Hays — While it’s not unusual for Catholic high schools in Hays, Salina and Hutchinson to play one another in basketball, this year marked the first time the schools joined in Mass and prayer prior to the tipoff.
Thomas More Prep-Marian Junior-Senior High School extended the invitation to both Sacred Heart High Junior/Senior High School in Salina and Trinity Catholic Junior/Senior High School in Hutchinson to celebrate Mass and a prayer service prior to the games.
“It’s more than about sports,” said Joe Hammersmith, principal and boys coach at Trinity. “We have bigger missions as schools — to educate at a higher level. What makes it unique is the spiritual. Sports is only a part of things.”
When Chad Meitner, principal of TMP approached him about the athletes celebrating Mass together and having a prayer service before the Feb. 23 game in Hays, Hammersmith jumped at the chance.
“With Catholic schools we wanted to highlight the shared heritage,” Meitner said. “We wanted to make sure it was a game that was unlike any other game.”
He also contacted the administration at Sacred Heart in Salina, expressing the same desire for the Jan. 7 game.
“We need to be able to be sure we practice what we preach when we say we put God first, that the teachings of Christ are most important,” Meitner said. “By taking the time to step aside we showed the students it wasn’t the most convenient or easiest, but it was worth it.”
Derek Dreher, a senior from Trinity said he appreciated the addition of Mass and a prayer service.
“I enjoyed the change this year and that they combined it and made the faith a bigger part of the game,” said Dreher, whose parents Steve ’87 and Kerri ’90 (Brungardt) Dreher are TMP graduates. “I’ve been going to games at TMP since I was in junior high. (Adding Mass before the game) was a whole new feel. It made you down to earth. You’re in the same room as the team you’re going to play in a few hours.”
While the Hutchinson Catholic school has been playing both Sacred Heart and TMP for several years, Feb. 23 was the first time it joined in Mass with TMP prior to the game.
Hammersmith said inviting his teams to worship was memorable for his players. Because the trip from Hutchinson to Hays is 2 1/2 hours, the students had to depart at noon. But because they were attending Mass, they had to be dressed for Mass, which included an oxford shirt and school tie for the boys.
“The Mass enhanced the whole experience and was the most important thing we did do that day,” he said. “It reminded everybody about what’s important.”
Hayden Lowe, a senior at TMP, said Mass and prayer was unifying.
“It made the game more enjoyable when we got to play,” he said. “It kind of felt like we were playing as siblings. It was still serious, but it felt like there was a connection between all of us.”
Arnold Schmidtberger, girls coach at Sacred Heart, said joining together as teams before the competition was a nice change of pace. Senior Grace Worcester said it added dimension to the game.
“It’s a unique opportunity to share something with your opponent,” Worcester said. “We don’t have much contact with TMP, so it was unifying.”
The coaches, players, administration and cheerleaders gathered prior to the Jan. 7 game between Sacred Heart and TMP in Sacred Heart’s chapel in Salina.
“I hope they keep it as a tradition,” Worcester said. “I think that it’s important to keep in mind why we play … thanking God for our abilities in the first place. I think people can get very caught up in the competition part of it. As two Catholic schools, it’s important to keep God in mind in everything we do, knowing we do it to glorify him.”
Joe Hertel has been coaching boys basketball at TMP for more than three decades. He said he appreciated the addition of the spiritual aspects of the game this year.
“It gives us an opportunity to see each other not just as opponents and adversaries, but brothers in faith,” he said.
Hertel said in the decade his boys have played Trinity Catholic, the teams have not met for Mass prior to a game.
“I enjoyed the fellowship of being with opposing coaches and parents and players,” he said.
Meitner said between the varsity boys and girls games, the coaches and administration met on the court for a short prayer service. History of each school was read, and a candle bearing the image of the school’s namesake was lit and placed at the scorer’s table by a senior.
“If emotions got high, we could hopefully notice the candle and remember there were bigger things,” he said.
During the service, the entire gym prayed the Our Father together.
“The unity in the prayer was great,” Meitner said. “It distinguished that game from others. I guarantee people will remember that because you don’t get to do that in other games.”
Hammersmith said he appreciated the prayer service, in addition to Mass.
“It was a reminder that our mission and our existence as Catholic schools is very important, it is unique,” he said. “It develops the whole person. The goal is to be productive in society, but our ultimate goal is to get to heaven. That is what we are helping our students to do.”
For Dreher, he said Mass and the prayer service shifted the focus and purpose of the game for him.
“Often you’re focused before a game on playing the best game you can,” he said. “It was a different mental place, more at ease. It didn’t feel like a fight, it was more of a camaraderie … everybody’s winning in the end.”