MILWAUKEE — The Catholic Conference, made up of teams representing secondary schools throughout the Milwaukee archdiocese, has been defunct for more than 40 years.
Yet the grouping which began in 1931 lives on, thanks to the efforts of one-time conference basketball players such as Tim Theisen, Tom Griffey and Mike Schramka. As high schoolers, the three played, respectively, for Thomas More and predecessor Don Bosco; Pius XI; and Messmer, in an era when games were comparatively low-scoring and players relatively short.
All graduated in 1973, the year before the Catholic Conference gave way to the Metro Conference, which included not only Catholic school teams but those from other private schools like Milwaukee Lutheran. Eventually public and private schools came to share membership in conferences throughout Wisconsin.
Most contemporary Catholic high school students probably have never heard of long-shuttered Catholic Conference schools Notre Dame (originally St. Stanislaus), St. John Cathedral, St. Benedict the Moor, Francis Jordan, Bosco, Pio Nono and De Sales Preparatory, all in Milwaukee County, and St. Bonaventure in Sturtevant. But many of these institutions are intimately familiar to the conference alumni who have reunited each of the last three years and plan to do so again in May 2017.
Those alumni have included former coaches as well as players and have ranged in age from approximately 60 to nearly 90.
Schramka’s father, Paul, a 5 feet, 10-1/2 center for Messmer in the mid-1940s who later played professional baseball, was, at 88, the oldest attendee at the 2016 reunion. The Catholic Conference “was a pretty good league” in his day, Paul Schramka remembered.
“This is something unique,” Griffey told the Catholic Herald regarding the multi-school annual reunions. “We sort of transpose back 45 years,” the Pius XI grad, who went on to coach the old Milwaukee Does professional women’s basketball team and now serves as development officer for the Milwaukee Rescue Mission, added with a smile.
Theisen, who creates technical data for an aerospace company, said each get-together has been “a blast,” given the “friendships (attendees) have been able to rekindle” and the sometimes tall stories they’ve been able to share.
“The older you get, the more you kind of harken back to the glory days,” noted Mike Schramka, a funeral director.
And glory days they were! Referring to the league’s final decade or so, Theisen said, “a good argument (can) be made that the best basketball in the state was played in the Catholic Conference.”
He illustrated his point by citing Milwaukee Hamilton, which won the state public schools championship in 1972 but lost regular-season games that year to Messmer and Bosco – neither of which managed to win the Catholic league’s title that season. Undefeated Marquette (MUHS) captured the ’72 conference crown and for good measure won the state championship of the Wisconsin Independent Schools Athletic Association (WISAA).
“It was competition with your conference,” Mike Schramka recalled. “You only took pleasure in beating up on the public schools.” The latter tended to favor a “run and gun” approach to the game, whereas Catholic Conference teams were more disciplined and defense-minded, Griffey noted.
According to Theisen and Griffey, outstanding leadership had everything to do with the Catholic Conference’s success in its waning years.
“The coaches had a big impact on us,” Griffey said. “Those guys,” Theisen agreed, “were as influential as anybody. They taught us to compete the right way.”
Past coaches included Paul Noack of MUHS, Mike Basile of Messmer, Joe Buneta of Pius XI, Tom Sager of Bosco and Thomas More, John McGuire of Racine St. Catherine, and Dick Versace, who went from assisting at Kenosha St. Joseph to coaching and front office positions in the NBA. Some of the men were Catholic Conference athletes prior to coaching and some have attended one or more of the recent reunions.
“Legendary” elementary school coaches who prepared Theisen and his contemporaries for high school competition came to mind as well: Don Sweeney at Milwaukee’s St. Matthew (now Prince of Peace), Theisen’s home parish, and Tom Fitzpatrick at St. Bernard, Wauwatosa, where Griffey’s dad Bob was a custodian so beloved they named the parish center after him; Rick Majerus, who coached St. Sebastian, Milwaukee, youngsters en route to leading Marquette and other university teams; Joe Harden, who coached, officiated, and helped stage the Catholic Midget League Play Off at Milwaukee’s old Gesu School (forerunner of today’s Padre Serra Tournament).
They also reminisced about former conference stars, among them Don Kojis of Notre Dame, Jim Chones of St. Catherine, John Johnson of Messmer and Jerry Homan and Allie McGuire of MUHS, all NBA draftees.
Their recollections also included a postseason all-star game at Pius’ gym between the Catholic and Milwaukee City Conferences, with proceeds donated to Easter Seals, and an annual state tournament which brought Catholic prep school teams from throughout Wisconsin to what is now the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena.
Just as fans accompanied players to those state tournaments, ex-Catholic Conference players, of any sport, and non-playing fans alike are welcome to attend future conference reunions. The next one is scheduled for Saturday, May 13.
The first three gatherings have been informal – appetizers and a cash bar at Victor’s On Van Buren, a Milwaukee establishment whose operators have ties to one Catholic Conference school or another, plus the acknowledgment of coaches and individuals like Rudy Talsky. Having painstakingly kept conference statistics, Talsky compiled them into two sizable record books, one for basketball and one for football.
Reunion attendance reportedly has risen from about 40 the first year to about 60 last May.