The moment we stepped inside the Giant Arena in Hershey, Pa., it was clear history would be made that evening.
The Pennsylvania state 6A basketball featured Erie-area Kennedy Catholic (ranked 10th in the nation) and Pennridge, a suburban Philadelphia public school making its first appearance in Hershey for a state basketball championship.
The press said the game was a David and Goliath contest; after all, Pennridge had 2,327 students and Kennedy Catholic just 244. However, the media portrayed Kennedy Catholic as Goliath, citing its ability to attract students outside its boundary area to play for the team. State rules prevented Pennridge from doing that.
However, that is not the game’s real story and why it was historic. The teams were very similar in other ways, and after their battle ended, both walked off the court as champions in the best sense of the word.
It was apparent very early in the game that the media – and a lot of basketball fans – had misjudged Pennridge. My friends had seats behind the Pennridge bench, next to the Landis family from Pennsburg. From our viewpoint, in terms of overall basketball team ability, the teams appeared equal by the first quarter’s end. Kennedy prevailed 64-62 after two overtimes. The Pennridge team had never really been underdogs – they were as good as Kennedy nearly every step of the way from the opening tip-off to the end.
The game’s crucial moments involved sportsmanship. Some of these weren’t visible on the statewide television broadcast that Saturday evening. When the teams took the court, Kennedy’s team included a lot of students of differing shapes and sizes who weren’t Division One college recruits. Clearly, the school values the lifelong value of the basketball experience for those kids. Both teams were visibly moved during the national anthem.
During the game, players from both teams picked each other off the floor after they dived for balls and sometimes, into objects outside the court. After the game, the Kennedy and Pennridge players shook hands, and two star guards – Pennridge’s Sean Yoder and Kennedy’s Maceo Austin, hugged, as did other players.
When Pennridge received its tournament silver medals, the Kennedy players sincerely applauded. The Kennedy players and staff understood the moment, and they should be commended for their maturity and the example they set for their community.
The battle also took its physical toll on the players. Austin told reporters after the game he played through the flu and cramps. Pennridge lost at least two key players to injury during the game; another had to come off to plug up a bloody nose.
After the game, Pennridge’s Sean Yoder came over to our seats to speak with Brooke Landis, Amy, and Doug Landis’ daughter. Brooke is probably Pennridge’s biggest fan and certainly the biggest fan of Sean and his younger brother Luke, who also played in the game. Sean bent over and gave his silver medal to Brooke and said he wanted her to have it. Brooke smiled while most of our row was crying or smiling. Sean then walked over to his own father and hugged him.
To me, that is one of the historic moments of that game. From talking to people who know the Landis and Yoder family afterward, Sean isn’t the type of student who seeks out attention. I put my picture of that moment on Facebook, and it did get a lot of attention; hopefully, Sean is OK with that. Doug Landis had much-better pictures that Amy Landis posted later.
As a historian, I feel it is also critical to memorialize these moments. Over time, people have different perceptions of what happened during the most significant events in their personal lives or in the lives of a community. It’s important to note what mattered to the Kennedy and Pennridge families, students and fans last Saturday night. The final score was not as important as the experience.
If you spoke with the players, they’d tell you that they wouldn’t trade that experience for anything else in the world. And as for critics who said Kennedy shouldn’t play in such a game because of the state’s eligibility rules, that is unfair and wrong. The Kennedy kids, coaches, schools, and even the PIAA don’t pick the rules – they are mandated under a 1972 state law. I’d also guess the Kennedy parents and students have a few moments very similar to the exchange I witnessed between Brooke and Sean after the game.
Would the game have been as unique without Kennedy in it? I highly doubt that. Instead, we should celebrate sportsmanship and remember it years from now.
We also should remember the word “champion” has at least two definitions. One is “a person who has defeated all opponents in a competition.” The other is “a person who fights for or defends any person or cause.” The latter is true for both teams – they represented their families and communities in the best way possible. That’s why the game in Hershey was special. And maybe the historic moment we witnessed is that the second definition of “champion” is the best one.