Sacred Heart athletes want to go out on top

The school will close next fall, and students try to cope.

Posted: January 22, 2012

Senior softball star Rachel Gavigan thought she would wake up Saturday morning and realize it was all a bad dream.

"I honestly thought I would get up and say, 'Oh, it was just a nightmare,' " Gavigan said of the news that Sacred Heart High School in Vineland would close in June.

The Diocese of Camden announced Friday that Sacred Heart and two nearby Catholic elementary schools would close in June because of "declining area enrollment and financial pressure," according to a statement from Bishop Joseph Galante.

Gavigan, a third baseman who has more than 100 career hits, runs, and RBIs and has committed to Mount St. Mary's on a softball scholarship, said the news was a "shock" to Sacred Heart's students.

"You always hear rumors, but I honestly never thought it would happen," Gavigan said. "There were a lot of tears, including mine."

Although Sacred Heart is one of South Jersey's smallest schools with an enrollment of 202 students, the Lions sports teams have been highly competitive in many sports.

The girls' basketball team is 12-0 and No. 7 in The Inquirer's South Jersey rankings. The team won Non-Public B state titles in 2003 and 2005.

"We've been a focal point of the school for a long time," Sacred Heart girls' basketball coach Steve DiPatri said. "We're going to try to keep the heartbeat of the school alive."

The baseball team won the prestigious Joe Hartmann Diamond Classic in 2008. The boys' soccer team won the Non-Public B state title in 2008. The softball team won sectional crowns in 1999 and 2004.

"We're Lions, and we play for our school," Gavigan said. "We always have good athletes and good coaching."

Sacred Heart boys' basketball coach Kevin Nash said his players responded well during a practice after hearing the news Friday.

"We're looking forward to playing Vineland [Saturday night]," Nash said. "The kids know they need to focus on the here and now and take it one game at a time."

Sacred Heart softball coach Les Olsen said the announcement had been feared by school officials for a few years.

"You're always shocked," Olsen said. "But with everything that has been going on in the Catholic education world [with other school closings and consolidations], it's always been in the back of your mind that something could happen."

Sacred Heart supporters plan to try to raise funds and develop a sustainability plan to persuade the diocese to keep the school open.

"I told the younger kids at practice that a year from now we'll be back here on a Friday afternoon preparing for the big game against Vineland," Nash said.

From a sports standpoint, a major impact of the closing of Sacred Heart would be the transfer of athletes to other schools. Under NJSIAA rules, varsity athletes do not have to sit out 30 days if they transfer from a school that closed.

Nash said one of his team's best players is 6-foot-6 freshman Michael Holloway.

The softball team is led by Gavigan but also by the sophomore battery of pitcher Rosie LaGrotta, who won 21 games as a freshman, and catcher Danielle Lugo.

The girls' basketball team has top sophomores such as point guard Lexi Bruno and 6-foot-2 center Kennedy Johnson, who recently became eligible after transferring from Holy Spirit after her freshman year.

Gavigan said the situation would serve as a "motivating factor" for Sacred Heart teams during the rest of the year.

"One of the first things I did after we heard the news was to get my [softball] girls together," Gavigan said. "We're all seniors now. If this is going to be our last year, we're going to make it our best year. We're going out on top - no ifs, ands, or buts about it."


Contact staff writer Phil Anastasia at 856-779-3223, panastasia@phillynews.com, or @PhilAnastasia on Twitter. Read his blog, "Jersey Side Sports," at www.philly.com/jerseysidesports

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