A CYO team from St. Clement's, Saratoga
A CYO team from St. Clement's, Saratoga
CYO basketball taught Matt Keane, 12, about discipline, respect and commitment - even to chores.

"My family is counting on me," Matt tells himself. He's learned that "if you have a role on a certain team, then you help your team win more if you do that role. It's important to know what your strengths and weaknesses are."

A seventh-grader at Bethlehem Central Middle School, Matt has played basketball for five years. He just finished his first season playing for the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) team at St. Thomas the Apostle parish in Delmar, which enrolled an impressive 62 players on six teams.

There are about 210 CYO teams in the Albany Diocese, mostly in Albany, Schenectady and Troy, but also in Saratoga County suburbs and a few rural parishes, according to Raymond Piscitelli, diocesan CYO director.

Parish and school closings have resulted in fewer teams, especially in outlying parts of the Diocese. There were up to 300 teams when Mr. Piscitelli became involved with CYO in the 1960s.

But the active parishes are taking on additional teams: St. John the Baptist parish in Valatie and St. Pius X in Loudonville, for instance, have more than a dozen CYO teams between them.

The organization has changed the rules so that more non-Catholic children can participate, and school systems and youth clubs can sponsor teams.

"The numbers are there," Mr. Piscitelli told The Evangelist. "It's just that they're not in schools and parishes."

CYO programs are made up of children in grades five and six ("biddy teams") and children in grades seven and eight ("junior teams").

Randy Rivers is program director at St. Clement's parish in Saratoga Springs, which has six teams. Now that there's no shortage of options for athletic children, he said, it's important for CYO leagues to stand out.

"The big thing that separates it is [that] we're allowed to say prayers," Mr. Rivers said. "We talk about the way you should live your life, not just sports."

Every child who tries out makes it onto a team, and even substitutes get to play. There are also fewer practices and games than other leagues, which often graduate players with knee braces at the end of a season.

"These kids are beating up their bodies too much," Mr. Rivers said of other leagues. In CYO, "there's not as much pressure. It's social basketball. Hardcore players do play it, but it's also for kids who just want to experience the game."

Other leagues also "stack" teams with highly-skilled players, Mr. Rivers said: "At that level, fair isn't what they're worried about. They want to win. With CYO, you want to win, but winning isn't all that matters."

Mr. Rivers has been a youth minister at St. Clement's for 16 years; this season was his first as CYO director. He wants to incorporate more prayer into the program and launch a softball league. (Other dioceses have CYO football, soccer, softball, volleyball and more. The Albany Diocese used to sponsor CYO baseball and flag football.)

Sports should be an evangelization tool for parishes, Mr. Rivers said: "Parents will go to a soccer game, but not go to church. How do we reach these kids and their families? If they're going out to the ball field, we should bring church to them."

Mr. Rivers involves older children and young adults as coaches. "They get to learn how their actions can change the flow of the game," he said. "Even when things aren't going right, they have to stay positive. It really helps them learn to support one another."

In fact, one of Mr. Rivers' girls' teams is still practicing - two months after the end of the season.

"They enjoyed it so much that they don't want it to stop," he said. "It becomes their little social hour."

Young player Matt said some of the lessons he's learned in faith formation classes have extended onto the basketball court. "Put yourself in someone else's shoes before you say something" is one.

"It makes St. Thomas [parish] look bad if we do something bad," he explained. "It's not necessary all the time to yell at people."

Matt no longer gets upset with referees, talks during games or takes the game too seriously.

"Usually when I play in other leagues, it's more about winning and competition," he said.

Helen Adams-Keane, Matt's mother, said CYO is more fun for parents, too, who recognize one another from the parish or neighborhood. Year-end banquets allow coaches to single out each player and make the program feel "homey," she said.

Most importantly, said Mr. Piscitelli, CYO basketball "keeps [kids] out of trouble. It gives the kids something to do."