A faith-filled kick-off for Catholic schools’ high school football seasons

| September 8, 2017 | 0 Comments

Players from Cretin-Derham Hall High School in St. Paul and Totino-Grace High School in Fridley stand at midfield for the national anthem before their game Aug. 30 at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

Two Catholic school matchups kicked off this year’s high school football season, with both games outwardly indicating the schools’ commitment to faith.

The Hill-Murray Pioneers and Holy Angels Stars met for Mass Sept. 1 before putting on pads, a day after the Cretin-Derham Hall Raiders and Totino-Grace Eagles prayed together before meeting for the first time ever.

Players from the Stars and Pioneers attended Mass with Archbishop Bernard Hebda before the Richfield game.

“It was really cool that they had two Catholic schools come together for Mass before a game to show that it’s more than just a football game,” said Hill-Murray senior defensive back Ben Nelson.

The archbishop exhorted the players gathered in Holy Angels’ St. John the Evangelist chapel to work toward winning the goal of the Christian life — heaven.

“We want to make sure that just as we prepare for a big football game, we want to make sure that we prepare for whenever it is that the Lord might come,” Archbishop Hebda said in his homily. “None of us knows the day or the hour.”

Archbishop Bernard Hebda preaches to players from the Academy of Holy Angels in Richfield, left, and Hill-Murray High School in Maplewood during Mass before a game between the two teams Sept. 1 at Holy Angels. Archbishop Hebda also led prayer on the field before the game and did the coin toss.
Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

At one time, the potential for a matchup of longtime football powers Cretin-Derham Hall and Totino-Grace was also unknown. The winners of 12 state titles combined have played in different classes and conferences for most of their histories, but the two played each other for the first time Aug. 31 at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.

Not having played each other before was “kind of unusual, being that we both have good football programs,” said Totino-Grace head coach Jeff Ferguson. “Cretin-Derham Hall’s a bigger school. For many years they’ve played a bigger-school schedule, and we played with the smaller schools.”

With the two Christian Brothers-sponsored schools coming together, the players and fans joined in the prayer of St. Francis, a traditional prayer at their schools, before the game. Retired priest Father John Forliti, who has worked with the CDH football team for many years, led the prayer as the teams stood together at midfield.

“It was a pretty special moment, getting to meet some of their guys before the game,” said CDH senior running back Anthony Czech. “Starting off the game with a prayer is always a plus, especially from our two schools.”

Totino-Grace senior linebacker Joey Linders said it set the tone to have the teams praying together before kickoff.

“When a player gets hurt, both sides said a prayer, too,” Linders said. “I thought that was something special that you usually don’t see in every single game.”

The following day, Archbishop Hebda led a prayer on the field before Hill-Murray and Holy Angels kicked off. He also did the coin flip.

“It was awesome,” said Keontay Shorter, a Holy Angels senior defensive back and wide receiver. “I loved having the Mass and him [the archbishop] being there.”

Senior Jaylen Newton of Cretin-Derham Hall tries to get past Totino-Grace defenders Ryan Suggs (8) and Sam Quick (9). Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

Faith on the field

Shorter’s explosiveness on the field helped Holy Angels, a state Class 4A title contender, rout Hill-Murray 47-6. He had an interception, a punt return for a touchdown and a 25-yard TD reception.

Totino-Grace, based in Fridley and the defending Class 6A state champions, had a much harder grind to beat Cretin-Derham Hall, based in St. Paul. The Eagles rallied from 10-0 down in the second half to edge the Raiders 13-12. Senior fullback Kameron White punched in the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter.

“They really shocked us right away,” Linders said.

Having public displays of faith at Catholic high school football games didn’t shock the players or those in attendance. Faith has been interwoven in all four teams’ programs for years.

“We run our whole program through faith,” Linders said. “Our coaches always talk about it. That’s kind of what our coaches do is prepare us more for life … than just preparing us for the game.”

Prayer — and sometimes faith sharing — is part of their practices. The Eagles also have a Mass before their games when possible. School chaplain Father Paul Shovelain works with the team.

“All of our coaches are called to have a faith plan — how do you bring Christ to your players,” Ferguson said.

At CDH, Father Forliti has been a long-time fixture with the Raiders program. He will have Mass for the players on Thursdays before their games.

“Father Forliti’s always around the program,” Czech said. “He loves the game. He loves our team, and he’s always looking out for us.”

Raiders head coach Brooks Bollinger said his staff tries to “use football as a tool to help them [the players] become the best version of themselves and learn those lessons and those values and apply them in all areas of their lives.”

At Hill-Murray, Pioneers head coach Pete Bercich made Mass before games a priority when he took the position in 2016. Bercich said Mass was a regular part of his high school football experience at Providence Catholic High School in New Lenox, Illinois.

“Being Catholic is how we differentiate ourselves. It’s important,” Bercich said.

Benedictine Sister Linda Soler has been a “spiritual coach” for the Maplewood team over the years and helped organize the Masses for the players. Hill-Murray now has a full-time chaplain, Father Kevin Manthey, who will work with the team, too.

Holy Angels head coach Jim Gunderson sees faith as central to his football program.

“A lot of what we preach here is life’s all about relationships,” he said.

Father Mike Tix, chaplain for Holy Angels, offers Mass for the team and spends games on the sidelines with the Stars. After games, the players and fans gather at a
St. Joseph statue in the school’s courtyard for a post-game prayer and feedback from coaches.

“It’s great,” said Holy Angels junior fullback Rook Rowe. “It brings us together as a team [and] shows that we are a community.”

Senior running back Jack Anderson of the Academy of Holy Angels in Richfield sprints to the end zone in the first half of his team’s 47-6 win over Hill-Murray High School in Maplewood in the season opener for both teams. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

A new network

Holy Angels athletic director Michael Kautzman invited the archbishop to the Sept, 1 game after the recent formation of the Catholic Sports Network, which broadcast the game. He said he wanted the archbishop’s presence to highlight the meeting of two Catholic schools on the field.

“We in the Catholic system frequently have a lot of special traditions and history,” Kautzman said. “I don’t know if the story is told frequently enough.”

More opportunities for Catholic schools to play each other became apparent when the Minnesota State High School League adopted districts for football in place of conferences in 2015. Six Catholic schools play in the Suburban Districts. Games will be broadcast online at CatholicSportsNetwork.org.

Kautzman and Jerry Pettinger, the athletic director of Benilde-St. Margaret’s school in St. Louis Park, reached out to Peter Waggoner about finding a way to broadcast some of those matchups. Known for his broadcast work with ESPN 1550 AM in Minneapolis, Waggoner is one of the managing partners for Sports Content Management, which helped form the Catholic Sports Network.

Kautzman said it serves as “having some sort of forum to get the word out there for potential students who may be looking at high schools and their parents [too].”

The online network will carry four more football matchups this fall between Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis: Benilde-St. Margaret’s at DeLaSalle, 2 p.m. Sept. 16, DeLaSalle at Holy Angels, 7 p.m. Sept. 22, DeLaSalle at Hill-Murray, 7 p.m. Sept. 29, Holy Angels at Benilde-St. Margaret’s, 7 p.m. Oct. 6.



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