When Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt sat down to fill out her NCAA tournament bracket earlier this week, she knew she was going to pick Loyola Chicago to win at least a game or two. The Ramblers are her school, after all.
But Sister Jean is a basketball lifer, having been around the sport since she played at St. Paul High School in San Francisco from 1933 to 1937, and having spent the past 24 years serving as Loyola’s team chaplain. So while she filled out a “Cinderella” bracket — one that had the Ramblers winning the national championship — her “real” bracket had things going a bit differently.
“I have us going to the Sweet 16,” she said Friday in a phone interview with The Washington Post. “It could happen.”
Asked how she could have her beloved Ramblers, the No. 11 seed in the South Region, losing in the Sweet 16 to second-seeded Cincinnati, she had an immediate response.
“Do you want us to go farther than that?” she asked.
Meet Sister Jean, 98, one of the stories of the tournament’s first weekend in the wake of Loyola’s heart-stopping 64-62 victory over sixth-seeded Miami on Thursday in Dallas.
Sister Jean has been in a wheelchair since she injured her hip after a fall in November, but she was able to make the trip to Dallas for Thursday’s game and will be with the team for Saturday’s game against third-seeded Tennessee.
Just as she has at every home game she’s attended, she’ll lead the team in prayer before the game — always beginning with “Good and gracious God” — and cheer on Loyola while wearing her maroon and yellow scarf.
She will also give Loyola Coach Porter Moser and his players a thorough scouting report on the Volunteers, a ritual she goes through before every Ramblers game.
“It is very important that I be a part of that, because I reinforce what Porter said,” Sister Jean said.
She insisted, however, that they don’t discuss things ahead of time.
“We don’t compare notes,” she said. “I have to do my thing, and he has to do his thing.”
Sister Jean said she hadn’t had a chance to study Tennessee in detail yet but did get a chance to watch the Volunteers during their victory over Wright State.
“We watched part of the game yesterday when they played, and so I could see they are very big,” she said. “They use their height, they use their bodies. So our fellas have to realize that everybody on their team is very good and does their very best. It isn’t just that one fella gets all the points, or two fellas.
“So we have to watch our strategy and how we do our defense, and so we’ll talk about that when I pray with them [Saturday], too. But I know the main point I need to remind them, and I know Porter does also, but it always is good to have somebody else say it to them, is that they have to remain focused.
“We take one game at a time, and we ask God to help us.”
That’s something Sister Jean does for the Ramblers every home game, mixing in her scouting reports with prayers before the players take the court.
“Sometimes, it’s things that are not so holy,” she said. “But they are asking God for help.
“[On Thursday], I said, ‘God, we need your help, but we’ll do our part.’ Our part will be to make those baskets, to steal the ball, to make our free throws and our three-pointers and keep away from the fouls, because we know if we make fouls and they convert, that’s two points on their side, and we have to be very careful about that.”
When Sister Jean attends games at Loyola’s Joseph J. Gentile Arena, she prays with the fans — and that, she said, can get a little complicated.
“Those prayers are different, because I pray for both teams so the other team doesn’t feel like I am neglecting them, and that God is not neglecting their team,” she said. “I ask that there be no injuries, and that the referees call plays fairly for each team, and that we have to keep focused.
“[Then] I say at the end, ‘Amen, God bless us and go Ramblers.’ So, sometimes the opponents come to me and say, ‘Thanks for including us, but it looks as though you were favoring Loyola.’
“And I say, ‘Oh yes. We want to see that big ‘W’ up on the screen when we have a good score.’ ”
Loyola’s success, which includes a 29-5 record and the program’s first NCAA tournament victory in 33 years, had led some to wonder whether Moser could be lured elsewhere this summer. But Ramblers Athletic Director Steve Watson has other concerns after the national spotlight settled on Sister Jean over the past 24 hours.
“People keep asking me if we’re worried about losing our coach,” Watson said, “and we’re working on his contract. But I’m actually worried about losing our team chaplain.”
He doesn’t have much to worry about. Sister Jean has completely embraced her role as the team’s star attraction. Before she injured herself, she would wear custom maroon sneakers with “Sister” and “Jean” stitched into the backs — shoes that don’t fit now as she tries to recover from her injuries.
“I’m wearing a size eight men’s shoe right now,” she said with a laugh, though she insisted she’s feeling good and constantly improving.
Her mood will undoubtedly improve even further if Loyola is able to win Saturday and advance to the program’s first Sweet 16 appearance since 1985. The team also made the Sweet 16 in 1964 — a year after becoming the only Illinois school to win a national championship, a fact she is proud to tell to anyone who will listen.
“The prayer will have to be even more intense tomorrow, because Tennessee is a higher seed than us,” she said.
And, if Loyola does beat Tennessee, she says there’s nothing that will keep her from going with the Ramblers to Atlanta, where her bracket has them bowing out.
“Oh, if I have anything to say about it, I’m going.,” she said. “This will probably be my last experience. Who knows what will happen next year?”
Sister Jean might have filled out her bracket, and notes that she has won pools in the past, but she wants to be clear that she has not entered any pools this year.
“I have to emphasize that was before I became chaplain,” she said. “I don’t want to ever get in trouble with the NCAA.”
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