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.” ••