What rivals? Public League foes form tight bond

Hot hand: North­east and Cent­ral have been rivals forever, but that hasn’t stopped Briyah Hill (left) and Sy­m­antha Mar­rero from be­com­ing friends. ED MOR­RONE / TIMES PHOTO

Hav­ing both opened their doors in the 19th cen­tury, Cent­ral and North­east high schools are about as an­cient as it gets when it comes to fierce ath­let­ic rivals.

Good luck selling that to Sy­m­antha Mar­rero and Briyah Hill. 

Mar­rero and Hill, both May­fair res­id­ents, are best friends … it just so hap­pens they are best friends who play for ar­chrival schools. Mar­rero, a Cent­ral stu­dent, and Hill, of North­east, know their schools are sup­posed to dis­like each oth­er on the court, but both main­tained that their friend­ship tran­scends any rival­ries, no mat­ter how old or in­tense.

Their bond was ini­tially formed in a Cent­ral-North­east battle dur­ing the 2011-12 sea­son, when Mar­rero came off the bench in the fourth quarter to nail six three-point­ers. Right away, she had Hill’s at­ten­tion.

“Our teams were play­ing each oth­er, and it was a close game,” Hill re­called. “Then she came in and star­ted shoot­ing. And she was mak­ing all of them.”

“She knew me from there, and then we ended up on the same AAU team, the North­east Rock­ers,” Mar­rero ad­ded.

Since then, the duo’s friend­ship has grown faster than Jack’s ma­gic bean­stalk. Mar­rero was on the court with Hill two sum­mers ago when Hill tore the an­teri­or cru­ci­ate lig­a­ment in her knee while at­tempt­ing to make a shifty man­euver bring­ing the ball up the court. 

“She tried to do a fancy little move, and she just slipped,” Mar­rero said. “It was hor­ri­fy­ing. It hurt my heart to see her in pain, be­cause I know she loves the game as much as I do.”

The blown-out knee wiped away Hill’s 2012-13 ju­ni­or sea­son be­fore it even began. When Cent­ral and North­east squared off last sea­son, Mar­rero had to watch her friend sit help­lessly on the bench, un­able to suit up once the en­tire cam­paign. However, Hill’s ab­sence did noth­ing to di­lute their friend­ship.

“I waited un­til the next morn­ing to go to the hos­pit­al and I had to go in for an MRI,” Hill re­called. “When they fi­nally told me what was wrong, I texted her, and the first thing she asked me what I needed, if there was any­thing she could do to help. And she didn’t mean just her, she meant her mom, her dad, her sis­ters … every­body, ba­sic­ally.”

Liv­ing so close has al­lowed the Hill and Mar­rero fam­il­ies to come to­geth­er as well. For ex­ample, on Monday af­ter­noon, Cent­ral was sched­uled for a noon tip-off for a show­case tour­na­ment at Com­munity Col­lege of Phil­adelphia, while North­east played right after at 2. Hill viewed Cent­ral’s 54-44 loss to Har­ri­ton, while Mar­rero stuck around af­ter­ward to check out North­east’s close de­feat at the hands of En­gin­eer­ing & Sci­ence. 

After all, be­ing friends means be­ing there for one an­oth­er, no mat­ter what bas­ket­ball team you play for.

But what hap­pens when the two are charged with the un­en­vi­able task of go­ing up against each oth­er? They didn’t have to worry about it last year with Hill in­jured, but on Jan. 17 Mar­rero, Cent­ral and com­pany in­vaded North­east’s gym for a clash of two very strong teams (Cent­ral was 6-1 at the time, while the Lady Vik­ings were un­defeated at 6-0).

The res­ult? Cent­ral 55, North­east 46. North­east won the first quarter, 15-11, be­fore the Lan­cers took the fi­nal three, and the game. Mar­rero and Hill each fin­ished with five points.

“I don’t really step away from our friend­ship, even if we are play­ing each oth­er,” Hill said. “As soon as it’s over, we’re right back to be­ing sis­ters.”

“I guess when our schools are play­ing at the same time that makes us en­emies,” an un­con­vinced Mar­rero said. “It al­most feels like I’m be­tray­ing her when I root for my team and try to win against her. After the game, I made sure to shake all of their play­ers’ hands, but when I saw her, I made sure I pulled her in for a hug.”

Hill said she was so ex­cited to be healthy this sea­son that when the sched­ule was re­leased, the Cent­ral game was “the only one I was look­ing for.” And while there was cer­tainly trash talk on Twit­ter between the two schools in the week lead­ing up to the game, Hill and Mar­rero kept things light­hearted. 

“It’s all love,” Hill said. “I hope it comes down to us in the play­offs, be­cause I want to play them again. That would be in­tense, but it would prob­ably be pretty tough, too.”

“I think it would ac­tu­ally be worse than the first time just be­cause it would be an elim­in­a­tion game if that happened,” Mar­rero ad­ded. “Both of our goals are to win a cham­pi­on­ship, so that would def­in­itely be hard.”

The bond they’ve cre­ated has even made Hill a de facto Cent­ral fan when she isn’t go­ing up against the Lan­cers, and like­wise for Mar­rero. Each of them made it clear that they be­lieve their teams have what it takes to go all the way, but they would also have no prob­lem be­ing thrilled for the vic­tor after the fact, no mat­ter who wins and who loses.

Hill said that, des­pite their schools’ po­s­i­tion as nemeses to one an­oth­er, she and Mar­rero do “nor­mal friend stuff,” such as hanging out at the mall, go­ing bowl­ing or check­ing out Phil­adelphia 76ers games. 

Bas­ket­ball, each main­tained, was just an in­stru­ment in bring­ing them to­geth­er; now, their re­la­tion­ship is so much more than that, to the point where their 11-year-old sis­ters have  also formed a tight bond as team­mates on the Rock­ers, as well.

“At the end of the day, every­one has to re­tire from bas­ket­ball,” Hill said. “But our friend­ship can go on forever, be­cause it’s big­ger than just bas­ket­ball.”

Mar­rero con­curred.

“We’re one big fam­ily, and when we all get to­geth­er it’s the greatest time,” Mar­rero said. “It’s not like, ‘Oh, we beat your team, so we’re no longer friends.’ We sup­port each oth­er no mat­ter what. Bas­ket­ball may have star­ted our friend­ship, but once it’s over we’re still go­ing to be friends and be there for each oth­er, bas­ket­ball or no bas­ket­ball.” ••

You can reach at emorrone@bsmphilly.com.

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