Jeff McDevitt (@JeffMcDev)
Love was in the air Monday night at the Palestra.
As the bench cleared for the Neumann-Goretti Saints, their fifth straight Catholic League title now in tact, celebratory hugs were shared between the exiting starters and the coaching staff.
Two of those bear hugs were particularly special, as head coach Carl Arrigale squeezed his two four-year varsity seniors, John Davis and Hanif Sutton, as they ended their Catholic League careers with a fourth straight championship, 60-42 over St. Joe’s Prep.
“He came up to me with the biggest grin in the world, and grabbed me and told me he loved me, and I told him I loved him too,” Sutton said of his embrace with Arrigale.
When it was all said and done, a perfect Catholic League playoff slate for his high school career, Sutton was overcome with joy. He couldn’t help but get emotional.
“This is one of the greatest feelings of my life, probably the greatest. For my fourth time, I was teary-eyed on the sideline, this is a great feeling.” Sutton said.
The normally stoic Arrigale showed his softer side Monday night, explaining how appreciative he is of the two seniors that have given so much to his program.
“Love those guys, man,” said Arrigale, who noticeably choked up when talking about the two. “What they mean to me and what they mean to our program, I can’t even begin to tell you.”
Davis and Sutton aren’t necessarily the most naturally gifted scorers in the world, but they have both made their name by working harder than their opponent.
The Towson-bound Davis is a three-time first-team All-Catholic League selection and has been a key rebounder and interior defender for Arrigale since his freshman year. He outworks and outmuscles opposing big men on a nightly basis, churning out double-doubles with regularity.
Sutton, a 5-9 guard, was named the Defensive MVP of the Catholic League this season. He also runs the point for the Saints, taking care of the basketball and setting up his teammates.
“Two guys that do the most with what God gave them and they play hard and they play for the team the whole time. They’re exactly what Neumann-Goretti basketball’s all about,” Arrigale said.
Both seniors seemed a bit relived while cutting down nets at the Palestra, the pressure of going perfect in the always competitive Catholic League playoffs finally lifted from their shoulders. But in playing basketball for a successful school such as Neumann-Goretti, both Sutton and Davis knew they signed up to play on the big stage.
“Coming in as a freshman I didn’t think I’d win four straight, or three straight states. I just saw the big name, Neumann-Goretti, and thought I could play for those guys,” Davis said
“Four championships is amazing,” Sutton said while clutching the Catholic League championship plaque and sporting the freshly cut net around his neck. “You expect to win, and you expect to play on a big stage, but I never expected to win four championships in this league. It’s full of great players.”
Hanif, or “Chops,” as he is referred to by teammates and coaches for his ability to chop up defenders with a quick crossover, was sporting the cut-down net around his neck while celebrating postgame. Wearing the net as a necklace is usually reserved for an especially important member to a championship, and Chops beamed from ear-to-ear with pride as the net rested on his shoulders.
“I would rather wear this net around my neck than a platinum chain anyday,” he said.
Davis stressed over and over the amount of hard work that went intohis team winning another Catholic League title, even, at times, at the expense of missing their family.
“We had to work so hard. Not just practice during the season, the summertime, ask my mom, I am never home, I am always in the gym. Bad days, good days, middle days, we’re always in the gym working,” Said Davis with his mother nodding by his side.
Even though five straight league titles is an incredible feat, the record for consecutive titles stands at six straight, and was set by the coach opposite Neumann-Goretti Monday night, St. Joseph’s Prep’s Speedy Morris, during his tenure at Roman Catholic.
Besides Roman and Prep, Morris also coached at Penn Charter, where he coached a high-schooler named Carl Arrigale. The rest is history.
“He’s the reason I’m in coaching,” Arrigale said. “If I can do for kids what he did for me…he’s what brought me into this thing and he’s a terrific role model, he’s a great man and to go against him is just a thrill.”
Arrigale’s odds of tying his mentor Morris with six straight Catholic League titles are pretty good, as Neumann-Goretti will return three starters and two key bench contributors. Their best player is only a junior, 6-3 guard Ja’Quan Newton, and he is poised to join teammates Davis and Sutton in the 4-for-4 club.
“We did it again. I’m going for four, I got three already in my three years here, I’m going for four,” Newton said.
Newton led the Saints with a 27 points, and was playing with his two older teammates in mind.
“I had to send them off on a good note,” Newton said. “I was not sending those seniors off on a loss.”
The next step for Arrigale, Davis, Sutton, and the Saints? A chance at an unprecidented fourth straight AAA state title. If Sutton and Davis are again embracing their coach in the Giant Center in Hersey next month, their work at Neumann-Goretti will be complete, and their legacy can only be described in one word: champions.