THE FIRST TIME Jeff diBattisto stepped into the gymnasium at Cardinal Newman, it did not seem a welcoming place.
As the coach for Bishop England boys basketball for five years diBattisto had to contend with the Cardinals’ home court advantage.
“As an opposing coach, it was always a tough place to play,” diBattisto said. “Because of the metal on the roof and the walls, it gets extremely loud in there. And it’s hot in there.”
None of which diBattisto has a problem with these days.
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Now, as the athletics director at Cardinal Newman, he enjoys watching the Cardinals take the court in front of a packed house.
“That’s what it is, it’s the people more than the gym,” he said.
The gym itself is simple and unpretentious.
It has gone through changes — the court has been covered in carpet, concrete, sports surface and vinyl tile — since a group of alumni helped with its construction.
With its low slung steel rafters, the exposed curtains of insulation between, the cinderblock and corrugated metal walls, it is a revival tent of a gym where only the hardwood gleams.
“I think we have almost a perfect little gym,” said George Kaupp, a Cardinal Newman teacher, who has been the Cardinals’ announcer for the past six years. “We’re not cramped, but we’re also not expansive and huge. It’s just a very nice place to watch a basketball game.”
And it’s not a bad place to play, either.
The Cardinals’ home court advantage is clear. Cardinal Newman is undefeated at home across the past two seasons.
The Cardinals (20-6, 6-1) have a strong following everywhere they go, but there is no place like home.
“On Friday night, there is no better place to be,” Kaupp said. “It’s a great atmosphere, and I love being part of it.”
Before the last home game of the regular season, the lights go out and a Cardinal-red spotlight illuminates the Cardinals’ bench.
One by one, Kaupp announces the starters and each has his moment in the spotlight as the red glow — and raucous applause — follows each player onto the court.
“The guys like it, and it kind of creates a little more like a college environment for the guys,” coach Kevin Rose said.
That little extra is a crowd-pleaser, diBattisto said, but the Cardinals’ fans do not need any extra massaging.
“The closeness of the Cardinal Newman family and the nature of the school make it so that everyone really cares about the program and the kids,” he said. “Cardinal Newman is a family school, so a lot of nights you get grandfathers, fathers and sons in the stands. And they are all pulling for the teams.”
Even families who no longer have students in the school come back to root for the Cardinals, Kaupp said.
“They are one of the most loyal fan bases I’ve ever seen,” he said.
Rose knows how true that is.
The coach was a member of the Cardinals’ last state title team, in 1995, and returned hoping to get the Cardinals back to the championship. The fans pack the gym every night with the same hope.
“People want to be in our gym just for that atmosphere, and even more now that, with our talent level and our success, we’ve become more of a basketball school,” Rose said.
After sealing the region title at home last week, the Cardinals are preparing for the SCISA Class 3A playoffs and, Rose said, they would not trade their little nest for any other.