CATHOLIC HERALD STAFF
Fans eagerly snacked on fresh popcorn while players rekindled their free throws and crossovers on the court to the tune of “Old Town Road.” The familiar sounds of people chatting and basketballs pounding the creaky hardwood filled the Saint Francis de Sales Seminary gymnasium with a buzzing excitement Friday, Nov. 8.
Dressed for battle in old Saint Francis de Sales and St. Thomas More uniforms, the Seminarians and Priests assembled on their respective ends of the court. The cast of 18 seminarians ran through layup drills, their coach thoughtfully observing; the crew of seven priests took turns rebounding and shooting jumpers. An eighth brother priest rolled in right before the official game ceremonies commenced.
Before tip-off, Seminarian Oliver Niles explained, the “pressure’s on. We’ve got a big crowd section here, but it’s exciting; I feel good.” Two years ago, the seminarians bested the priests by a slim three points; last year, they beat the priests by eight.
After the priests, seminarians, and fans joined their voices in singing the National Anthem, a group of seminarians and transitional deacons, wearing crested polos and the collar instead of game-day numbers, were stationed in the press box instead of the bench and announced the starting lineups.
A couple cheers later, the ball was tipped and the clock started for the annual “Thriller at Miller” basketball game.
In the first few minutes, both teams had great ball movement from the top of the key and successfully penetrated the lane, but availed no score as air balls and rim ringers dominated.
Advantaged only in bench depth and perhaps age, the seminarians went on a 9-0 run to start. Both teams continued to move the ball swiftly around the perimeter, but the priests struggled to finish at the rim or sink a pull-up jumper, evidence that the shoes may have been a little dusty.
They shook the dust off their feet rather quickly and went on their own 5-0 run ignited by a deep 3-pointer, then recovered a steal and drew a foul in the paint to be the first team to the free throw line.
Team huddles and white board court conversations converted into back-door cuts and baskets for the Seminarians. The Priests were finding clearance at the rim, but could not convert the majority of their shots from the floor into points.
By halftime, the crowd had witnessed intense loose-ball battles and awed at various blocks. Inspired by the riveting play, the 5-year-olds cheering on their favorite fathers took to the hardwood during the break between halves.
Lagging behind by an average of 10 points in the final minutes of the first half, the Priests looked slightly refreshed when the clock started for the second and did not shy away from contact. However, their aggressive drives to the paint and open shots from the court were not enough.
The Seminarians extended the lead to 12, 17 and then 24 in the final minutes of the game, though not without raucous efforts from both sides.
After one particular loose ball scramble, Fr. John LoCoco earned the possession for the priests and, while waiting for the inbounds in the back court, asked a little fan for a handful of popcorn to celebrate his feat.
Later, Fr. Jacob Strand, who alongside Fr. John Baumgarnner served as point guard for the Priests, drove in for another seemingly open right-handed layup. From across the paint, Seminarian Tim Sanchez blocked the shot to the loud delight of the crowd.
Within the next 10 seconds of play, Fr. Luke Strand dove for a loose ball, taking Sanchez with him to the court. In Fr. Andrew Linn’s words, the game “was just a lot of fun.”
While the priests and seminarians enjoyed the opportunity to play in front of a riveted and packed gym, ultimately the “Thriller at Miller” is all about reveling in the goodness of the priesthood.
“It’s great to be out and celebrate vocations; the priesthood is an awesome gift and to pray and play sports with these men is exciting,” said Fr. Baumgardner.
The buzzer sounded finalizing the score: Seminarians 58, Priests 34.
To close the evening’s victory, Dcn. Patrick Magnor gathered the teams in prayer at half court for a final offering of thanks to God — for the sport, for the opportunity to play, and for the great calling to be his priest.