You are never too old to experience something new. Just ask Sister Jean.
Loyola-Chicago arrived in Pittsburgh on Wednesday with Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, their 102-year-old team chaplain and America’s favorite nun. It’s her first time in the city – not that she’s here to sightsee. For the first time since 1964, the year after it won the national title, Loyola is in the NCAA men’s tournament for a second consecutive season.
“I’m excited to come here because of the NCAA having chosen (Pittsburgh) to be the spot of the games,” Sister Jean said. “This is something our team has been talking about all year long – long before the season began. When we won the conference (title), we were so happy because we had the past week to be thinking about it.”
Ever since Loyola’s unexpected run to the Final Four in 2018, Sister Jean has become as much a part of March Madness as brackets and buzzer-beaters. Jimmy Fallon mentioned her in his monologue Tuesday night, and she’s featured in a prop bet. If you watch any tournament coverage Friday, you’ll no doubt see her a time or 10, wearing her Loyola letter jacket and her maroon-and-yellow scarf.
Loyola, the 10th seed in the South, plays seventh-seeded Ohio State.
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Though Sister Jean enjoys her time in the spotlight – how could she not? She enjoys everything in life – celebrity hasn’t gone to her head. She’s happy to take photos when people stop her when she’s out walking – “that’s figuratively speaking, I’m in a wheelchair” – and do interviews, but what makes her most happy is being with the Ramblers and watching them play.
“I have a lot of fun with our team,” she said, “they’re great guys.”
Sister Jean hasn’t finished her scouting report on the Buckeyes, not that she’d share it if she had. But she’ll have it done before she gathers with the Ramblers to pray before they go out for their final warmups.
“I always tell them this, I tell them they have to play with their mind and their heart and their hands and their feet,” she said. “They say, ‘Sister Jean, why our feet?’ Because you have to get those fast breaks and just go!”
Sister Jean made no secret last year of her irritation with the selection committee, believing Loyola should have been higher than an eighth seed. She was proven right when the Ramblers knocked off top-seeded Illinois in the second round.
She has no issues with Loyola being seeded 10th this year. Though Lucas Williamson, a star of that 2018 team, returned for the extra year granted because of COVID, the Ramblers are a different team than the one from last year’s tournament.
Drew Valentine replaced Porter Moser as head coach after Moser went to Oklahoma. Chris Knight, a starter the second half of the season, and Ryan Schwieger, Loyola’s third-leading scorer, are Ivy League transfers. Loyola’s patented suffocating defense has only recently returned.
Still, Sister Jean says she sees similarities in last year’s team. And the one from 2018.
“They play as a team,” she said. “This team, they don’t care who gets the ball in the basket as long as it doesn’t bounce out again.”
Sister Jean says she has Loyola going to the Elite Eight, just as she did last year. But she’d like nothing more than for the Ramblers to bust her bracket.
“We’ll see how that happens,” she said.
Asked if she has any hesitations about praying for something as frivolous as a game when there are so many troubles in the world, Sister Jean said no. She prays for those, too, she said, mentioning the war in Ukraine.
“God hears all prayers,” she said. “(So) I don’t have any problem praying for the team. If it’s God’s will, it’ll happen.”
If Loyola wins Friday, Sister Jean might even find time to go explore Pittsburgh.