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.”
“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.” ••