“Altiora” is a phrase in a dead language that’s very much alive in western Cincinnati.
Altiora means “seeking higher things” in Latin and is the school motto at Elder High School. Understanding Altiora, and Elder, are essential to understanding Winthrop basketball coach Pat Kelsey and the tidal wave of support he’s received from his hometown since guiding the Eagles into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010.
“The only place I know where when you say ‘what school did you go to?’ people meant what high school,” said Craig James, a high school classmate of Kelsey’s who teaches and coaches football at Elder. “That’s the special thing that we have in Cincinnati, and in particular on the West Side. And it sets Pat apart because that’s what Pat embodies.”
In that hilly western part of “The Nati” sports heroes wear purple, but they’re not - in most cases - Minnesota Vikings or L.A. Lakers. They’re Elder High Panthers, like Kelsey was. He wore No. 11 for the 1993 Elder basketball team that won a state title and crystallized his status as a local legend.
“When you’re a kid on the West Side, you look up to these guys that play at Elder like they might as well be Michael Jordan,” said Jake McQuaide, an Elder graduate who is the long snapper for the Los Angeles Rams.
On the West Side, kids are born and they’re swaddled in purple. You are going to go to Elder.
Winthrop basketball coach Pat Kelsey
Elder is an all-male Catholic school that was built in the 1920s and draws students from the immediate surrounding areas, unlike many Southern parochial schools. The neighborhood is predominately Irish and German heritage working class people and although Cincinnati has nearly 300,000 residents, it maintains a small town-like obsession with high school sports. Elder has one of the premier prep football stadiums in the country, with a couple thousand season ticket holders. Athletic director Dave Dabbelt said season tickets are passed through the generations in wills.
“It’s been something that’s gone on for a long time here and it goes back to the 50s and 60s and 70s,” he said. “Kids that are going here now, their grandparents graduated from here and I think it’s that tradition that carries on.”
Kelsey grew up in an Elder family. His brother is an Elder grad, and two nephews attend the school now. Kelsey had his heyday in the early 1990s as the scrappy leader of a state championship team coached by Joe Schoenfeld.
“He would lead us in floor-burns and charges taken and steals and all the intangibles. Hated to lose,” said Schoenfeld, who drove downto Rock Hill last Sunday to watch his protege win the Big South title.
Kelsey’s years playing for Schoenfeld made him into one of the community’s favorite sons. As McQuaide said, Kelsey was the Elder ethic - the hard work, diving on the floor, maybe undersized but never out-manned - in physical form, multiplied by 1,000. Look at his senior yearbook quote, sandwiched in between one that says “if you don’t succeed, quit, quit at once” and another one from a guy nicknamed Pony Keg: “Somewhere, somebody is practicing & when you meet him in head to head competition, he’ll beat you!”
“There’s a bunch of great ones but there’s very few Pat Kelseys running around,” said Schoenfeld, Elder’s all-time leader in coaching wins.
That magnetism and energy just draws people to him, and draws the best people to him. It’s hard to describe but you know it when you see it and he’s got it.
Elder High School basketball coach Joe Schoenfeld, on his protege, Pat Kelsey
Kelsey isn’t exempt from this Midwestern West Side hero story.
Asked back in December about his Ohio high school basketball memories, he duly rattled off the names of his uncle Jim Stoll’s entire Purcell Marian High School team that won the 1985 state title. Kelsey was a towel boy for that team, the kind of intimate exposure that made those players bigger than life to him.
Jack Ballman had a similar experience following Kelsey’s 1993 state championship team. Ballman, 9 years old at the time, went to the pep rally at Elder to celebrate and afterward approached Kelsey.
“We asked if he would take a picture with us,” Ballman said. “It’s me and him and he’s kneeling with a basketball and I just couldn’t look happier. From that moment on, I found out what a great person he is. It was the highlight of my life at that time.”
When it came time for Ballman to be confirmed in the Catholic faith, there was no question what his confirmation name would be: Patrick. Kelsey even showed up at ceremony just one night removed from Xavier losing in the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament.
Winthrop’s Big South championship win was included in Elder High School’s morning announcements on Tuesday (there was no school Monday). Pat Kelsey’s first coaching job was running the freshman team at his alma mater.
“It speaks to the kind of guy that he is,” Ballman said. “He just got back from a crushing loss and the first thing he did was honor his commitment to a 13-year old kid who thinks the world of him.”
Ballman watched Winthrop clinch its NCAA bid from the back of a church in Nashville where his nephew was being baptized. He tweeted a message of support to Kelsey, as did McQuaide and many other Elder grads. McQuaide had his own personal brush with Kelsey at one of Elder’s summer basketball camps.
“You’re getting instructed by the equivalent of Michael Jordan to you,” said McQuaide, who along with Minnesota Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph, is one of the biggest Elder heroes for current generations of kids. “His station was how to take a charge. Obviously it meant a lot to me at the time to be able to meet a guy like that and learn from him.”
McQuaide was more focused on the gridiron, but the interaction stuck with him, one of countless many that strengthen the connecting strands of the Elder fabric, all of which is behind Kelsey and Winthrop right now.
“Any time someone succeeds the way the way Pat is, it’s not just his family but all those families that generationally know each other so well,” said McQuaide. “You feel like it’s not just your friend, or your former teammate or classmate, it’s like a piece of your family.”