MIDDLETOWN – Twenty-four hours before his team returned to the court to play Shore Conference Class B Central division rival Keansburg, Mater Dei Prep head boys basketball coach Bob Klatt was nervous that many of his players were not going to be in the right frame of mind before time for tip-off.

Overnight, however, the mood progressed from a somber state of disbelief to a united defiance, both within the basketball locker room and throughout the campus. The morning after learning their school was set to close at the end of the 2014-15 school year according to a letter written Father Jeff Kegley – pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Middletown – the students at Mater Dei began the effort to save their school.

Every coach hopes to watch his team play like there is no tomorrow, and for the remaining month-plus of the 2014-15 season, the Seraphs – like the rest of their peers – are prepared to do exactly that.

A day that began with a school-wide sit-in in the cafeteria – which lasted around two hours by a number of accounts – ended with current and former students, faculty and parents filling the St. Mary’s Elementary School gym to create the best atmosphere of the season by Klatt’s account. With Keansburg entering the game 0-15, the crowd was clearly there for more than just a basketball game.

Mater Dei students packed the stage to watch their team take the court against Keansburg and to promote their cause to keep the school open. (Photo by Matt Manley)

“They want a movement,” Klatt said of the student body. “These kids love it here and they want to be here in the worst way. That’s why they came to Mater Dei. Tonight, this game here, this is what Mater Dei is about. You saw parents here whose kids graduated 20 years ago. I saw parents come in who were with my first team in (1997). That’s what this place is all about and these kids know that.”

Mater Dei’s basketball program embarked on what could be the final days of its existence by beating the Titans, 47-21, to climb above a .500 winning percentage at 9-8 overall. The Shore Conference and NJSIAA Tournament cutoff dates are fast approaching and qualifying for each stand as immediate goals for a team that wants to play as hard as its student body is working to keep the doors open beyond this year.

“I got a text from an ex-player today and he said ‘Coach, you just tell those guys about the tradition we have at Mater Dei,’” said Klatt, now in his 19th season as head coach of the Seraphs. “They’re playing for everybody who has played before and just go out and play the game hard. Go send a message.

“I’m trying to tell them that we’re not quitting. If they tell us we’re done at the end of the year, then we’re done. But right now, we’re just going on like we’re going to have a season next year.”

While the Seraphs look to send a message with their play, the student’s message surrounded the court and more than it was reflected on it. Students hung and carried signs in support of the school, many of which said, “Save The Seraphs,” which was a widespread hashtag on Twitter within minutes of the announcement on Tuesday.

Mater Dei students held up signs during Wednesday's game against Kensburg. (Photo by Matt Manley)

Students also chanted before the game and even directed a “Buy a T-shirt” chant at Keansburg fans, referencing t-shirt sales at the entrance to the gym to benefit the fundraising effort.

“It doesn’t sound good,” senior guard Patric Donohue said. “The letter said it’s nearly a million dollars, which is tough for a bunch of 17-year-olds. But kids in school here are doing everything: fundraising, donating money, selling t-shirts. It seems minimal, but everyone is trying to stay positive and chip in.”

The school-wide effort is geared toward closing what Kegley described in his letter as an operating deficit close to $1 million. Wednesday morning, students brainstormed fundraising ideas and made phone calls to spread word of the school’s predicament to alumni, which includes NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams, former Major League Soccer player Richie Williams and former St. Louis Rams general manager Billy Devaney. According to senior Christian Palmer, the quarterback on the football team and the son of Principal Craig Palmer, they raised more than $6,000 during the school day.

“It’s been done before,” said Palmer, who set a Shore Conference record with 44 total touchdowns this fall. “It just has to happen on a bigger scale.”

Mater Dei football coach Steve Sciarappa, who guided the Seraphs to eight wins for just the second time in the history of the program, was there to show his support for the students, although he declined to comment on the situation.

Senior Tysaun White also made his mark at Mater Dei through the football program and led the Seraphs Wednesday with a game-high 12 points against Keansburg. White is a unique case within the student body, commuting to Middletown from Jersey City for school each day.

“It’s pretty depressing because we love this school and everything that goes on around here,” White said. “Especially with football, because they are about to end the football program after we just built it up. So we’re doing what we can to keep the school open and trying to save what we built here.

“It’s been hectic, but it’s been cool to see everybody come together.”

Mater Dei senior Jason Mandile is among the team's leading scorers in what could be its final season. Senior Vincenzo Mezzacappa (22) is a three-sport athlete (football, basketball, baseball) for the Seraphs. (Photo by Matt Manley)

Seniors like White and Donohue are pitching in to help protect a legacy, while Palmer also has the extra incentive to fight for a place that employs his father and gave him a forum in which to showcase his football talent. Chief among those affected by the school’s closing, however, is the group of underclassmen who might now have to find a different place to go to school.

“I can’t even describe how kids are going to go through their senior year at a school that’s not going to be open the following year,” Donohue said. “I’m personally fine as a senior, I just feel for the underclassmen who have to go through all the B.S. that comes with this. I feel for them more than anything.

“As cliché as it sounds, everyone says it and it’s true: there’s a real family feel at Mater Dei. I couldn’t imagine going anywhere else.”

Sophomore Shane Mastro has shown promise for the Seraphs on the football field and the basketball court, and could be in line to continue his career somewhere else should he have to change schools. A resident of Middletown within the sending district of Middletown High School North, Mastro is not conceding that just yet.

“It was hard to take in, but after it settled down, we have all been sticking together and we’re going to be a family,” Mastro said. “We’re hoping to stay open. I’m not thinking about anything in the future until this is finalized. If the day comes, I’m going to have to plan it out with my family and hope for the best.”

The uncertain future leaves coaches like Klatt and his freshman coach Pat Riddell – the head baseball coach as well – in a difficult situation as it pertains to the underclassmen. The seniors are on board with closing out their high school careers in the best way possible, but the players who will be in high school next year are facing far more uncertainty.

Riddell said at least one of his underclassmen on the baseball team has already made calls to coaches at other programs to gauge whether or not it would be worth sitting the required 30 days to transfer and get a head start on playing in a new program.

“Shane was real quiet in pregame and usually he is ready to go, bouncing off the walls,” Klatt said. “It’s a difficult situation, but they’ll be ready to play the rest of the year. They know I’m not giving up on them and I know they’re not giving up on me.”

Klatt and Riddell are part of Mater Dei’s tradition, having both graduated from the school in 1988 and coached together for the better part of two decades. In fact, Mater Dei has a long track record of producing head coaches through the Shore Conference and beyond. The list includes Pinelands head coach John Tierney, Middletown North coach Mike Iasparro, Holmdel coach Sean Devaney and St. Rose coach Dennis Devaney.

Klatt currently teaches at St. John Vianney High School in Holmdel but is still a strong advocate for Mater Dei as an institution beyond just the basketball court.

“I’m always trying to sell this place,” said Klatt, whose daughter is a junior at Mater Dei. “I graduated from here in ’88 with Pat (Riddell) and we’re still here because we love it here.”

Wednesday was just day one in what amounts to a four-month effort to save Mater Dei Prep, a 50-year old institution whose finances dictate it has run its course but whose student body still believes in not only its purpose, but its necessity.

“People always think the grass is greener on the other side with certain bigger schools and all that,” Klatt said. “But we’ve got a nice little thing right here.”