For Archbishop Wood boy’s basketball team, a season on the brink of perfection ended in abject disappointment.
The Vikings, led by nine seniors, went 19-1, won the Philadelphia Catholic League championship and came within a point of capturing a state championship.
Reading High School defeated Archbishop Wood, 58-57, in the PIAA Class 6A basketball final on March 27.
But, it wasn’t for nothing.
“It was a great season,” senior guard Rahsool Diggins said. “Even though it was overwhelming with COVID, not being sure whether we was going to play or not, we kept our head high. We kept competing. We stay prepared.”
Diggins will be playing basketball for the University of Connecticut next year and is happy he was able to spend his last year of high school on the court.
“It was fun this year because we were winning,” he said. “Every time you win, it’s fun.”
The Philadelphia Catholic League encompasses five different counties, each with different regulations mitigating the effects of COVID-19, with Philadelphia’s the most stringent.
“The whole thing was totally different, of course, and surreal,” head coach John Mosco said. “Each day you weren’t sure if you were gonna get shut down going to practice, waiting for the phone call to say that your opponent’s shut down, you’re shut down, or the school is shut down.”
Nonetheless, the coaching staff was able to plan for how to handle COVID-related uncertainty. Assistant coach Ed McCormick credits planning for helping the team deal with COVID so well.
McCormick sought out the advice of the school’s head coach of the football program, Matt Walp, who had gone through the restrictions and dealt with the ramifications earlier in the fall.
“I give some credit to some of our fall coaches as well,” McCormick said. “We were able to pick their brains a little bit.”
The basketball coaches knew they weren’t going to be the school’s first sport to navigate the pandemic response.
“I know I talked a lot with our football coach about some of the ways he dealt with it,” McCormick said. “He provided a lot of good feedback in terms of things that worked for them, things that didn’t work for them. I felt like we had a little bit of advantage in that respect.”
To keep practice schedules reliable and keep everyone safe, coaches adopted policies and procedures developed by the football staff.
“They kind of cleared the trees for us a little bit,” McCormick said. “What they went through, they didn’t really have anybody to go to in terms of a reference or somebody that they could talk to who had gone through it already. I thought that was very valuable.”
McCormick was in charge of taking the temperatures of players and staff, as well as recording the names of students who came to school and who were at practice for contact tracing purposes.
When the players came into practice, he would sit at a table with a log of their names, take their forehead temperatures, and ask questions about the player’s health.
McCormick gives Mosco credit for being able to adapt to an environment that few people had been prepared for, as well as the school’s administration, who lent a helping hand and made sure the team had what it needed to get through this past season.
“John handled it very well,” McCormick said. “I think the biggest thing that John does is that he trusts other people. He trusts the administration. He trusts our athletic director to guide us through all this.”
School administrators also made sure the team and coaches had access to the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) they needed, McCormick said.
“Mostly the educators that are dealing with the kids every day,” he said. “Our administration did a great job. The support they provided us all year was tremendous. Just supporting us in general, but also educating us, providing all the PPEs and all the things we needed to stay healthy during the season.”
Before the season even started, Mosco was adamant his players followed public health guidelines, ensuring all Vikings were able to participate in the season to the best of their abilities.
“If it’s important to you, you don’t go to the party on Saturday,” he said.
When the City of Philadelphia first allowed high school sports, it required all players wear masks while on the court. It took a little bit for Mosco’s players to get used to, but they didn’t have much of a choice.
“It was in the beginning of practice and they were all complaining about running,” Mosco said. “I’m like, ‘OK, we got two choices: we wear a mask and play or we don’t play.’ It was better that way.”
As the season progressed, multiple surrounding schools got shut down. For their first game, the team was set to play against Lansdale Catholic, which had to cancel when COVID-19 began to spread in the school.
Thanks to some last-minute rescheduling, Archbishop Wood didn’t end up missing a game. The Vikings were able to replace the matchup and schedule Conwell Egan as an opponent instead.
Having a team full of veterans came in handy when it came to following COVID-19 rules. Mosco and McCormick could rely on older players to communicate the importance of staying healthy to the freshmen and sophomores.
When Mosco lost his wife, Diane, back in 2017, it was this group of seniors who were there for him during a difficult time in his life.
“They did a lot for me in those four years,” Mosco said. “When they became freshman was the year I lost my wife. They were there for me and my family. It’s more than just basketball. They became a big extension of my family and I feel like I got nine more sons to take care of.”
That’s part of the reason why this season was so important to the team. It was a chance for Mosco and a team that had become his second family to go out on the right note.
“We’ve been through a lot of stuff,” McCormick said. “Specifically, when John lost his wife a couple of years ago, it was a very difficult time. That’s really where you rely on your friends and your team. You become closer and it bonds you in a way when you go through things like that.”
While they came up short of a state championship, the Vikings won the Catholic League, something they hadn’t done in the past four years.
“This was our last year to get Coach Mosco a championship,” Diggins said. “We wanted a championship for ourselves, but to give Coach Mosco a championship meant more for us. For us to be all friends, growing up with each other, that was even more special.”
The Vikings defeated Roman Catholic, 68-59, in the league’s championship game on March 15. It was their first league title since 2017.
After winning that game, the nine graduating seniors became the winningest class in program history, according to Mosco. They leave Archbishop Wood with the most wins across four years.
“The great thing with these guys is they came in and played as young players,” McCormick said. “You go through your ups and downs, that’s your natural progression of things when you play with young kids. But, we had a lot of success. We also had a lot of fun.”
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Editor’s note: Our special reporting on COVID-19 may focus on communities outside Philadelphia because many of our student journalists are now temporarily located outside of the city. Instead, our reporters will cover how the coronavirus is impacting their own communities from across the country and around the world. We will return to hyperlocal coverage of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods as soon as possible.