The Sacred Heart High School softball team members faced their future together in their practice uniforms.
The Lions left practice on April 11 and headed right for a meeting where the fate of the Vineland school would be announced.
The team sat side by side in the school gym. Senior left fielder Lindsay Dwyer held the hand of her sister - sophomore third baseman Lauren - as administrators delivered the news the players feared they would hear.
The Camden Diocese would close Sacred Heart at the end of the school year because of low enrollment.
Now, the Lions softball team is poised to make a last stand for itself and for all the Sacred Heart sports teams that have come before it.
Sacred Heart (22-3) begins defense of its state Non-Public B title next week. The third-seeded Lions, the No. 4 team in The Press Elite 11, will play No. 14 seed Trenton Catholic in a first-round game Thursday.
"The first thing we thought of (when they announced the school was closing) was we're getting the last state championship for this school," Lindsay Dwyer said. "We're not going to give up."
Sacred Heart, which opened in 1927, had seen its enrollment dip below 200 students in recent years. The Camden Diocese announced in February 2012 that the school would close the end of that 2011-12 year.
But alumni stepped in and raised funds to save it. Their efforts, however, could not last. The school will graduate 52 seniors this year but had only 21 incoming freshmen enrolled.
"There were some rumblings in the winter that things hadn't gone as everybody had hoped," doftball coach Les Olson said. "You never want to face it. We said, 'Let's hold on and hope for the best and keep trying to do the best for the school.' It just didn't happen."
Just four months before they gathered in the gym to hear the news of the school's closing, the softball players were in the gym for a much happier reason.
They received state championship rings during halftime of a January basketball game. The team's motto - "All in, all together" - was etched on the inside of rings.
Sacred Heart softball has become one of the region's top teams under Olson, who is in his 10th season.
The Lions have been to four straight South Jersey finals. They beat Gil St. Bernard's 4-0 in last year's South Jersey final and then went on to beat Immaculate Conception-Lodi 3-1 to win the first state title in the program's history.
The team features 13 players - two seniors, three juniors, four sophomores and three freshmen. The players have begun to search for new schools. Most have visited other local parochial schools, where they have shadowed students for a day.
Sacred Heart played in a tournament at Triton Regional earlier this month. Opposing coaches surrounded Olson after each game to ask where the team's underclassmen were going to continue their high school careers.
"It's been hectic," Olson said. "There's a lot of talk of who's going where. It's been unsettling at times. They try to put it out of their minds, but it's something that's always right there."
Sacred Heart sports teams have produced some of the top moments in Cape-Atlantic League history. The boys basketball team was a power under coach Jim Mogan in the 1970s and 1980s. The Lions are the only local boys team to ever beat national power St. Anthony of Jersey City, winning 75-68 in overtime on March 10, 1979 to win the now-defunct state Parochial C title.
The Lions girls basketball team won state titles in 2003 and 2005. The Sacred Heart baseball team won the Joe Hartmann Diamond Classic in 2008, becoming one of three local teams to ever win that prestigious event in its 39-year history.
The Sacred Heart softball team has made its mark on the school's athletic history, and not just with the 2012 state title.
Pitcher Rosie LaGrotta has 58 career wins, tied for the school record. Junior catcher Danielle Lugo has 100 career hits.
On Saturday, the Lions will remember their past. Sacred Heart will host Middle Township at 7 p.m. An alumni softball game will be played at 4 p.m.
It's hard for any team to defend a state title. Everyone wants to knock the defending champion out of the tournament. But the Lions have plenty of experience in big games.
"They know the things they have to do to prepare for the better teams," Olson said. "It's nothing new to them."
The Lions have the added pressure of the school's closing. Dwyer almost always wears something with Sacred Heart's name on it when she goes out. Strangers approach her and her teammates to ask how they feel about the closing and whether they can defend their title.
It's a lot to ask one team to carry the weight of a school's history, but these Lions seem to relish the task.
"I'm excited for the playoffs," she said. "I want to defend the title for my school. Whether we do or we don't, we're going to give it our all, and that's all you can ask."
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