Northeast Times

O’Donnell’s Towne

— In al­most a dec­ade at Frank­lin Towne Charter, Bri­anna O’Don­nell has brought with her a win­ner’s men­tal­ity.

The re­la­tion­ship between Bri­anna O’Don­nell and Frank­lin Towne Charter has al­ways been per­fectly sym­bi­ot­ic.

After all, the school gave her the chance she was seek­ing, and O’Don­nell has re­spon­ded by put­ting the school’s ath­let­ics pro­gram on the map. As head coach of the girls soc­cer team, O’Don­nell has won con­sec­ut­ive Pub­lic League cham­pi­on­ships, and, hold­ing the same title in bas­ket­ball, has helped her team to its best start ever at 10-4.

Way back in 2004, a year after gradu­at­ing from Widen­er Uni­versity with a de­gree in his­tory, the former bas­ket­ball and soc­cer play­er at St. Hubert (Class of 1999) spent a year boun­cing around as a sub­sti­tute teach­er, hop­ing to ful­fill her dream of in­struct­ing young people in the classroom and on the field. 

Frank­lin Towne (at 5301 Ta­cony St.), which had opened a few years earli­er in 2000, was at­tempt­ing to ven­ture its ath­let­ics pro­gram in­to the chal­len­ging, un­for­giv­ing wa­ters of the Phil­adelphia Pub­lic League and just so happened to be in need of a his­tory teach­er and girls bas­ket­ball coach.

O’Don­nell leapt at the op­por­tun­ity.

“My mom still has my eighth grade year­book, and in it there’s a sec­tion to say what your dream job is,” she said. “Mine says his­tory teach­er and bas­ket­ball coach. It’s kind of weird that I knew even back then, but I couldn’t be hap­pi­er. It’s very for­tu­it­ous how it’s all worked out.”

A TOUGH BE­GIN­NING

Of course, O’Don­nell’s suc­cess story wasn’t writ­ten im­me­di­ately. Those first few bas­ket­ball sea­sons, she lost — a lot. This was no sur­prise, as any new school at­tempt­ing to es­tab­lish a com­pet­it­ive ath­let­ics pro­gram tends to struggle at the out­set while the found­a­tion is built. Still, there’s noth­ing O’Don­nell hates more than los­ing, so those years full of 20- and 30-point losses were tough.

“You know, it’s funny that the bas­ket­ball team has ten wins in Janu­ary, be­cause I don’t think I got my tenth over­all win un­til my fourth or fifth sea­son,” she said. “There were way more losses than wins. People called them un­suc­cess­ful, but hon­estly, those years give me more re­spect for the product we put out there now. I’m so ap­pre­ci­at­ive of those girls in the be­gin­ning, be­cause they bought in­to what I was selling even though we wer­en’t win­ning.”

As O’Don­nell tells it, her play­ers in those first years began to set a bet­ter ex­ample. The older kids showed up for prac­tice and put the work in, in­cit­ing a trickle-down ef­fect. By the 2008-09 sea­son, she had her first win­ning cam­paign as bas­ket­ball coach.

Then, in 2010, O’Don­nell, a bas­ket­ball coach first and fore­most, ap­plied to take over the Towne girls soc­cer team, where her im­print on the school really began to show.

After Cent­ral High School had ruled the Pub­lic League girls soc­cer land­scape for the bet­ter part of a dec­ade, Towne, led by O’Don­nell and her two high-scor­ing su­per­stars in Rachel Gil­borges and Stefanie Ulmer, broke through. They’ve knocked off the Lan­cers in two straight title games, and with Gil­borges and Ulmer still only ju­ni­ors, they’ll be heavy fa­vor­ites to win it again in the fall.

KEEP­ING THE PACE

“I think there’s no doubt I in­her­ited a great group of ath­letes, which is one of the reas­ons I wanted the job,” O’Don­nell said. “They’ve matched me step for step.”

O’Don­nell isn’t one to pat her­self on the back for what she’s ac­com­plished in her nine years at the school. She de­flects cred­it to the kids who put the time and ef­fort in, as well as her coach­ing and teach­ing col­leagues who have helped to foster a win­ning men­tal­ity at the school. For in­stance, after a re­cent phone in­ter­view dis­cuss­ing her suc­cess, O’Don­nell was quick to send an un­promp­ted fol­low-up e-mail prais­ing bas­ket­ball as­sist­ant Ed De­ver for his help and ded­ic­a­tion, a sign that she real­izes her suc­cess hasn’t been solely de­pend­ent on her­self. 

One of the reas­ons her play­ers trust her un­con­di­tion­ally and would run through a brick wall for her is be­cause she spends time with them away from the soc­cer field and bas­ket­ball court. In es­sence, she’s as re­lat­able to the girls as they are to one an­oth­er.

“She’s highly re­spec­ted amongst every­one here at the school,” said ath­let­ic dir­ect­or Spen­cer Par­cells. “I think one of the biggest things is that bond she has with her play­ers. They be­lieve in what she’s do­ing. They trust her. There aren’t many people here that can take her place as an am­bas­sad­or and rep­res­ent­at­ive for this school.”

PIZZA WITH THE COACH

Par­cells says when O’Don­nell’s play­ers gath­er at someone’s house for a pizza party or so­cial gath­er­ing, the coach al­ways makes it a point to swing by. That, he said, goes a long way in build­ing trust.

“Those little things, they help mo­tiv­ate, not just on the court but in the classroom and in life,” Par­cells said. “She’s not afraid to fight for the things her kids want. She spends the time with them to make sure they un­der­stand what’s im­port­ant.”

As a res­ult, it’s no sur­prise to see that many of O’Don­nell’s soc­cer play­ers — namely Ulmer, Gil­borges and Gil­borges’ twin sis­ter, Re­becca — have fol­lowed her to the bas­ket­ball team, where the win­ning has be­come in­fec­tious. 

Now, with two soc­cer cham­pi­on­ships un­der her belt and a third pos­sibly on the way, O’Don­nell (who is also Towne’s his­tory/lan­guage de­part­ment chair) is hop­ing she can achieve the same suc­cess on the bas­ket­ball court, where her heart truly lies. 

“That would be a dream come true,” she said. “I’ve loved bas­ket­ball since the fifth grade, and to do that here would be pretty neat. At Towne, we want to com­pete with the top schools in the league.”

STILL THE SAME

Still though, O’Don­nell main­tains she’s still the same his­tory teach­er and coach that she was when she first star­ted her ca­reer al­most a dec­ade ago.

While she loves to see more wins than losses, her pride and joy con­tin­ues to be her role in shap­ing these young men and wo­men for the chal­len­ging, of­ten un­for­giv­ing years after high school.

“Hav­ing high school­ers that give you 100 per­cent in the classroom and 100 per­cent at soc­cer or bas­ket­ball prac­tice is ex­cit­ing,” she said. “The lead­er­ship abil­it­ies that have grown in these kids has been amaz­ing to watch. I’m in­ves­ted in them, and they’ve shown me they are in­ves­ted in their own self-im­prove­ment. I want them to know that while soc­cer and bas­ket­ball are just games, it’s something to be taken ser­i­ously.

“You’re not only rep­res­ent­ing Towne on the front of your jer­sey, but you rep­res­ent an ex­ten­sion of me. I value the fact that they al­ways give me their all.”

It’s surely been an un­pre­dict­able jour­ney, but O’Don­nell rel­ishes the fact that her first job just so happened to be her ideal scen­ario.

“It is a bit sur­pris­ing,” she said. “If you asked me in 2005 where I’d be now, I don’t know if I would have said ‘here.’ I didn’t know what to ex­pect. But I’m proud I’m do­ing the two things I love the most. The most suc­cess­ful part, in my mind, is the re­la­tion­ships I’ve built and the memor­ies I’ve made. The hard work has paid off, and not just for one team. It’s across the board. It speaks to them as in­di­vidu­als, and it’s something to be proud of.” ••

Sports Ed­it­or Ed Mor­rone can be reached at 215-354-3035 or em­or­rone@bsmphilly.com

You can reach at emorrone@bsmphilly.com.

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