In “The Mighty Macs,” which opens this weekend, Carla Gugino, David Boreanaz, Marley Shelton and Ellen Burstyn take us back to the days when G-rated movies were the norm, not the exception.

Gugino stars in this feel-good movie based on the true story of Coach Cathy Rush, who worked for the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the IHM, and led Immaculata College’s humble team to the first national championship in women’s basketball.

In 1971, Cathy was the 23-year-old bride of NBA referee Ed Rush (Boreanaz) when she chased a challenging job and met the equally challenging Reverend Mother (Burstyn) of the all-girls school in suburban Philadelphia.

When Rush arrived at Immaculata College, there was no gymnasium on campus, the school was in dire financial straits and she had never coached. Yet as the movie motto goes, she dared to dream, and the religious sisters dared to believe.

After writer/director Tim Chambers welcomed Catholic Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia to a red-carpet screening, the archbishop said, “This story of faith and determination is inspirational. The family friendly film reminds us of the power of believing that we can achieve against seemingly insurmountable odds.”

Not bad for the Philadelphia filmmaker, who said he was inspired by an underdog sports team and indebted to the Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters who taught him in grade school and high school.

The real Cathy Rush told WND that she is pleased with the film and said that much of Chambers’ film is very close to history.

For example, some the film’s humorous scenes involve Rush undergoing a sort of baptism by fire because she was a Baptist immersed in Catholic culture. Rush laughed in saying that the IHM sisters had tried to convert her – and they tried hard – but 40 years later she’s still a Baptist.

Nevertheless, her friendship with the sisters and her love for the students of Immaculata remains deep.

Cathy Rush, coaching at Immaculata (Courtesy

“Think of times in your life when you have won and everyone’s your friend,” Rush said. “We had lost a game, we came back to campus and the entire student body came to the rotunda – it was an administration building and the top floors were dorms, so the girls all came in their bathrobes, pajamas and hair in curlers to cheer us on when we had lost!

“I was actually there when they shot that segment. And there’s a writer from the Philadelphia Inquirer named Mel Greenberg, who writes sports, and he happened to come out that same night,” said Rush. “As I turned to Mel, he was crying and I was crying because it was such an emotional scene, it had in fact happened identical to that.”

Rush had no assistant coach and said that Sister Sunday, the spunky assistant coach delightfully played by Shelton, was the filmmaker’s fictional way of representing all of the IHM sisters.

Sister Sunday bouncing a basketball while wearing her head-to-toe habit wasn’t too much of a stretch. After all, Rush had seen IHM postulants playing basketball and playing very well. Yet Sister Sunday playing close-contact basketball with men is misleading. Neither the nuns nor the Macs played basketball with men.

In real life, a religious sister would have to take the name of a saint and she wouldn’t make certain decisions independent of her Mother Superior.

“That character represents all of the Immaculata people. They were such a vital part in our success,” said Rush.

“We were always supported by the wonderful group of Catholic women. Our games were broadcast by radio into Camilla Hall. And at halftime, if we were losing or it was a close game, an announcement was made [by the sisters] that the Macs are in trouble. And all the [elderly] nuns would be wheeled down to chapel and they prayed for our success.”

The 1972 champion team portrayed in the movie included Immaculata seniors Sue O’Grady and Pat Opila; juniors Betty Hoffman, Maureen Mooney and Janet Ruch; sophomores Denise Conway, Theresa Shank and Janet Young; plus freshmen Judy Marra, Rene Muth and Maureen Stuhlman.

Team after first championship  (Left to right): Theresa Shank, Sister Mary of Lourdes, I.H.M., Maureen Stuhlman (slightly hidden), Janet Young, Cathy Rush, Denise Conway, Janet Ruch (with glasses), and Maureen Mooney. Photo courtesy of Immaculata College

Four of these girls, including Theresa Shank Grentz, went on to coach other women’s teams. The college grew into a university and became co-ed. In this year’s commemorative issue of Immaculata Magazine, Grentz recalled the nuns as their secret weapon, especially when they came to a game and prayed on site. Grentz shared the Mighty Macs own pre-game prayer:

O God of players, hear our prayer
To play this game and play it fair,
To conquer, win, but if to lose,
Not to revile, nor to abuse.
But with understanding, start again.
Give us strength, O Lord. Amen.

Cathy Rush (Photo by Anita Crane)

That prayer, compounded with prayers by the Mighty Macs’ families, friends and the IHM Sisters, were answered with three national championships in 1972, 1973 and 1974.

Cathy Rush coached the team until 1977, when she left to raise her sons and start the Future Stars Camp.

In 1980, Rush was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Years later, while one son was a senior in high school and the other was a sophomore, Rush was struck with breast cancer, which eventually spread to her lymph nodes. A single mom and nearly scared to death, Rush called on everyone from family to friends to the Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters to plead for divine intervention.

Countless prayers, 21 years and six grandchildren later, Rush summed up her victories: “I’m here and I’m blessed to be here. The cancer never returned. And it’s such a pleasure to be in involved in a G movie about the Mighty Macs.”

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