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BY JEFF FALK

Because they’re universal, sports can be a common denominator. They have the power to bridge gaps and allow new people to fit in.

But do you know what else sports have the power to do? Heal. They can help people move on, and moving on is a key element for closure.

Mark Gates and Maria Pastal have been playing basketball all their lives. They’re also seniors attending a new school for the final years of their athletic and academic careers.

Pastal and Gates are senior players on the Cedar Crest girls’ and boys’ basketball teams. Both went to Cedar Crest, after Lebanon Catholic School closed abruptly, suddenly, shockingly ten months ago.

Now, one might think ‘once a Beaver, always a Beaver’. And while that is certainly true to a degree, Gates and Pastal might be a little more ‘Falcon’ than one might expect.

Simply another example of the resiliency of kids – as well as the power of sports.

“I would say I’m still continuing to adjust,” said Pastal. “The beginning of the year was harder, and it’s gotten easier. I’m a shy person, so this was a huge adjustment to me. But I think basketball actually helped that. I had never run cross country, and I ran it in the fall, and that was a start. But basketball helped me feel more comfortable, and I related to the girls more. I’ve bonded with them.

“It actually took me a while to make my decision (to play basketball for the Falcons),” continued Pastal. “When the school closed down, I didn’t want to play over the summer. My mom and family said, ‘Just go to an open gym.’ I liked the new coach (Will Wenninger), and because he was new, it made me feel more equal. I realized how much basketball meant to me. It’s my sport.”

“I wasn’t ready to move on right away,” said Gates. “But once I started getting into a routine and going to Cedar Crest, it made me feel better. Once I made it through the golf season (in the fall) and I started playing basketball, I think I got the closure I needed. I knew it was time to move on. Maybe there are some people who still haven’t had that closure.

“Yeah, I knew I was going to go out for the (basketball) team wherever I was going to go to school,” added Gates. “It’s not like the school closing put me that far down that I wasn’t going to go out for basketball the next year.”

Neither Gates or Pastal is seeing as much playing time at Cedar Crest as they would like – no kid ever does. But they’re not playing nearly as much basketball as they did at Lebanon Catholic.

As juniors, both were starters at Lebanon Catholic, where they had gone to school for their entire scholastic careers.

Basketball is simply one of the elements of the culture shock created by going from one the smallest private schools in Lebanon County to one of the largest public schools locally. While Lebanon Catholic’s graduating class of 2021 was expected to number around 30, Cedar Crest’s is about 12 times larger.

“I don’t play a whole lot now,” said Gates. “I’ve got to work for all the minutes I get. But it gives you something to work for. I’d love to play more, but I’ve got to work for it.

“I think the biggest difference is the playing time,” Gates continued. “When you’re at Cedar Crest, the competition you’re playing with is totally different. The players are bigger and stronger than the players in Section Five (of the Lancaster-Lebanon League). They make shots. They’re better games. The whole aspect is different, but it’s great.”

“It’s quite different from Lebanon Catholic,” said Pastal. “I played a lot more at Lebanon Catholic than I do at Cedar Crest. There are a lot more people to go through. At Lebanon Catholic, I started. It’s more competitive, but I still think I’m contributing as much as anybody else.

“I think I’m playing a good amount,” Pastal added. “I get a fair amount of playing time. I work for my time in practice. To me, it’s the fact that I’m still playing. I’m at a big school and I’m getting on the floor, and that means a lot to me.”

Perhaps the most notable, Pastal and Gates’ shared story is one that’s being played out at gymnasiums across Lebanon County this winter. In addition to Cedar Crest, former Lebanon Catholic players are also contributing to scholastic basketball teams at Northern Lebanon, Lebanon, Annville-Cleona and New Covenant.

“I feel like most of them are still playing, which is good,” said Pastal of former teammates. “I think our season is going pretty well. We have a new coach, but I think we’re bringing it together well. We’re at the top of our section right now.

“School-wise, the biggest adjustment has been the size,” added Pastal. “At Lebanon Catholic, I knew all the teachers and I knew everyone’s name. I like Cedar Crest, but it’s so different. I spent my whole life at Lebanon Catholic.”

“I think my job on the team is to shoot the ‘three’, when I’m called upon,” said Gates. “That, and to be a good leader for the other guys on the bench, and to just keep the whole team involved. You learn to get your shot off a little quicker, because you don’t have as much time as you did in Section Five. I’m still in the adjustment period. It’s different going from the smallest section (in the Lancaster-Lebanon League) to the biggest section.

“It’s (the season) not going too bad,” continued Gates. “The breaks (due to COVID-19 pandemic and weather) we’re having are hurting us. We need to play more. The more we play, the better we’ll be. I think we’ll be fine. We just need to play.”

The date was April 29, 2020.

Lebanon Catholic was already engrossed in virtual learning because of the Coronavirus, when seemingly out of nowhere, the notification came down from the Harrisburg diocese that it was closing the 150-year-old school due to financial difficulties. The Lebanon Catholic community is a proud one, and the handling of the school’s closing left many associated with it without a true sense of closure.

“We all got the email from the diocese that it was closing Lebanon Catholic,” said Gates. “It was a shock. I kind of didn’t believe it at first. I thought there was a chance that Lebanon Catholic was going to be saved, but when it didn’t seem like it was going to be re-opened, I knew I had to come up with another plan.

“I texted Coach (Tom) Smith in the summer, and he gave me some workouts to do,” Gates continued. “I knew I was going to have to be ready.”

“My mom called me and told me about it,” said Pastal. “At first, I thought she meant the school was closing for the rest of the year. She said, ‘No, the school is closing for good.’ I immediately started crying. I had seven older siblings who went there, and I was like ‘Why?’ I messaged my whole class, and we still can’t believe it. I still think about it 90 percent of the time.

“I miss everything about it,” added Pastal. “I’d do anything to go back. As much as I like Cedar Crest, I barely get to see my very good friends any more. I miss the faculty. I miss the commitment, the smallness of it and seeing everybody, every day.”

Faced with a decision that 17- and 18-year-olds probably shouldn’t have to make, both Pastal and Gates eventually landed at Cedar Crest. At this point, it seems like the right decision for each of them, but for different reasons.

“I live in the district,” said Gates. “My dad and my brother teach there. I’ve known people from Cedar Crest all of my life. Some of my best friends go to school there. New Covenant was on the table for a while, but it would’ve been strictly for basketball purposes and you don’t go to school just for sports. Cedar Crest was good for both sports and academics.”

“We live in the Cedar Crest school district. I live very close to the school,” said Pastal. “It was convenient for me for my senior year. I considered Bishop McDevitt and Lancaster Catholic. But it’s my senior year and I didn’t want to travel 45 minutes everyday.

“I think I definitely made the best of the situation,” continued Pastal. “When it’s your senior year, you should make the best of it. By joining the cross country team and playing basketball, I put myself out there. I always thought about going to Cedar Crest when I was younger. Before, I thought that would be crazy, but now I’m going there.”

Making the best out of unfortunate circumstances was just one of the things that Pastal and Gates learned at Lebanon Catholic.

To purchase images in this article email jkfalk2005@yahoo.com.

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