCune, SASH coach Jim Hotham and Buxmont coaches "manipulated the situation" to exclude the Gladiators from the playoffs, where they would have competed for their third straight title. Visitation outscored its opponents, 230-48, this season.

Hotham defended the decision to play on Saturday, saying he received the support of Sacred Heart's pastor, the Rev. John D. Schiele. Hotham reiterated that the CYO board found Visitation's roster violated league rules.

"You could say they were playoffs, you could say they weren't," Hotham said of SASH's game on Saturday. "I have no idea at this point. It's a mess and it's a mess that was caused by Visitation."

Schiele was not in the office Monday and unavailable to comment. 

'THIS IS YOUTH FOOTBALL'

Still, Hotham said "his heart goes out" to the Visitation players and parents, saying they might not have known the rules existed. But, he said, Visitation's coaches should have known better, adding that they need to be held accountable.

"I think they need to start doing some soul-searching themselves as a parish," Hotham said. "This is youth football. This isn't college football. This isn't the SEC. This is youth football."

McCune did not return a call seeking comment. The archdiocese, McCune and opposing coaches have all adamantly refuted any claims of bigotry, saying the matter is simply about following CYO eligibility rules.

Like other teams in the conference, Visitation draws players from multiple parishes and Catholic grade schools assigned to its program. Participating youth must meet eligibility requirements based primarily on parish registration and place of residence.

It remains unclear whether church leadership at Queen of Peace Parish in Ardsley, Montgomery County, the home parish for the St. John of the Cross team, supported the decision to exclude Visitation from the playoffs. 

The Rev. Lawrence F. Crehan, pastor at Queen of Peace, which merged with nearby St. John of the Cross in 2014, declined to comment. St. John coach George Illingworth did not respond to a message seeking comment.

Powell, however, ardently defended Meehan's refusal to play Visitation.

"This coach and football director of mine is one of the most ethical men I've ever met in my life," said Powell, who was away on a retreat last weekend. "He's so principled. That's why I support him in everything he does. The program here is a good program and I trust him."

And with Meehan and other coaches' refusal to play Visitation, there will be no official Bucksmont champion.