St. Basil finds success with heavy N.E. influence

’Unfinished business’ motivates eight Basil’s seniors, five of whom hail from the area.

Cur­tain call: North­east nat­ives (from left): Court­ney Weiss, Kate Skal­ski, Kalee Fue­gel, Nat­alie Ku­cowski, Sarah Wilson and Kelly Man­cini. Ku­cowski, a fresh­man, is the only non-seni­or of the bunch. A year re­moved from mak­ing it to the state tour­na­ment semi­finals, the Pan­thers are hop­ing for a re­turn trip. ED MOR­RONE / TIMES PHOTO

They filed in­to the tiny of­fice in­side the school gym­nas­i­um, one by one, un­til there were six of them in­side the cramped room. They rattled off the neigh­bor­hoods they hail from and grade schools they at­ten­ded, from Fox Chase to Somer­ton to May­fair; St. Cecil­ia to St. Mat­thew to St. Al­bert the Great.

If one were blind­folded, it would be easy to mis­take these six girls for mem­bers of the St. Hubert or Arch­bish­op Ry­an bas­ket­ball squads. After all, where else would a half-dozen girls from North­east Philly all play high school bas­ket­ball to­geth­er?

The an­swer lies just north of the city at St. Basil Academy in Jen­k­in­town. And while most area teams have been elim­in­ated from post­season con­ten­tion by now, Basil’s is still mo­tor­ing along, with a con­tin­gent of loc­als who would make North­east res­id­ents fill with pride … if they knew about it.

“I think it’s the beauty of the school, the fact that it’s fueled by middle-class fam­il­ies,” said St. Basil bas­ket­ball coach and Fox Chase nat­ive Terry Man­cini. “We’re the best-kept secret out there, and one of our biggest at­trac­tions is sports.”

That goes double for this year’s ver­sion of the school’s bas­ket­ball team, which cur­rently stands at 19-5. The Pan­thers hope the second half of their sea­son is just get­ting star­ted, too. A year after St. Basil won the Class AA Dis­trict 1 title and marched all the way to the state tour­na­ment semi­finals, the school and the team’s eight seni­ors have un­fin­ished busi­ness to take care of. With the reg­u­lar sea­son and Cath­ol­ic Academies League post­season in the rear­view (Basil’s fin­ished run­ner-up in both to 23-2 Mount St. Joseph), Dis­trict 1’s top seed will again take aim at the AA crown, where Basil’s will play No. 4 New Hope-Sole­bury on Feb. 26. The win­ner of that semi­finals match­up will play for the dis­trict title, and the vic­tor from that con­test will move on to states.

“Most teams in our league, they have one or two su­per­stars, but for us hav­ing eight seni­ors, every­body is a su­per­star on the court,” said Court­ney Weiss, one of those eight seni­ors, who hails from Somer­ton. “We have so much to of­fer on the floor, and that’s car­ried us. If there’s a team that de­serves it, it’s us. We’ve been varsity play­ers since our sopho­more year. We worked this hard and don’t want to go home without it (state cham­pi­on­ship).”

“Be­cause most of us are seni­ors, the ur­gency is kick­ing in,” echoed Kate Skal­ski, of Fox Chase. “It is un­fin­ished busi­ness. We want to get back to that point, but this time we want to win it.”

All of the Basil’s play­ers polled offered vary­ing de­grees of the same an­swer on why they chose to at­tend the school. Weiss said she en­joyed the small class sizes where she “wouldn’t just be an­oth­er num­ber”; Skal­ski loved the bas­ket­ball pro­gram, re­call­ing Basil’s win­ning the league cham­pi­on­ship when she was an eighth-grader; lead­ing scorer Kalee Fue­gel, of Fox Chase, claimed it was the over­all school spir­it that lured her to Jen­k­in­town; Sarah Wilson (Fox Chase, St. Cecil­ia) liked that it was a col­lege-prep school, and she already knew some of her team­mates from grow­ing up, es­pe­cially Kelly Man­cini, the head coach’s seni­or daugh­ter, also a seni­or; fi­nally, there was fresh­man Nat­alie Ku­cowski, whose older sis­ter, Char­lotte, was the North­east Times’ Cath­ol­ic League Bas­ket­ball Play­er of the Year last sea­son after her suc­cess­ful seni­or cam­paign at St. Hubert. The Ku­cowskis hail from May­fair, but Nat­alie knew she wanted to travel a dif­fer­ent road than Char­lotte.

“I just wanted to try something dif­fer­ent, and I like to meet new people,” Ku­cowski said. “The spir­it in the school hall­ways, es­pe­cially on game day, really pumps you up. The com­munity and SBA Fam­ily … I’ve nev­er felt more like a mem­ber of a fam­ily, and I’m just a fresh­man. I love it.”

Terry Man­cini, in his fifth year at the helm of the pro­gram, said most of the girls on his team and at the school play mul­tiple sports. He said St. Basil has faced de­clin­ing en­roll­ment, and that, “You don’t ne­ces­sar­ily want to be the best-kept secret forever.” However, with new lead­er­ship at the top (the school has a new prin­cip­al and ad­mis­sions dir­ect­or), the head coach said the school is again “head­ing in the right dir­ec­tion.”

When Man­cini got the job, he was the fourth bas­ket­ball coach in five years. There was some in­stabil­ity, but once he brought in the cur­rent seni­or class, his first, things star­ted to get bet­ter. Much bet­ter.

The team runs a Prin­ceton-style of­fense and for the most part lives and dies by the three-point­er. But the more suc­cess the pro­gram has had, the more Terry Man­cini has grown at­tached to these girls (some of whom he’s known since they were in the third grade), whose par­ents he cred­ited for of­fer­ing them such a sol­id up­bring­ing. 

“The hard­est part of coach­ing is that you’re judged on wins,” he said. “But be­ing around these eight seni­ors, I’ve already won. I’ve nev­er once felt cheated by their ef­fort.”

For the five seni­ors stand­ing in­side ath­let­ic dir­ect­or Hugh McGov­ern’s cramped quar­ters dur­ing a re­cent af­ter­school prac­tice, they ac­know­ledged the fact that their time as Basil’s bas­ket­ball play­ers will soon come to an end, and did their best to wax po­et­ic on why this little school just north of the city has had such a pro­found im­pact on their lives.

“I don’t even know if I can ar­tic­u­late the ex­cite­ment,” Weiss said. “We’ve worked so hard and be­come such great friends. We all want this for each oth­er. My older sis­ter went to Ry­an and my young­er broth­er goes there now. I was the one in my fam­ily who wanted to do something dif­fer­ent, and it’s the best de­cision I’ve ever made in my life.”

“I want to do it for our fans,” Skal­ski said. “We want it for them for be­ing be­hind us the en­tire time. Plus, it would be great to put our school back on the map by win­ning a state cham­pi­on­ship.”

Ad­ded Fue­gel: “I made a lot of new friends I’ll keep for life.”

Kelly Man­cini, the coach’s daugh­ter, had the fi­nal say.

“I re­mem­ber be­ing in grade school and just hat­ing it,” she said. “I just hated go­ing; now, every day I get to go to school and en­joy it. The sense of com­munity and school spir­it is crazy. Game day is in­sane. There’s no great­er feel­ing than play­ing for this school. Nat­alie, she said she felt loved right away, and she’s right. There’s a lot of love to go around here.” ••

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