There were times Sunday morning when Tony Colon, Joey Reteneller and Sam McShane were together on the soccer field.
That was nothing new.
There was a moment after the game when the three juniors stood shoulder to shoulder.
That was nothing different.
But there was something unique about the sun-splashed showdown between visiting Holy Ghost Prep and La Salle before a couple of hundred spectators at Glaser Field. Colon, Reteneller and McShane are teammates some weekday nights, sharing the practice field as members of the Radnor Premier 2003 club team.
They are opponents on the weekends, members of high schools that have been linked by a new, loose conference with all the makings of the start of a rich and rewarding rivalry.
“It’s really exciting just to be part of this,” Reteneller said of the newly formed alliance among Holy Ghost Prep, La Salle, St. Joseph’s Prep and Devon Prep.
The weekend marked the debut of the informal conference for the soccer teams representing the independent, all-boys schools, a product both of the COVID-19 pandemic and the creative cooperation of administrators and coaches.
When the Archdiocese of Philadelphia decided in late August to suspend fall sports, effectively shutting down the Philadelphia Catholic League, La Salle, St. Joseph’s Prep and Devon Prep suddenly were searching for games — and maybe for a format that would allow for the pursuit of a championship, too.
The three schools are members of the Philadelphia Catholic League but aren’t under the auspices of the Archdiocese. They were free to play fall sports, provided their administrations were comfortable with the safety protocols and risk management. They also needed to schedule games.
Meanwhile, Holy Ghost Prep was embarking on a new course for its athletic programs, operating as an independent after years in the Bicentennial League. The Firebirds needed to schedule some games, too, especially after many of the teams they were hoping to play in soccer — including three in the Inter-Ac League and three more in the Philadelphia Catholic League — were forced to the sideline by the outbreak of the coronavirus.
The result is a loose alliance that some administrators are comparing to a kind of high school version of the Big 5 — with the three Philadelphia Catholic League teams retaining their membership in that formal, storied conference but also joining with Holy Ghost Prep to create a framework for home-and-home games as well as a championship tournament.
On Friday, however, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia announced that its 17 high schools “may resume interscholastic athletic competition while continuing to strictly follow health and safety guidelines.”
“It’s a great setup,” Devon Prep athletic director Jason Fisher said of the new alliance. “We all were in the same situation, looking for games, and we were able to create this arrangement that works for everybody and gets the kids out there on the field.”
The schools also will schedule competitions in golf and cross-country and will look to continue the cooperation through the winter and spring seasons as well.
But for now, the flagship sport of the new alliance is soccer, with its layers of connections between coaches and players and its championship format.
“I think it’s great,” La Salle coach Tom McCaffery said before his team’s 3-0 victory over Holy Ghost Prep. “The important thing is that the kids get to play soccer and they get to compete for something.”
That something is the Presidents' Cup, the brainchild of La Salle athletic director Joe Parisi, who figured the teams might as well set their sights on some hardware while they were knocking around on the pitch. After playing each other twice during an abbreviated regular season, all four teams will compete in Presidents' Cup weekend, with the semifinals set for Oct. 31 and the first-ever title game of the new alliance set for Nov. 1.
“We’re definitely excited,” said Colon, Holy Ghost’s dynamic midfielder. “Playing against these great teams, it can only make us better.”
For Colon and Reteneller, junior midfielders for Holy Ghost, there’s an added bonus: They get to compete against McShane, a junior left wing for La Salle.
The three are teammates on the Radnor Premier 2003 squad led by Villanova coach Tom Carlin. That high-powered team won the Disney Boys' Soccer Showcase in Orlando in December.
“It’s going to be really fun to play with these guys on the club team and against them in high school ball,” McShane said.
The Radnor Premier team also includes St. Joseph’s Prep junior Nolan McCormick, who has decided not to play for the school team this fall, as well as Hawks football kicker Antonio Chadha.
Colon, Reteneller and McShane said the new school-team rivals have already started the chatter during club-team practices.
“Guys are going back and forth with each other, but it’s all in fun,” Reteneller said.
Reteneller, whose dad, Joe, was a standout player at North Catholic and Villanova, said the opportunity to compete against Philadelphia Catholic League teams in a semiformal setting is a major boost for the Holy Ghost program.
“There’s just so much tradition in the Catholic League. It’s really exciting for us to be part of this,” Reteneller said.
Sunday’s game showcased the strength of an experienced La Salle team that lost just three field players from a squad that reached the PIAA Class 4A state semifinals last season. The Explorers were led by senior striker Brandon Curran, who scored the first goal on a nifty header off a serve from junior Jack Pilling, and junior midfielder Sean Jennings.
“They are really good but that’s what we want — to be challenged,” said Holy Ghost Prep coach Ken Lawson, whose team lost to another Philadelphia Catholic League power in Archbishop Wood in last season’s PIAA Class 3A quarterfinals. “For our kids, just being out here is the best thing.”
Sunday was special. It was bright and brisk, perfect weather for a soccer game. And if a deep and talented La Salle team had the clear edge in play, Holy Ghost Prep will take the loss, stash the lessons and come away believing the program was better for the experience.
“Playing against these teams, it’s a great experience,” Colon said.