by Joe Foreman
OMAHA, Neb. (CNS) — A new basketball league is keeping high school boys in the Omaha area connected with their Catholic faith while giving them an opportunity to play a sport they enjoy.
Teams representing St. Bridget-St. Rose and Christ the King parishes in Omaha, St. Matthew the Evangelist Parish in Bellevue and the Omaha Housing Authority in north Omaha have been playing games on Saturday mornings for the past two months at Christie Heights Community Center in south Omaha.
“Priests have mentioned that kids start drifting away from the church in high school,” said Dr. John Safranek, one of the league’s organizers from St. Bridget-St. Rose Parish. “This (playing basketball) is just one more way for kids to identify themselves with the Catholic Church and hopefully with their parish during the high school years.”
Safranek identifies the talent as “high level” but stressed the league is strictly for players in grades nine through 12 who don’t play on a high school team.
“It’s a lot of fun and pretty casual,” Safranek told the Catholic Voice, Omaha’s archdiocesan newspaper. “Many of the kids are in other activities or can’t be on their high school team for one reason or another.”
Safranek said he sensed a need for the league after hearing from the mother of a home-schooled boy who couldn’t find a team to play basketball. “I remembered when I was a kid, there was a high school CYO league and I thought, ‘Why did it ever go away?'”
Spreading the word about the new league and recruiting players proved to be a challenge for Safranek and Frank Bencker, basketball director of Omaha’s Catholic Youth Organization, or CYO. Bencker is a member of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Omaha.
But four teams eventually were established, with players coming from parishes and high schools from across the metro area. The St. Bridget-St. Rose team took in players from neighboring St. Stanislaus and Our Lady of Lourdes parishes.
The St. Matthew team has players from five metro-area high schools, including J.J. Schubert, who attends Papillion South and is a member of St. Matthew Parish. He began playing basketball at St. Matthew as a fourth-grader and has renewed friendships with former grade school teammates as a member of the CYO team.
“The highlight of this season is just being able to continue playing basketball,” Schubert said. “It’s not about winning and losing. It’s more about just playing basketball with the people around me.”
Daniel J. Gross Catholic High School junior Max Peters, who attended grade school at Our Lady of Lourdes, is grateful for the opportunity to play with the St. Bridget-St. Rose team. He has made new friends and particularly enjoys helping the younger and less-experienced players on the team improve their skills on the court.
“I’ve always loved playing basketball, but being on a really competitive high school team isn’t my thing,” Peters said. “This is more about fun and just giving somebody a chance to play.”
St. Bridget-St. Rose coach John Babic and St. Matthew coach Ed Rausch share the belief that the league is all about opportunity. Both coaches played CYO basketball when they were young and have fond memories and a lifelong appreciation for the experience.
“I played CYO basketball as a junior and senior in Columbus, Ohio, and thoroughly enjoyed it,” Rausch said. “I want to give kids who can’t make their high school team or don’t play for whatever reason an opportunity to keep playing basketball and enjoying the game.”
Babic said playing basketball forces the boys to put down their cellphones for a couple hours and take part in a healthy activity.
“They need things like this to get away from the cellphones, computers and cable TV,” Babic said. “Get out and be active. Basketball is a good outlet and I think an important aspect is that it keeps them involved in their parish.”