When Archbishop José H. Gomez and Auxiliary Bishop Matt Elshoff both stood and extended their hands above their heads with some 800 people packed into the gym of Cathedral High School, it might have looked like they were administering an enthusiastic blessing.
In reality, the two were caught up participating in “the wave” from their courtside seats at the fifth edition of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ Priests vs. Seminarians Basketball Game on Oct. 13, a tightly contested matchup that saw Team Seminarians hold on for their fourth win in the series, a 47-43 outcome that wasn’t decided until the final minutes.
A free throw by seminarian Michael Crogan broke a 42-42 tie with two minutes left in the game. Teammate Christian Eguaroje followed by converting with a layup with 1:23 left and was fouled by Team Priests’ Father Michael Masteller. Because that was his fifth foul, Masteller had to take the bench for the rest of the game.
It proved to be a tough blow for the priests. Masteller, associate pastor at St. Helen Church in South Gate, had scored nine of his team’s 11 points in the fourth quarter and kept Team Priests close. He finished with a game-high 19 points.
Eguaroje, a second-year theology student at St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, led Team Seminarians with 13 points and was named Player of the Game. Teammate Deacon Tommy Green, the Player of the Game in the previous two contests, added five of his 11 points in the decisive fourth quarter. But until that point, he had been strategically defended by the Team Priests.
“We had a box-and-one defense and just trying to tailgate him,” said Father Andrew Chung, who was assigned to shadow Green all over the court for the evening. “The goal was met — he didn’t get the MVP.”
And, if all goes as planned, Green will be joining his longtime opponents in the next game after his ordination to the priesthood in the spring of 2024.
Chung’s defensive assignment on Green, as well as scoring nine of his 10 points in the first half, kept Team Priests even with Team Seminarians, 27-27, at halftime.
Chung, currently the administrator at St. Pancratius Church in Lakewood, was playing in his fifth game with Team Priests, which this year had 12 clerics on the roster. He said he has seen the value of the community event pull together his parishioners who came to cheer him on. On the court after the game, he even gave a blessing to his school’s principal, Melina Ramirez, who was participating in the Long Beach half-marathon the next morning.
“This is one of the few opportunities for us to get together and play like this,” said Chung. “While everyone else may have been out getting tattoos on Friday the 13th, we’re all praying for vocations and having a great time in this gym.”
Eguaroje, participating in his third game for the 18-man Team Seminarians squad, only started playing basketball in the last two years since leaving his native Nigeria to come to the seminary. He grew up playing soccer and admitted he is still learning not only how basketball is played, but its vocabulary.
“I was surprised to get Player of the Game because I missed a lot of layups … I mean, free throws,” he said with a laugh. “Sometimes it doesn’t matter how many times you miss, it’s how many you get in.
“This event is an awesome opportunity to spread vocations because some may think seminarians are just studying 24 hours a day and praying. We have hobbies and need exercise and play sports.”
The timing of this latest edition of the matchup was different from the first four editions of the game, which had been played early in the calendar year (including the last one in February of 2023). Due to a change in the seminary’s formation schedule — transitional deacons are now finishing their studies and graduating in December instead of May — October will be a better fit for the game.
It was also the first time the game was played at Cathedral High School near downtown LA, a more central location compared to Chaminade College Preparatory in Chatsworth and Santa Clara High School in Oxnard, where the previous games had been played.
Father Sam Ward, who served in the vocations office from 2013 until 2022, helped organize the event from its beginnings five years ago. He was the game’s public address announcer, helping keep the crowd engaged during the game and at timeouts.
“This game was definitely the closest and most exciting, but every one of them has been exciting because of the spirit of our seminarians and our priests, and by God’s grace, because of so many people here as sports brings everyone together,” said Father Ward, now pastor at St. Raymond Church in Downey.
The game is now organized by Director for Vocations Father Mike Perucho and his associate Father Peter Saucedo, who worked the crowd by tossing souvenir T-shirts into the crowd and even delivering pizzas. Perucho hopes the family fun event, which raised funds to help seminarians attend formation opportunities next year like SEEK24 and the National Eucharistic Congress, keeps a sense of momentum going.
“Having this in LA, the heart of the archdiocese, having the bishops here, made it all totally awesome,” said Perucho. “You could sense the spirit in everyone.”