The Chicago Catholic League, about as traditionalist of a league as there is, just got progressive.
With the pushing from several coaches and the approval of school athletic directors and principals, the Chicago Catholic League, much like the Chicago Public League, will have its very own end-of-year tournament. It's a step that will enhance the competitiveness just prior to the start of the postseason while also shining the spotlight on Catholic League basketball in the Chicago area.
"It's fantastic for the kids," says St. Rita coach Gary DeCesare. "This gives them a chance to play for a championship. I think we need to look at what is best for the kids, what is best for the league, and maybe not what is best for individual programs."
DeCesare, the former DePaul assistant who coached at powerful St. Raymond in the Bronx for 16 years, is very familiar with the road the Chicago Catholic League is about to go down. During his highly-successful run at St. Raymond, his teams competed in the ultra-competitive New York Catholic High School Athletic Association, which conducted its own Catholic League Tournament.
"The Chicago Catholic League, along with the New York Catholic League, the Washington D.C./Baltimore area and Philadelphia, are the two, three or four best in the country," DeCesare points out. "All those cities and leagues have tournaments. Why not have one of our own here in Chicago?"
Loyola Academy coach Tom Livatino has experienced a conference tournament while he was the head coach at Lincoln Park. He and his players thoroughly enjoyed all that came with being a part of the Chicago Public League playoffs.
"I think the Catholic League coaches felt it was time for a change, to try something new," says Livatino. "We are proud of all the programs in the Catholic League and this is an opportunity to showcase all our teams. It's a chance to show prospective students what Catholic League basketball is all about while also raising the stakes."
Currently the Catholic League is split up into two divisions with two separate champions, hardly the model any unified league would embrace. This tournament -- and, more importantly, a single champ -- brings the Catholic League together while also bringing a new focus. The Catholic League Tournament will begin with the 2013-2014 season.
The league will continue to have two separate divisions. But at the the conclusion of conference play, there will be two separate tournaments, with the top four teams in the Catholic League South and the top four teams in the Catholic League North all playing in one eight-team bracket to crown the league champion. The bottom four teams in each division will play one another in another eight-team bracket.
During his time at Lincoln Park, Livatino experienced the Chicago Public League playoffs. While the reward for being the city champ isn't what it once was when a trip to state was on the line, the intensity and importance remained.
"The Public League model is a great thing," Livatino says of the city playoffs. "Those kids and teams go through an experience of the city playoffs which, win or lose, has them locked in and ready for state tournament play. Our kids [at Lincoln Park] were so excited about playing in that tournament. It's a huge thing within the Public League to play in that, to get to the city quarterfinals, to play in the semis at UIC or DePaul, the chance to play for a city championship."
As Livatino indicated, one of the hopes is that by revving up the latter part of the season, it may result in a post-season carry-over for Catholic League teams. That's been an issue over recent years.
There are some tradition-rich programs in the Chicago Catholic League. There are others on the uptick. There are elite coaches in the state headlining various programs. The league has produced some big-time individual talent. There is competitive depth. And there are always teams ranked among the top 25 every single season.
What's missing from the league? Big-time success in March. Well, big-time success among the big schools as both Hales Franciscan and Leo have had their share of dominance in the old Class A and also in 2A in the four-class system.
Want some sobering statistics, Catholic League basketball fans?
The Chicago Catholic League hasn't won a big school state championship in more than 25 years, with the last coming in 1985. Remember that Mt Carmel team, led by big Melvin McCants and guard James Farr, that stunned Springfield Lanphier on Derrick Boyd's buzzer-beater?
Leo's 0-2 trip to Peoria and fourth-place finish in 2009 is the only top-four finish and only state trophy brought home by a Catholic League school from the big school state tournament since Gordon Tech's second-place finish in 1990.
In the last 20 years, only Fenwick (1998), Gordon Tech (2000), Brother Rice (2005) and Leo (2009) have reached the state tournament in Champaign or Peoria -- and their combined record at state was 0-5.
"Time will tell if it helps, but I really do think this will prepare us for the tournament in March," Livatino says.
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