Beyond basketball • Msgr. Ronald J. Bacovin accepts the gifts from Our Lady of Sorrows-St. Anthony Parish basketball players Chris Gemicola, Patrick Prendergast and Conor Monahan during the Mercer County CYO Opening Day Mass Nov. 7 in the Msgr. Toomey Annex, Yardville. John Blaine photo

Beyond basketball • Msgr. Ronald J. Bacovin accepts the gifts from Our Lady of Sorrows-St. Anthony Parish basketball players Chris Gemicola, Patrick Prendergast and Conor Monahan during the Mercer County CYO Opening Day Mass Nov. 7 in the Msgr. Toomey Annex, Yardville. John Blaine photo

As the Mercer County CYO kicked off its 63rd basketball and cheerleading season, the young athletes in attendance were urged to “play hard and play smart” by Msgr. Ronald J. Bacovin, who stressed the importance of loyalty and togetherness when it comes to team play.

SEE PHOTOS FROM THE OPENING DAY MASS, HERE.

Msgr. Bacovin, a retired priest of the Diocese of Trenton who currently serves as chaplain of Holy Cross Academy, Delran, celebrated the Opening Day Mass Nov. 7 in the Msgr. Toomey Annex, Yardville. He began his homily by discussing the importance of being trustworthy, and noted that is especially true in case of the cheerleaders who depend on each other to perform their routines and keep each other safe. 

“They have a very difficult task,” said Msgr. Bacovin. “The timing must be just right. I’m down at Holy Cross Academy and when I watch them perform, I look at them and always hold my breath that they come down safely. And they always do.”

Msgr. Bacovin then recounted a story of birds in a room trying feverishly to break through a window and failing, rather than turning around to see an open door to fly through. The analogy demonstrated that hustle won’t take a player too far without wisdom.

“Playing harder doesn’t mean you’ll win,” Msgr. Bacovin said. “You also have to play smart. You have to practice, and to get smarter you have to listen to your coaches. They know the rules and the game. That’s a winning combo, being smart and playing hard.”

After Mass, the CYO presented awards to 2014-15 Volunteer Coach of the Year Harry Wright, Female Athlete of the Year Gianna Lucchesi and Male Athlete of the Year Chad Nelson. The 10 selections for the Scholar-Athlete Team were also honored during the event.

“This is really awesome,” said Lucchesi, whose mother, Robyn, is a CYO Hall of Famer. “There are so many talented players in this program; it’s nice to see them awarded for their efforts.” 

Lucchesi, of St. Gregory the Great Parish, Hamilton Square, said she learned from Msgr. Bacovin’s homily.

“It’s like a reality check almost, the stuff he was saying,” Lucchesi said. “I appreciated it a lot.”

Nelson, also of St. Gregory the Great Parish, said he “agreed 100 percent” with Msgr. Bacovin.

“Playing smart is as important as playing hard,” said the basketball and soccer player. “Both of them together are the dynamic duo. I’ve always tried to do that.”

He has done it well. Nelson was one of the leading scorers on the St. Gregory’s Large School Division championship basketball team and was named the playoff MVP. He scored the championship game’s lone goal to give St. Greg’s the soccer title, and played for the freshmen soccer team at Notre Dame High School, Lawrenceville, this fall.

“I’m honored to get this award,” he said. “I’m thankful to my parents and my coaches throughout the years to help me win this and I’m very proud of myself.

“The CYO helped me love the game more. Basketball and soccer are sports I’ve been playing for many years. CYO helped me find the fun and become a better player so I’m grateful.”

Lucchesi tore it up in her final year of CYO hoops for St. Gregory’s last season. She led the Large School Division in scoring and won the league’s MVP Award. She was also the MVP of the CYO All-Star Game.

Like Nelson, she was honored by her award.

“It’s awesome,” Lucchesi said. “It’s pretty surreal considering all the stuff you do to work up to what you believe in and what you want.”

A ninth-grader on the Pennington School soccer team, she also has positive memories of the CYO experience.

“You develop such a close relationship with the players on your team,” Lucchesi said. “I was lucky enough to have my mom as a coach, she helped me with everything, with my shooting technique and dribbling down the court on a fast break. And you develop so many new friendships with girls that you never thought you’d meet.”

Part of that culture is created by people like Wright, a Mercerville resident who coached basketball for Our Lady of Sorrows-St. Anthony Parish for four years and was athletic director for the past two. He is stepping down as his twin boys enter high school.

“It’s all about the kids,” Wright said. “We’ve always tried to run a good program. It’s always about being fair and letting everyone participate. It’s great to be acknowledged for that.

“You really get satisfaction from helping the kids. I really enjoyed it. It was a lot of work, but we had a lot of good coaches and volunteers at OLS. As with any volunteer position you get more out of it than you put in. We always stressed doing it right. Winning is nice but we’re going to do it the right way, not take short cuts or bend any rules.”

And that’s exactly the message Msgr. Bacovin delivered. He emphasized that everyone on a team should treat their teammates as an equal, regardless of their status, and that they should play with each other and for each other.

“Play the game honestly and enjoy the game,” he said in conclusion. “At the end, you should feel better about yourself, whether you won or whether you lost.”

The CYO also named a team of Scholar-Athletes. Those honored include Luke Brown of St. John the Baptist Parsih, Yardville; Dominic Colter of St. Raphael-Holy Angels Parish, Hamilton; Kyle Dixon of Our Lady of Sorrows-St. Anthony; Sara Haas of St. Raphael-Holy Angels; Amy Jones of Trenton Catholic Academy, Hamilton; Lucchesi; Emily Ryan of St. Paul Parish, Princeton; Christopher Spinden of Trenton Catholic; Jack Tonra of St. Paul; and Natalie Wright of Our Lady of Sorrows-St. Anthony.