Lou Rabito: For a Bonner lifer, a spirited practice despite the bad news

For coach Tim Vanderslice and Monsignor Bonner's freshman basketball players, the first afternoon of the rest of their lives proceeded on a dimly lit practice court in front of a scoreboard that at one point read, appropriately: "Guest 55 Friars 0."

Defeat - one much larger than any determined by a round, leather ball - had come about an hour earlier Friday, when students learned during an assembly that the Archdiocese of Philadelphia had targeted Bonner among schools set for closure.

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Monsignor Bonner freshman coach Tim Vanderslice, who graduated from the school in 2007, says he feels "heartbroken" about the school's imminent closing.

The freshman season, though, still had five weeks of life, and Vanderslice knew he would need to get his players in a basketball mind-set.

But first, the 2007 Bonner grad had to compose himself.

"I'm heartbroken, honestly," Vanderslice said. "I wasn't expecting this. I feel for my little brother [Pat], who's a junior here. He didn't get through his grade school [St. Charles in Drexel Hill]. It closed down. And he's not getting through Bonner now. My whole family went to Bonner - my dad, me, my middle brother, and him - and we were just praying to God that he got through. So this is tough.

"My dad [Tim Sr.] was the varsity coach here when I was born, so I was coming to practice in a playpen. He would set up the playpen when I was 1 year old at practice. So I've had the Bonner blood in my system since birth."

The younger Tim Vanderslice, 22, played for Bonner, starting for three seasons. The 6-foot-5 forward moved on to Division III Widener and played two more years.

He graduated last month with a degree in elementary education, he is looking for a job, and he realizes how much tighter the job market is about to get.

That wasn't foremost on his mind Friday, or Thursday night, when he and a bunch of Bonner buddies stayed up late and reminisced. Despite the memories, it was a tough night, he said, and he couldn't sleep.

Friday morning, he got together with his brother Pat to hear the announcement about Bonner's future.

"We came up at like 11:30," Tim Vanderslice said. "A lot of alumni came, a lot of kids my year and years younger and older. It was packed. Just sitting out front, all the kids were chanting, 'Let's go, Bonner,' and all those chants. I literally had the chills. Just reminded me of going here. Best four years of my life."

After the official proclamation, it was off to the gym. The first-year coach gathered his players in the bleachers before practice. He started to get emotional. So did some of them.

Vanderslice told them how sorry he felt for them. He told them they were all part of the Bonner brotherhood. He offered to make reference calls to coaches in the area, so that the youngsters could continue with basketball.

"Took me about 10 minutes to get it out, though," he said with a laugh.

He thought practice got off to a rough start. He ran the drills: Backward sprints. Forward sprints. Three-man fast breaks. Free throws. Boxing out. Three-on-three, half-court sets.

"After the first couple of minutes, everyone got their composure back, and it went pretty well," Vanderslice said. "They played awesome at the end.

"It was definitely the most emotional, toughest practice of the year, though. I couldn't even speak half the time."

After about 80 minutes of practicing, the players wrapped up the three-man game and huddled with the coaches. Vanderslice talked briefly. He then inched toward the players and raised his fist. The freshmen lifted their fists, too.

They all chanted, "Bonner."

The scoreboard, appropriately, read, "Guest 13 Friars 7," signaling hope on the horizon.


Contact staff writer Lou Rabito

at 215-854-2916

or rabitol@phillynews.com.