Click photo to enlarge
Jenny McGann

WASHINGTON -- For those who are wondering, the answer is no. The resignation of the pope is not a big topic when the basketball players at Catholic University gather in the locker room before practice.

Of course, they do hear quite a bit about him.

"In all of my classes, no matter if it's, like, geology class or any type of class, it's all brought up," said York Catholic High School graduate Jenny McGann, a senior guard on the women's team. "It's a good place to be because you're with all these professors that actually know what they're talking about."

McGann is averaging 8.1 points and 4.0 rebounds per game for the Catholic women, who are 23-1 and ranked No. 2 in NCAA Division III.

The actions of Catholic cardinals at the Vatican are obviously overwhelming in historical magnitude compared to any accomplishments by the Catholic Cardinals who play a few miles from the White House. Nevertheless, the players inside DuFour Center like to think they have their own little piece of sports history in the making.

The men's and women's teams were a combined 44-4 entering their Saturday games, not bad for a Division III school that's known less for sports and more for its rigorous academics, high-profile alumni and the awe-inspiring Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception that dominates the university's skyline.

"There's a lot of support when you're doing well, and when you're not doing so well people forget about you," said Chris Kearney, a senior center on the men's team. "So it's much better on this side of the campus."

Basketball has a strong legacy at the school. Winning seasons and NCAA tournament bids have been part of the landscape for decades for both teams, but there's only one national championship banner hanging in the gym. It's red and black and hard to miss, the large letters commemorating the 2001 men's team.

"I walk through the gym every day when I go up to the office and I look at that banner," said men's coach Steve Howes. "That's what we're working for."

Recruiting for Catholic has its advantages. It's one of those rare Division III schools with instant name recognition and a truly national following. There are famous alumni all over, including New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, NBC anchor Brian Williams, actors Jon Voight and Susan Sarandon and numerous archbishops.

McGann said one of the reasons she chose Catholic was because she didn't want to tell people where she went to school and then hear: "Oh, where is that? I've never heard of it."

"I can go into Florida, or I can go out into Texas or Arizona or Rhode Island or Massachusetts, and they know the name Catholic University," women's coach Matt Donohue said. "And if they don't know the university, they certainly know Washington, D.C."

The coaches need to find the good athlete and the good student -- Donohue's leading scorer is studying biomedical engineering. Being a good Catholic helps, too, but it's optional. The answer to another popular question: No, you don't have to be Catholic to attend Catholic.

"They encourage it, but they don't force it on you," said Shawn Holmes, a senior guard on the men's team who is Baptist but went to a Catholic high school in Baltimore. "There's a lot of Catholics on the team. It's still the same -- I believe in the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit."

The women's team has a Catholic who is also a princess. Senior forward Katarina Owunna is the eldest daughter of a tribal chief in a small village in Nigeria, and she has missed games around Christmas to return to the village for festivities. She said an opponent in a recent game against Scranton taunted her by saying things such as: "Yeah, you're just a princess."

Her teammates have fun with it, too.

"They make jokes like, 'OK, princess.' 'Aiming for you, princess,'" Owunna, the team's second-leading scorer, said with a laugh.

Once the topic turns to basketball, the coaches sound like any of their Division I counterparts, talking about how fundamentals such as defense, rebounding and chemistry have helped the teams be successful this season. While the buzz in big-time basketball has been about the so-called "Catholic 7" -- the group of like-minded schools who are leaving the Big East -- those teams would be hard-pressed to match the current records of the "Catholic 2" led by Howes and Donohue.

Of course, the regular-season winning has been done with an eye on the postseason. The Landmark Conference tournaments are next week. Then comes the wait for NCAA tournament bids -- and the desire to give that one big, lonely championship banner some company.

"It stares you in the face," Kearney said, "during practice every day."