Ralph Chiarello, a former St. Joachim’s star, celebrates with his wife, Debbie, after his induction into the CYO of Mercer County’s Basketball Hall of Fame Nov. 18 in Hamilton Township. The two have been married for 30 years after meeting when Debbie Chiarello cheered for St. Joachim’s.  Rich Fisher photo

Ralph Chiarello, a former St. Joachim’s star, celebrates with his wife, Debbie, after his induction into the CYO of Mercer County’s Basketball Hall of Fame Nov. 18 in Hamilton Township. The two have been married for 30 years after meeting when Debbie Chiarello cheered for St. Joachim’s.  Rich Fisher photo

By Rich Fisher | Contributing Editor

Just call it The Debate that started The Tradition.

And it has become one of the most prestigious traditions in Mercer County athletics over the past 15 years – the Catholic Youth Organization of Mercer County’s Basketball Hall of Fame Awards Dinner.

The eighth biannual affair took place Nov. 18 at the Nottingham Firehouse and Ballroom in Hamilton Township, where 15 new members were inducted into the Hall of Fame, and four Mr. And Ms. CYO Basketball presentations were made to high-schoolers for their recent play in the league. More than 270 were in attendance.

It all spawned from what makes sports so great to begin with – an argument over who was the best, which occurred among staff and board members at a 2003 Christmas party.

Pat Hardiman, the Yardville Branch/Bromley Center director and the CYO athletic director from 1998-2002, remembers it well.

“We engaged in a conversation of who was the greatest CYO basketball player,” Hardiman said. “And then it became a Top 10 list and it evolved into this. CYO basketball at that time was less than 50 years old, we thought we needed to develop a hall of fame for this great league.”

That argument about the greatest player was never decided. In fact, they couldn’t get it down to a Top 5.

“I’ll get back to you on that,” Hardiman said with a laugh. “I don’t want to get anybody mad.”

In looking at the eight Hall of Fame classes, it is easy to see how picking one over all the rest is near impossible. This year’s group is  up there with some of the best players, coaches and officials to ever grace the CYO and beyond.

“I’m still blown away by it,” said inductee Alexa Millas, who played for St. Anthony’s from 1980-83 before starring at McCorristin (now Trenton Catholic) and Fairleigh Dickinson of Teaneck. “It’s such an honor because I grew up idolizing so many of the people that are in the Hall of Fame. To be standing there next to them now, it’s just amazing.”

Millas was one of seven players inducted, along with Pete Kelly (Our Lady of Sorrows 1998-2004), Debbie Zsenak (St. Raphael’s 1980-84) , Steve MacZinko (St. Anthony’s, 1965-67), Kristin Voorhees Jacobs (St. Gregory the Great, 1988-94), Ralph Chiarello (St. Joachim’s, 1977-78) and Rashawn Glenn (Our Lady of Divine Shepherd, St. Mary’s Cathedral, 1986-88).  Kelly joined his father Chris, a 2008 inductee, as the first father-son duo to grace the Hall of Fame.

The coaching inductees were Lou DeMille, Dawn Poland Wolfsgruber, Don Walsh Sr., and the late Jim Haggerty Sr., while the referees were Fred Dumont and the late Herman English. In joining 2007 honoree Ann Ermi-DeMille, the DeMilles became the first husband-wife inductees.

Special Contributors included Rosemary LaMachia and the Late Joe Hejda, one of the CYO’s most famous figures as its legendary announcer. Mr. And Ms. CYO Basketball awards went to Donavin Crawford (St. Gregory the Great, 2016-17), Nicole Rende (St. Gregory the Great 2016-17), Zion Cruz (Trenton Catholic, 2017-18) and Grace Jakim (Our Lady of Sorrows, 2017-18).

It was a room laden with talent and success, but the occasion was about so much more than that.

“CYO basketball is a unique brand,” CYO executive director Tom Mladenetz said. “Everything connected to it. It’s a unique part of everybody’s childhood experience who grew up in a Catholic school or went to a Catholic church in Mercer County. I played CYO basketball when I was young. I’m 57 years old, and it’s still some of my best childhood memories.

“When he came to the first couple of dinners we had, [the late] Msgr. [Leonard R.] Toomey, our founder, always said it doesn’t matter who won a game 30 years ago – but it’s all about this. About re-connecting and lifelong friendships. It’s really a beautiful tradition,” he said.

Some folks didn’t even have to reconnect. They just stayed together. Chiarello, part-owner of the immensely popular, family-run Chiarello’s Deli in Hamilton Township, met his wife of 30 years through CYO basketball. Debbie Chiarello was captain of the St. Joachim’s cheerleading team; Ralph Chiarello captained the hoops squad.

“I loved cheering for him,” Debbie Chiarello said. “He was my boyfriend in eighth grade. We took a break;  when we got into 12th grade, he was captain of [McCorristin] basketball and I was captain in cheerleading. We reconnected our senior year, and now we’ve been together for 45 years. All because of CYO basketball!”  

It was one of countless feel-good stories recalled during the festive evening.

“It’s not just the basketball that they remember,” Hardiman said. “They don’t forget the people that they met. They’re still lifelong friends. The coaches that coached them, and playing in our iconic gym, all that means as much to everybody as the actual game on the court.”

Ah yes, the iconic gym on Broad Street in Trenton, which was converted from a movie theatre around 1961. It may well be the greatest symbol of all when it comes to the Mercer CYO, and could well be nominated for induction one day.

“That’s something to consider,” Hardiman said. “It’s a great place to watch a game. It’s been around so long. It just has a special feel to it.”