Seminarian basketball team hopes for comeback in this year’s JP2 Classic

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Fr. Darrin Merlino, CMF, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Prescott, playing for the Church Fathers, moves past seminarian Simon Ortiz at the 2017 JP2 Classic basketball game. The Church Fathers defeated the Phoenix Suns to clinch title last year. (Jesús Valencia/CATHOLIC SUN)
Fourth Annual JP2 Classic Church Fathers vs. Phoenix Sons

Friday, Aug. 3
6 p.m.: Doors open
7 p.m.: Game starts

Xavier College Preparatory, 4710 N. Fifth St., Phoenix

Bring the entire family and dribble on over to cheer on our priests and seminarians.

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By Margaret Naczek
The Catholic Sun

The Phoenix Suns may have gotten the first pick in the NBA Draft, but the Phoenix Sons are currently building their all-star team to win the fourth annual JP2 Classic, a basketball tournament between the priests and the seminarians of the Diocese of Phoenix.

“It’s the most fun day for priests and parishioners of the year,” Fr. Paul Sullivan, diocesan vocations director, said. “It’s pure fun and enjoyment for the people, great camaraderie, a day to enjoy each other’s company.”

The first annual JP2 Classic basketball tournament was held in 2015. Seminarian Ian Wintering was moved to start the tournament in Phoenix after inspiration from a group of seminarians in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend in Indiana.

“It got started by, you could say, a challenge by the seminarians,” Fr. Sullivan said.

This year Wintering is helping organize the seminarian team for the tournament, which will take place Aug. 3 at Xavier College Preparatory.

“There’s hype for us winning this year,” he said.

The seminarians, dubbed the Phoenix Sons, have lost to the priests, the Church Fathers, for the past two years. The seminarians are hoping to tie the series this year with the addition of basketball stars Fr. Sullivan and Fr. Matt Lowry, associate vocations director, joining the seminarians.

“The priests definitely have the edge because a lot of them are more experienced,” Wintering said. “We have the advantage of being younger and having more stamina.”

Fr. Sullivan said back when he was in the seminary, the seminarians would also play in tournaments together and play with each other at least twice a month.

“It was a blessing for me as a basketball player to find the sport I love was played very often in the seminary,” he said.

Gabriel Sabado, a seminarian from St. Clare of Assisi in Surprise, is another basketball fan who has played in the tournament twice. He recalls young men coming up to him after the game to congratulate him on his playing. This summer he is serving at St. Thomas the Apostle, and parishioners have come up to him and say they remember him from basketball.

Fr. Matt Lowry, associate vocations director, attempts a layup during the 2017 JP2 Classic basketball game as seminarians look on. This year, priestly vocation leaders are changing teams. (Jesús Valencia/CATHOLIC SUN)

“It’s a great way to spread awareness of priests and seminarians in the Diocese of Phoenix,” Sabado said. “What makes it a fun and interactive thing is it just shows us as men, we are competitive, and we can come together as a team and work together for a common purpose, not just Church worship. It sheds a different light on seminarians and priests that we have fun too.”

The event, which is meant to promote vocations in the diocese, helps fundraising for the Vocations Office.

“I think people love their priests and just enjoy spending time with us outside of the context of how we normally see priests,” Fr. Sullivan said. “Sometimes the vocation can be a little intimidating if you have the idea that priests are so very different. We are called to be holy, but we are still regular guys.”

Tournament attendees will have a chance to chat with the priests and seminarians after the game with an ice cream social. Wintering said the exposure is the perfect way to promote vocations in the diocese.

“For myself growing up, the only context I’d get to know a priest is through the church. I didn’t even know what a seminarian was growing up,” Wintering said. “This provides an enormous opportunity for young men to see priests outside the church context. Just to see that they are normal guys that love basketball as much as they do and are competitive men.”

The Serra Club, the Knights of Columbus and Xavier Preparatory have been crucial in organizing the fourth annual tournament. The planning committee expects a big turnout. Along with the high level of talent between priests and seminarians, Doug Franz of the “Doug and Wolf Show” on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM will be broadcasting the game for fans.

The Phoenix Sons have organized two practices leading up to the early August tournament in hopes of coming back into play with the Church Fathers. Despite joining the team this year, Fr. Sullivan questioned whether the practices would help.

“There will always be a healthy banter between the priests and the seminarians,” Fr. Sullivan said. “All I can say is, check the records.”