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 firstname.lastname@example.org