Six decades later, league continues to thrive

| April 25, 2013 | 0 Comments
CAA athletic director Mark Courtney stands in the gym at the St. Francis School building (now St. Francis-St. James United), where the program got started in 1948. Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

CAA athletic director Mark Courtney stands in the gym at the St. Francis School building (now St. Francis-St. James United), where the program got started in 1948. Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

Mark Courtney was in his mid-20s when he took over as athletic director for the Catholic Athletic Association. It was during the presidency of Jimmy Carter, before the hostage crisis in Iran.

He was hired in 1977 and is only the sixth athletic director in the CAA’s 65 years. Times were good when he started, and the league continues to thrive today. Currently, there are 41 Catholic schools and 13 non-Catholic schools fielding teams in nine sports during fall, winter and spring.

“Overall, I think we’re holding our own,” said Courtney, 59, who played in the CAA himself, on the baseball team at St. Mark School in St. Paul. “We do not have as many schools, but more teams from each school.

“When I went to St. Mark’s, you had an eighth-grade basketball team. If you didn’t make it, you . . . didn’t play. You could [only] play intramurals. Now, for example, at Nativity, which is a big school, they have two eighth-grade boys basketball teams, they have three seventh-grade boys basketball teams, they have two sixth-grade boys basketball teams.”

A chance to play

The idea — as it has been all along — is to say yes to every grade-school boy and girl who wants to play. Although the CAA has produced its share of top-level athletes — including Matt Birk, who recently won a Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens — that isn’t the goal.

“We don’t think of ourselves as being a feeder program,”?Courtney said. “We’re providing a recreational activity for the Catholic grade schools and I think we’re doing a pretty good job getting those kids a chance to play.”

In fact, when asked to describe what he is most proud of during his 36-year stint as A.D., he mentions helping one local school participate in the CAA that was struggling financially.

About four years ago, he talked to a neighbor that worked for St. Peter Claver School in St. Paul. Located in the heart of the area that CAA serves, the school had been re-opened for several years, but wasn’t fielding CAA?teams.

When Courtney asked his neighbor why the school wasn’t participating, she said there wasn’t enough money. So, Courtney and others had a discussion, and decided to buy basketball uniforms for the kids who wanted to play.

“We didn’t charge them [for the uniforms],”?he said. “They had such a great experience. Their kids didn’t win [the championship] that year, but they did really well. This year, they beat everybody.”

The boys team ended up winning not only the CAA championship, but the overall Twin Cities championship. They played champions from two other leagues in Minneapolis and its suburbs, and won both games by more than 20 points each.

But their success isn’t what makes Courtney smile as he recounts the story.

“We had some kids who weren’t playing [CAA?basketball] because they didn’t have enough money,”?Courtney said. “We got them playing. It was just a great experience for them and the whole school. They draw really well. The whole community comes out [to watch the games].”

Expanding reach

Perhaps, the greatest challenge CAA faces in the future is declining enrollment overall in Catholic schools. Fortunately, while the number of students has gone down, the  number of CAA?participants has not.

“We have more teams now than there ever were before, even though there were more kids at the schools then,”?Courtney said.

What has helped keep the numbers up is the addition of non-Catholic schools, plus a geographic expansion. The CAA?started as exclusively Catholic in 1948, when Bob Doran, John Hajlo and Father Otto Neudecker founded the program out of St. Francis in St. Paul. Eventually, the net widened to include non-Catholic schools, and continues to do so today. In addition, the CAA now has four schools in Wisconsin.

For the most part, Courtney says the CAA will maintain its current list of sports offerings: boys and girls soccer, volleyball and cross country in the fall; boys and girls basketball, and outdoor hockey in the winter; and baseball, girls softball, swimming, golf and track in the spring.

However, recently there has been discussion about adding lacrosse, a sport that is growing fast in Minnesota and across the nation. A handful of schools have expressed interest in having lacrosse teams, and Courtney said the CAA might have lacrosse as early as next year.

Catholic CAA-affiliated schools

St. Agnes, St. Paul
St. Ambrose, Woodbury
St. Croix Catholic, Stillwater
St. Francis-St. James United, St. Paul
Faithful Shepherd, Eagan
St. Elizabeth Anne Seton, Hastings
Highland Catholic, St. Paul
Holy Spirit, St. Paul
Community of Saints, West St. Paul
Holy Trinity, South St. Paul
Hill-Murray, Maplewood
Immaculate Conception, Columbia Heights
St. Jerome, Maplewood
St. John the Baptist, New Brighton
St. John the Evangelist, Little Canada
St. Joseph, Rosemount
St. Joseph, West St. Paul
St. Jude of the Lake, Mahtomedi
St. Mark, St. Paul
Maternity of Mary-St. Andrew, St. Paul
Nativity of Our Lord, St. Paul
St. Odilia, Shoreview
St. Pascal Baylon, St. Paul
St. Mary of the Lake, White Bear Lake
St. Peter, North St. Paul
St. Pius X, White Bear Lake
Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary,    Maplewood
St. Rose of Lima, Roseville
St. Thomas Academy, Mendota Heights
Transfiguration, Oakdale
St. Thomas More, St. Paul
Convent of the Visitation, Mendota Heights
St. Peter Claver, St. Paul
St. Charles Borromeo, Minneapolis
Ascension, Minneapolis
St. Helena, Minneapolis
Holy Family Academy, St. Louis Park
St. Bridget, River Falls, Wis.
St. Ann, Somerset, Wis.
St. Mary, New Richmond, Wis.
St. Patrick, Hudson, Wis.

Source: CAA

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Category: Catholic Athletic Association