It was a big game—district championships generally are. But no matter how aggressively Devon Prep tried to promote its showdown with Dock Mennonite Academy in late May, attendance at Widener University was sparse and local media coverage was minimal.
In some ways, that wasn’t the worst thing in the world. The Tide dropped a brutal, 5-4 decision, allowing two runs to score in the bottom of the last inning on a dropped fly ball. So not having it viewed or documented too widely wasn’t exactly a disaster.
Beginning next year, however, Devon’s sporting activities will be subject to significantly greater scrutiny, thanks to a move from the Bicentennial Athletic League to the Philadelphia Catholic League. It’s a gigantic step up in competitive status, not to mention a big move forward in terms of sporting—and admissions—cachet. The BAL is akin to the Island of Misfit Toys. The league’s 18 schools span an eclectic geographic footprint and feature a remarkably diverse collection of schools. Phil-Mont Christian has a tiny enrollment (39 total students), and MaST Charter is a former Philadelphia Public League school that seceded from that confederation. There’s also a school in New Hope and one in Valley Forge, with outposts in Bristol and Newtown Square. The league’s personality could be described as anything goes.
The Catholic League, meanwhile, is perhaps the state’s best and most well known confederation—and its reputation extends beyond Pennsylvania’s borders, thanks to its rich history. Devon’s move to the PCL will bolster its reputation and put it together with schools that have similar missions and goals. “If this was solely about winning in the league, we wouldn’t be making the move,” says Pat Kane, Devon’s director of external operations. “This is about being part of a league and having major common factors with the other schools.”
This is not only a big deal for Devon but also for the Catholic League, which hasn’t expanded since Lansdale Catholic High School joined in 2012. There has been some contraction, thanks to the closings of one-time stalwarts North Catholic and Cardinal Dougherty.
Devon’s jump doesn’t necessarily mean all that much for the PCL athletic profile. The Tide doesn’t sponsor a football team. It has three baseball district titles from 2014 to 2016 and a state championship in 2014, along with a 2018 golf district crown and some basketball success earlier this century.
But the Catholic League is not adding Devon to become more formidable—it’s welcoming a school with a like mission in an effort to grow after losing North Catholic and Cardinal Dougherty. “We’re excited about it,” says Archbishop Wood athletic director Joe Sette, who’s been part of the league as a coach and administrator since the 1970s and is now the chairman of the PCL board. “When you look at the success Devon has had in baseball—and with some really good golfers—it should be able to carve out a nice niche for itself because of its size.”
Devon may absorb some beatings from some of its new, larger-enrollment partners during regular season play, but there’s no better way to prepare for district and state competition in smaller classifications than by playing excellent competition. “This will help us in the playoffs,” says Fisher. “We’ll play some tough teams in the Catholic League and then face schools more our size in the post-season.”
Fisher first presented the Catholic League idea to Devon administrators in the spring of 2017. The league invited the school to present its capabilities, so Fisher and Rev. Aisa made their pitch. Last September, their application was accepted. “Being a Catholic school means we certainly share the same mission statement,” Sette says. “And by joining the PCL, Devon’s travel will be reduced drastically. [Cardinal] O’Hara, [Monsignor] Bonner and Carroll are all close—and even some of the city schools are just a trip down 76.”
More important are the admissions benefits. “I hope people will look at our school differently and realize athletically we are an option for eighth graders (Devon starts in sixth grade) to compete in arguably the best league in the state,” Fisher says.
For years, Devon has been hurt by its proximity to Malvern Prep, which garners high ratings for its Inter-Academic League membership and also benefits from a reputation of sporting excellence. Not that Devon will enjoy success right away in the PCL. It may never climb the standings in basketball, but telling parents there will be games against some iconic names will certainly help. “During my first four years here, kids would come in who were considering St. Joe’s Prep, Malvern and Devon, and a lot of them would choose St. Joe’s because of the Catholic League,” says Fisher.
Now they just might pick Devon Prep, thanks to its new friends.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that the Catholic League had not expanded since Archbishop Carroll joined in the late 1960s. Lansdale Catholic High School joined the Catholic League in 2012. This version has been corrected.