On the surface, Ashley Smink and Shannon Glenn act like your typical high school sophomores when obliging a visiting reporter an interview.
The sight of a voice recorder makes them fidgety, and they exchange uncertain glances with each question in an attempt to figure out whose turn it is to speak up. When it was over, they both joked they had sweaty palms.
But when listening to these sophomores talk about what it’s like to play major varsity minutes for Archbishop Ryan in the rugged Catholic League, a semblance of maturity and keen sense of understanding begins to emerge. Despite this being their first year as varsity players, both Smink and Glenn are aware of the program’s history, as well as where they hope to take it in the next two years.
“Next year, we’ve already said our goal is to get to the Palestra,” Smink said, referring to the venue on Penn’s campus that hosts the Catholic League semifinals and championship. “I think if we get there, it would change a lot of people’s minds about us. I think the standard would change, not just seeing the same teams all the time play in those games. But that’s on us. We have to want it.”
When asked about what it would mean to bring a Catholic League title back to the Northeast, Smink and Glenn both shot longing glimpses at the banner hanging across the girls gym, the one that commemorates the past Ragdoll league champs. Despite being a perennial playoff contender, Ryan has not captured a championship since 1975. That, the sophomore duo said, needs to change.
This season, the Ragdolls won 14 games overall, including six league contests. They were young, with just three seniors on the roster, meaning Smink, Glenn and junior leading scorer Danielle Skedzielewski were charged with being difference-makers. Ryan lost close heartbreakers at the end of the season to Archbishop Carroll and St. Hubert (in overtime), dropping the Ragdolls to the seventh seed in the postseason.
They pummeled Conwell-Egan in the opening round before succumbing to annual league powerhouse Archbishop Wood in the quarterfinals. But at times, Ryan looked like contenders, even if the underclassmen had to find out the hard way just what it takes to win in this league. In the overtime thriller against St. Hubert in a sold-out road game, Smink shook off the hostile crowd and confidently buried three three-pointers, while Glenn led all scorers with 14 points. To succeed in this league, there can be no fear on any given night.
They know that now.
“At first, it’s kind of scary,” Glenn acknowledged. “It’s a little nerve-wracking to come out against the best teams, but we know we can’t play scared. Working with some of the older girls, I think, gave me a better approach. When they were pushing me around in practice, I know why now. I became a better player because of it.”
Added Smink: “I think sometimes, we just came out scared. I went from being a freshman on JV to a sophomore on varsity, and it just … changes. As the season went on, I started saying to myself, ‘I’m going to take this shot, and I’m going to make it.’ I want to get better. We all do. In the offseason, that’s huge, even if it’s just shooting the ball around for 15 minutes. Everyone says practice makes perfect, right?”
The Ragdolls sure hope so. While their neighborhood archrival, the Bambies, will graduate six seniors, Ryan should come back loaded.
Of course, that offers no guarantees, as Smink put it, “There are months until next season, but we need to pick up a ball every day. We know we’re not guaranteed anything just because we had a good season. The only way we’re getting a Catholic League title is to work together.”
The best thing about being a sophomore playing major minutes in one of the best top-to-bottom leagues in the state (in any sport) is that it causes one to grow up quickly, whether they like it or not.
“Danielle, for example, she takes a lot of time in practice teaching us not to mess around,” Smink said. “Always take it serious. If you don’t, then you shouldn’t be on the court. If you’re a basketball player and want to win games, you should expect two things: to win, and to learn, so that you’re always coming back and taking that mentality into the next game.”
As they got set to leave the gym following head coach Mike McCusker’s final team meeting of the season, there was a sense of optimism in thinking ahead to the 2014-15 season. It remains to be seen if the Ragdolls can get down to the Palestra, joining programs like Wood, Carroll and Cardinal O’Hara, the ones who seem to punch their ticket every year.
If there is to be a changing of the guard, it will have to start somewhere.
Smink and Glenn hope that somewhere has already begun with them.
“We know a lot of the people on the other teams just by growing up with them,” Glenn said. “Ashley and I were both looking at Ryan and St. Hubert in eighth grade, so coming here together, I really enjoyed that. I can’t wait to have these next two years with her. It’s exciting to think that we have the potential to get ourselves down to the Palestra.”
“The work you’re willing to put in, that gives you the chance to prove people wrong, and prove to yourself that you’re a better player than you thought,” she said. “We want to win. We love coming to school, walking the halls and have people coming up to us saying, ‘Oh, you have Hubert’s tonight, go get them.’ That makes you want to carry this to the next level. We know in the end, we’re still just playing against girls our own age. We just have to show we learned from this experience, show what we’re made of and carry ourselves that way. No one’s perfect, so we just have to keep working on it.” ••