March Madness!

This year’s 11th annual March Madness — an academic competition that pits area students against one another in a trivia challenge — kicked off with a roar on March 8 when students gathered at the Shissler Recreation Center.

While the children chatted or nervously wondered about the questions they’d have to answer, the room exploded with applause when the Phillie Phanatic, one of two special guests in attendance, waddled into the recreation center at 1800 Blair St.

District Attorney Seth Williams, the other notable guest, had a much more subdued entrance than the Phanatic’s. Adoring fans trailed the Phillies mascot around the building.

March Madness is sponsored by funding through the Penn Treaty Special Services District, and AJ Thomson, director of the academic competition, noted how the event has grown over 11 years.

ldquo;We started with just ten teams and one-hundred kids,” he said, noting that more than 2,000 students have taken part in the event over the years.

This year’s competition featured 58 teams.

“Today is a day that shows Fishtown values education,” he said.

District Attorney Williams told the audience that learning is important for all students and their futures — even the “bad guys” who don’t do well in school but have time to change their ways.

If they don’t, they’re likely to encounter guys like him, Williams said, referring to law-enforcement officials in the city who put “bad guys” in jail.

“And some of them, you know, they never even finished high school,” Williams told the kids. “So I’m glad to be here to recognize you all for the great things you’ve done.”

In another matter of education close to the heart of the community, Thomson reminded the audience that the St. Laurentius Catholic School, just blocks from the Shissler Recreation Center, was facing closure by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. But Fishtown’s desire to protect local education facilities helped persuade the archdiocese to reverse its decision, he said.

“A group of people didn’t want us to stay open,” Thomson said of St. Laurentius, which had a team of students take part in the multi-school March Madness competition. “We showed those people that they were wrong. And St. Laurentius will stay open.”

But the celebration also seemed bittersweet. Another school in the competition, South Philly’s Sacred Heart of Jesus — a first-place winner for two straight years — was on the shutdown list because of finances and low enrollment. The archdiocese is proceeding with plans to close the school in June and send students to other institutions.

In its final year of March Madness, Sacred Heart of Jesus claimed a respectable second place in the varsity category. The top winner was Our Lady of Port Richmond.

In the junior varsity competition, the winning squad also was from Our Lady of Port Richmond. Second place went to St. Laurentius. ••