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    Saturday, April 01, 2023

    (Hopefully) symbolic sunlight for St. Bernard, Xavier

    If you are into symbolism, then the beginning of the basketball game Wednesday in New Haven, patches of sunlight dotting the Floyd Little Athletic Center, spoke of brighter days for two high schools whose futures, to varying degrees, are uncertain.

    A gleaming look to the heavens perhaps offered some comfort for St. Bernard and Xavier, whose only transgressions are geographic, parked under the auspices of the bankruptcy-raptured Norwich Diocese, the reasons for whose bankruptcy are unspeakable.

    Yet it was no less poignant to have watched the more than 50-year athletic rivals harken the days of the Bishop’s Cup, when it was Dave Pesapane vs. Larry McHugh in football, or the basketball days of Rich Pagliuca and Rich Magner. Inasmuch as substantive educational principles define both schools, athletics embody their excellence on the more public stage.

    “History cannot give us a program for the future, but it can give us a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of our common humanity, so that we can better face the future,” Robert Penn Warren once wrote.

    And so we remind the dramatis personae involved in the futures of both schools: History is forever binding through the connections that run like a current, all the way to today.

    It was Xavier, for instance, that was the opponent for Harold Pressley’s Senior Night in the winter of 1981. That was 42 winters ago. Pressley, the greatest of them all in St. Bernard lore and legend, was among the most coveted high school basketball players in the East at the time. Among the tourists in Uncasville, CT that night: Rollie Massimino, Digger Phelps and Pete Gillen, in the bleachers with everyone else, watching Harold, except that everyone else wore looks of awe and wonder in their presence.

    Magner, a terrific coach, told his center, Holy Cross-bound Tom Patton, that he was going to foul out guarding Pressley on his Senior Night. Actually, Magner said, “you have two fouls right now,” as Patton stepped off the team bus. Magner was right on both counts. And yet the memories of that night, always up for embellishment, speak to the traditions of both schools.

    Heck, Jim Luchansky, one of the officials for Wednesday night’s state semifinal, stopped by the press table and said, “St. Bernard-Xavier. An old ACC rivalry. I wonder how many people remember that?”

    Luchansky knew it well. He was the baseball coach at St. Joseph of Trumbull at the time, a proud ACC (All Connecticut Conference) member. The greatest league in state history, a compilation of most state Catholic schools: East Catholic, Northwest Catholic, St. Paul, Notre Dame of West Haven, St. Joseph, St. Bernard, Xavier, Fairfield Prep, St. Thomas Aquinas and South Catholic.

    Oh, the basketball. Pressley, John Pinone, Steve Pikiell, Chris Watts, Marvin Saddler. Oh, the coaches: Vito Montelli, Joe Reilly, Bill Cardarelli, Gary Palladino, Fran Serratore, Pagliuca, Magner. Long bus trips. Sweaty gyms. To this date, Dubai in July has nothing on the temperature of the gym at South Catholic. And if you ever wanted to know or understand the brilliance of Joe Reilly coaching a game there, just watch his son, Luke, who runs the state’s best program now at East Catholic.

    And the baseball? Put it this way: Xavier, even with Jeff Bagwell, could only muster a little better than .500, because there were too many Brook Fordyces on the other teams.

    I know all this because I lived it, a Xavier kid from 1982-1986. I was the football manager, basketball manager and baseball manager. Soccer once, too. Maybe the only manager who ever came within an inch of getting a technical foul one night. Magner still reminds me of that to this day. The education alone from the games, bus rides and relationships was worth every dime.

    I chuckled along Wednesday when some people in the crowd said the winner of the Xavier-St. Bernard game would be the school the diocese keeps open. It was, if you think about it, a fateful meeting in the state semifinals. And while the circumstances surrounding the uncertainty of both schools is a stain, the game itself underscored the history that makes both schools not merely schools. But institutions.

    And they should be treated as such.

    So while rumors abound about who’s going to buy what and with whose money — and all the requisite posturing accompanying them — think a happy thought for what’s been a historic and substantive 50-year rivalry.

    Sometimes, something as innocuous as a basketball game provokes the volcano. Maybe that’s why we saw sunlight at midcourt Wednesday. Somebody up there knows something.

    And it’s good news.

    This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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