By GLENN RUTHERFORD
For lots of people in this part of the country, the month of March — more significantly the start of basketball tournament season — is the most wonderful time of the year.
No disrespect to the Christmas season, but a recent Nielsen survey of television viewing habits showed that Louisville is the college basketball-watching capital of the entire nation. People here love their basketball, and Father Dale Cieslik is one of them.
For the past seven years, he’s had one of the best seats in the whole community to watch some terrific college basketball.
Father Cieslik is the chaplain for the defending NCAA Division II national champion Bellarmine Knights, and in the seven years he’s been in that position, he’s watched Coach Scott Davenport’s program and players improve year after year.
“Over the years this team has learned to live with the pressure of rising expectations,” Father Cieslik said in a recent interview. “They were good when I first started doing this, and they’ve just kept getting better and better and better.”
Last year’s championship run might have capped off that improvement, except for the notion by many that this year’s Bellarmine team is even better. They’ve been ranked in the top five of Division II all season long and have a great chance to repeat as national champion.
And Father Cieslik says that, in the face of all the attention the team has received — the positive reviews about their character, their commitment, their strengths on and off the court — he’s happy to validate all that’s been reported.
“All those good things you’ve heard or read, they’re all true,” he said. “What’s been written about them and said about them, all that praise, that’s exactly who they are. They are really and truly great young men.”
As their chaplain, Father Cieslik provides the pre-game prayer at home games and at the few awaygames he’s able to attend. But the pastor of Elizabeth Ann Seton Church — and archivist for the Archdiocese of Louisville — has plenty of other duties and ministries to keep him busy.
“It’s fun; it’s been very rewarding and I’m happy I’ve had the chance to do it,” he said.
That chance came about when Scott Davenport — affectionately called “Scotty” by Father Cieslik and everyone else who knows him well — was named coach of the Bellarmine Knights seven years ago.
“Scotty isn’t Catholic, but his wife Sharon is,” the priest explained. “I came to know them well when Sharon and Scotty would bring their sons, Russ and Doug, to St. Leonard when I was pastor there. Those boys are great young men, too.”
In addition to offering pre-game prayers, Father Cieslik said, he’s available to the players, to the coaching staff and to all of their families for any help, advice or support they might need.
But they don’t often make requests, he said.
“There haven’t been that many situations that have caused them to come to me, to confide in me,” he explained. “Most of them have the constitution, the character to grit their teeth and deal with and endure their problems.”
Most of the players, he noted, aren’t Catholic, so getting to know a priest is a new experience for them.
“They’re learning from me what a priest is, what he does,” Father Cieslik said. “They usually haven’t had exposure to the (Catholic) church, so I have an opportunity to answer their questions, to let them become familiar with what we do.”
This isn’t Father Cieslik’s first foray into being a team chaplain. He served for two years as chaplain to a couple of Howard Schnellenberger-coached University of Louisville football teams.
And just how long will he continue in his role with the team?
“I take it year by year,” he said. “When I think I’m getting tired of it, something will happen that makes it all seem worthwhile again.”
If the chaplaincy begins to interfere with his role as a pastor or archivist, then he’ll have to reconsider, he said.
“I love doing it, but I also really love being the archivist and I love working with my parish,” he said. “That has to come first.”
In the meantime, there’s the “most wonderful time of the year” to get through once again. Bellarmine began play in its conference tournament this week and will begin defense of its national championship in a matter of days.