Why are Catholic schools so good at sports?

The national rankings of the country’s top high school athletic teams possess a distinct Catholicity. 

Mater Dei. De La Salle. St. Anthony. St. Thomas Aquinas. St. Pius X. 

These aren’t the names of parish churches. Catholic high schools are heavily represented on ESPN’s national Top 25 lists in several sports, especially football, basketball, baseball and soccer. 

There are competing theories to explain Catholic schools’ athletic successes and the perception that they disproportionately outperform their public school counterparts on the playing fields. 

Critics say Catholic schools, like many private schools, can draw students from a wider geographical area than public school systems, which are bound by district lines. Some suspect inappropriate recruiting, and seeing an uneven playing field, have called for new rules making it tougher for transfer students to play immediately for successful athletic programs. Others have proposed realigning conferences to have the powerhouse Catholic schools compete against traditionally strong public schools. 

Winning tradition

However, many Catholic high school coaches, athletic directors and leaders of Catholic Youth Organization sports teams say the uneven playing field argument misses the point. 

“In my opinion, what truly makes Catholic sports so special and unique is the devotion, dedication and passion that the Catholic community, student-athletes, coaches, teachers, fans, administrators, etc., possess for their schools and teams,” said Chris Jung, director of operations for LouisvilleCatholicsports.com, a website that covers 10 local high schools, four colleges and almost 30 Catholic elementary schools in the Louisville, Ky., area. 

Jung told Our Sunday Visitor that the issue of Catholic vs. non-Catholic athletics causes “constant debate” when broached. 

“When it comes to Catholic/private school athletics, most parents, fans and others associated with public schools tend to get on the defensive and make the assumption that private programs and student-athletes are just handed everything. Facilities are better. Private schools take advantage of recruiting and scholarship opportunities of and for student-athletes. And the list goes on,” Jung said. 

“However, the Catholic schools on those Top 10 and 25 lists have a lot of tradition. It comes down to their culture. It’s one of success. It irks me that people think that because some Catholic schools have these nice facilities, fields and athletic equipment, that it means when they walk on the field, people hand them a championship. That’s impossible.”

At an advantage?

Vic Michaels, director of the Detroit Catholic League, told OSV that people also believe that Catholic schools in Michigan have athletic advantages over public schools, but he argues that the facts say otherwise. He noted that many Michigan public school systems have open enrollment, and accept several students from outside district lines. 

“Last year in the state of Michigan, there were 97 state champions crowned, and 31 of them were not public schools, which is about the same percentage of nonpublic schools in our state,” Michaels said. “We won 31 percent of the state championships, so we’re not winning more. We’re winning about what we should.” 

Still, the issue remains a point of contention. In May, Ohio’s 830 high school principals voted on a referendum that would have changed the way school teams were assigned to athletic divisions. The proposal sought to balance the playing field between private and public schools. According to published reports, the referendum — which was ultimately defeated by 29 votes — received significant attention after Ohio’s December state football finals, where five of the six state champs were Catholic schools. 

Also, in 2002, the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference — considered to be one of the country’s premier high school athletic leagues — established a rule that forced athletes to sit out a full calendar year if they transferred from any school in the Washington D.C., area. Many coaches at both public and private schools, according to published reports, saw it as a positive step toward promoting parity and stopping a free-agent-type system of students looking to play for ascendant schools. 

Jung conceded the validity of critics’ arguments that Catholic school teams enjoy an advantage in not being bound by district lines. 

“Since that’s the system, a private school has the ability to attract people from outside district lines. There are no lines. They can attract the best students, the best athletes. Anybody interested and willing to make the financial sacrifices to get to the private school has the ability to do so.” 

That WCAC story also raised lingering suspicions in many quarters that private and Catholic schools recruit the best athletes. But others say that is too simplistic. 

“While it is technically true that anybody, any parent can send their child to a Catholic school, they can also choose to leave for any number of reasons, whereas in public schools, particularly in a small community, that’s their only choice. They have to stay there unless the parents want to drive their kids a long way to go for school,” said Chris Long, athletic director of Juan Diego Catholic High School in Draper, Utah. 

Juan Diego Catholic High School’s football and baseball teams both won their third consecutive state championships last season, while the school’s girls soccer team won its second straight state title. This success has occurred at a school that did not open its doors until 1999 and that has a student population of around 800 students. 

Long attributes the success to the quality of his school’s students. 

“It’s a fallacy that anybody can go to a Catholic school. That is not true,” Long said. 

“If you won’t shave, fail to be respectful in class, and don’t follow the policies of the schools, then you can’t go there. There are no tattoos allowed. The boys have to wear shirts and ties to Mass,” he added. “A lot of people in today’s society will say, ‘Who are you to tell me what my child has to wear to school?’ Well, that’s what we do.” 

Stable environments

Along with uniquely disciplined athletes, Long and other Catholic sports officials say their schools also often have talented and hardworking coaching staffs dedicated to their respective schools, creating a stable environment that fosters achievement and a culture of winning. 

“Since our founding, we’ve had the same football head coach, the same defensive and offensive coordinators,” Long said. “There is a philosophy of how we do things here, and the kids buy into that. Their parents also buy into it. Whether or not that means we perform better than non-Catholic teams, I don’t know. We have very good non-Catholic teams in our area and good competition around here, but we just happen to have consistency in coaching.” 

“I think our schools just do a better job of coaching the students and giving them a stable program,” said Michaels, whose 27-team league won eight Michigan state championships last year in several sports, including football. “We’re still pretty strong in that sport,” he said. 

Philip Bellomo, athletic director of Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, Calif., also attributed his school’s athletic successes to a combination of good coaching and devoted student-athletes. 

“Certainly we have had talented players, but I don’t know if our players are anymore significantly talented than other schools’ student-athletes,” Bellomo told OSV. 

In the last two years, Mater Dei’s girls basketball team has won regional, state and national championships, leading Bellomo to comment: “They’ve hit the trifecta. I don’t know if we’ll ever see that again.” 

Mater Dei’s 24 sports teams have won 60 regional championships, 13 state championships and five national titles since 1950. ESPN ranked the school’s basketball team eighth in the country last year, when it went 32-2. The boys water polo team, meanwhile, has won three consecutive California Interscholastic Federation, Southern Section, championships. 

“We have been fortunately blessed to have success in a variety of areas in our athletic program because we have good players and good coaches [who] work very, very hard to be successful. That is what makes Mater Dei Mater Dei,” Bellomo told OSV. “We don’t have athletic scholarships, contrary to what people think. We have tuition-needs assistance, but anyone is eligible to apply for that.” 

Bellomo suggested that Catholic schools such as Mater Dei create “a self-fulfilling prophecy” with their athletic achievements. 

“Because the school has so much tradition in athletics, obviously the school markets itself with that in mind. It’s known both locally, statewide and even nationally,” he said. “Certainly, elite athletes and many guys want to come to Mater Dei. But at the end of the day, can they afford it? Can they adapt to the school’s culture and requirements? Those are issues that need to be played out.”

Transcendent values

The conversation over championships and winning traditions is important, but observers say it can also threaten to cloud what is supposed to be sports’ central role in integrating the virtues of physical fitness, sportsmanship and perseverance into the lives of Catholic students. 

“A diocese, which I won’t name, recently had a high school close, and one of the arguments against the closing was that the school football team had won a state championship. Shouldn’t the main priority be about being Catholic first?” said Paul Mach, program coordinator of National CYO Sports, who told OSV that while perspective is needed, sports carry an inherent ability in helping form young people. 

“The idea of what is good sportsmanship comes into play in your everyday life. The lessons of winning gracefully, losing with dignity are important. The losing and winning can also really teach you about the Paschal Mystery, too. Overcoming losses in their lives later on can be something they learned through sports.” 

Ray McKenna, founder and president of Catholic Athletes for Christ, told OSV that high school athletic teams can become successful if they truly internalize virtues of practice and perseverance, which are vitally important for the spiritual life. 

“There are transcendent values that we can learn from sports. First, practice reminds us that no matter how talented you are, you just can’t show up the day of the game and expect to succeed. It’s the same thing with our faith. You just can’t say you’re Catholic and not partake in the sacraments, not having a daily prayer life. These are all parts of being ready for the moment and being prepared.” 

At Juan Diego Catholic High School, Long said the sports program can be compared with a front porch. 

“It’s not the most important room, but the most visible part of the house. It’s part of the whole education process of our students,” Long said. 

“Athletic competition is not necessarily a stand-alone element of a Catholic education. It’s a piece of the whole puzzle, which includes the academic, intellectual, spiritual and community service elements. Sports is integral to the growth of all our students. It’s no more or less important than anything else.” 

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.