Categorized | Basketball

Their Championship Season

By Amara Grautski

Taylor Ford didn’t have a megaphone, but moments after the Nazareth Regional High School girls’ basketball team from Brooklyn won the state championship, the loquacious senior forward didn’t need one.

Nazareth claimed its first state Federation Class AA title on March 27 at the Times Union Center in Albany, and as she celebrated with teammates, Ford lifted her white No. 22 jersey toward the opposing crowd, flaunting her uniform, and thumbing it in the faces of everyone – those in the stands as well as those based in New York – who doubted her team’s potential.

“To all the haters, look what we’re doing,” Ford said. “While you’re at home watching college basketball, we’re winning the state championship, so what do you got to say about that?”

Her outburst wasn’t surprising. For their entire 29-3 season, the Lady Kinsgmen’s unspoken mantra had been, Us against the world.

Paschall endured health issues as well as an investigation last season. Photo Credit: New York Daily News

Nazareth coach Robert “Apache” Paschall, wearing a baseball jersey and jeans about half an hour after his team’s 60-54 victory over Murry Bergtraum High School of Manhattan, was asked what made this championship stand out; he had won another state Federation title while coaching Saint Michael Academy in 2009. Paschall paused. “The road we had to take to get here,” he replied. Then, speaking about how the Manhattan high school shut down after the 2010 academic year he said, “Nobody knew that St. Michael’s was going to close. It was just one day, boom, we’re gone. The journey from there to now, you can’t – well, you’ll never see that probably, ever again.”

That journey included finding a new school for most of his team; it included Paschall’s health problems; it included an investigation into whether Paschall had violated league recruiting rules; above all, it included melding a team of talented girls into a group that would be good enough to win a state championship.

* * *

The road to Albany started on another road – this one in Middle Village, Queens, 6802 Metropolitan Ave. Athletes entering Christ the King High School are instantly reminded of what the institution has meant to girls basketball in the city and the state for more than 20 years. Glass display cases containing plaques for legendary graduates like Chamique Holdsclaw and Tina Charles flank the doorway to Father John Savage Memorial Gymnasium. The display cases also feature newspaper clippings that recount years of playoff success and the All-American jerseys of alumns.

Once inside, the year-to-year accomplishments of the girls’ basketball team are clearly defined. A long, maroon sign hangs on the far side of the gym against its pale yellow walls, listing the 15 state Federation titles the Royals have won since claiming their first in 1990.

When the girls of the visiting Nazareth basketball team entered the gymnasium on Dec. 4, 2010 the Brooklyn-based Lady Kingsmen knew it would be anything but an ordinary afternoon. “Christ the King has one of the greatest traditions in girls’ basketball in the United States,” Paschall said.  “I think no matter how often you play here, you come here with the jitters.”

His players were already keenly aware of the talent they would face. It wasn’t because USA Today had ranked the Royals as the No. 1 team in the country five times before. It wasn’t because of the memorabilia. And, it wasn’t because of the sign. Even though Nazareth hadn’t fielded a girls’ basketball team in seven years, these two squads still had a history.

More than 200 people – a good crowd for a girls’ game in the city – packed the pullout wooden bleachers lining both sides of the floor to witness the league match-up that would showcase Division 1 talent. Reigning state champion Christ the King was starting 5-foot-10-inch guards Bria Smith and Nia Oden, who had committed to the universities of Virginia and Illinois, respectively. On the opposite end of the court, the 6-foot-3-inch, Syracuse-bound forward Tiffany Jones was warming up for Nazareth.

On the schedule, the meeting marked nothing more than the Royals’ season opener, but spectators had traveled the distance to catch a preview of the Catholic High School Athletic Association (CHSAA) playoffs, where some of the girls had met before. While wearing uniforms for St. Michael’s the previous year, the upperclassmen now playing for Nazareth had lost to Christ the King in the CHSAA title game. The only loss more painful than that in 2010 was the literal loss of their school.

After St. Michael’s announced its closing in March, Paschall vowed to find his nationally acclaimed girls’ basketball team a new home. In May, the coach said the squad that had won a state title of its own during the 2008-2009 season would move to Nazareth. Seven former players followed Paschall to the East Flatbush school, and the addition of six incoming freshmen made for a loaded team ready to reclaim the championship. Paschall didn’t know at the time – nor did his players – that the process of moving the team from St. Michael’s to Nazareth would lead to an investigation of the coach and his program, an investigation that threatened to negate a season of wonderful team and individual accomplishment.

These accomplishments began on the day Nazareth walked into Father John Savage Gymnasium. The team couldn’t win a title with a victory at Christ the King in December, but a playoff atmosphere still pervaded the gymnasium. As the close game progressed, Paschall remained calm and casual on the sideline, opting not to tuck in his black shirt. Although Christ the King coach Bob Mackey appeared neater, sporting a black, maroon and beige sweater vest, he and his team began to unravel when they couldn’t regain a lead toward the end of the fourth quarter.

In the waning moments of the weekend match-up packed with veteran talent, it would be one of the youngest stars who would display the most poise. Bianca Cuevas, the 14-year-old guard from Nazareth who came up through Paschall’s AAU program Exodus, proved to be fearless on the court. Cuevas, her high ponytail bobbing as she floated to the rim, scored 7 of her team-high 16 points in the final period.

With 4.1 seconds remaining, Taylor Ford sank two free throws to seal Nazareth’s 51-47 victory and hand the Royals only their third league loss in 11 years. Nazareth senior Lisa Blair knew her team had to make a statement, and the best way to accomplish that was to defeat Christ the King on its own court.

“Even though St. Michael’s closed, we’re still going to come back just as strong,” Blair said of the win. But the 6-foot-6-inch forward remained cautious. “We know we still have a whole season ahead of us, and we still have the playoffs and the championship.”

After spending part of the offseason trying to reassemble his old team, a win over Christ the King seemed to immediately validate Paschall’s hard work. “I think the biggest thing is if you stick together and you believe in something, big things are going to happen,” he said after the game.

If only it were that simple.

Paschall had spent weeks training the girls for marquee match-ups like those against Christ the King, practicing nearly every day in the Nazareth High School gymnasium. But nothing could have prepared the Lady Kingsmen for what happened next. Hours after the victory over Christ the King, Jones reported being mugged on her way home to the Lower East Side of Manhattan; three days later, Paschall would find himself being investigated, and a heart condition would jeopardize his health.

* * *

As the Nazareth girls ran drills during a preseason practice in early November, Paschall pensively studied the activity from a spot near the bleachers of the high school’s gymnasium. Ron Kelley, one of his vocal assistant coaches, instead opted to shout at some of the more sluggish players from his position at half court.

“There are no excuses when it comes to the playoffs,” Kelley said to any back-talkers. “It starts now. Get that weakness out of you.”

The Lady Kingsmen’s first game of the season against John F. Kennedy High School wouldn’t be until the end of the month, but the team already had high expectations. The preseason polls in the New York Daily News and the New York Post had ranked Nazareth No. 3 in the city behind Christ the King and Murry Bergtraum, and winning the state Federation title was already on the lips of everyone involved.

But first the girls would have to improve. Ahead lay their most difficult regular season, with the highly publicized move from St. Michael’s to Nazareth landing the Lady Kingsmen in the Brooklyn/Queens division of the CHSAA – one of the strongest in the country. Before the move, Paschall used to plan on half of his 24-game schedule being played outside of the less competitive Archdiocese of New York division, comprised of Manhattan, Staten Island and the Bronx. Now, Nazareth would have the opportunity to face Christ the King-caliber teams on a regular basis before the playoffs.

Relocating had another major benefit:  a better gym.

The Nazareth gymnasium is average at best, but for a team used to practicing with worn basketball equipment – the girls sometimes had to use shoelaces to hold the hoops in place – and on a court that wasn’t regulation in size, the new gym seemed like Madison Square Garden. “Shoebox” and “alligator pit” are two of the nicknames that were given to their former St. Michael’s digs, which also were used as a part-time auditorium. The “pit” boasted a slippery wooden floor lined with pillars that needed to be padded to reduce the risk of injury during games.

The small space may have suited the team when it was a member of an informal six-school league in Manhattan, but after St. Michael’s joined the CHSAA in 1997, the gym was no longer fit for the nationally-recognized squad that attracted All-American players like University of Kentucky forward Jennifer O’Neill and WNBA star Kia Vaughn.

“It was fine when we were the Little Manhattan Girls’ Catholic League,” said Jennifer Maxon, St. Michael’s former athletic director who now teaches English at Greenwich High School in Greenwich, Conn. Speaking at her office she added, “But St. Michael’s became a team with a roster of 12 players, and they were 12 Division 1 college players, and when you walked into the gym it would blow your mind.”

Although a point of ridicule, the “pit” was where some of the girls’ fondest high school memories were formed. But on the morning of March 26, 2010 it was also where they were collectively gathered by administrators to learn that after 136 years, St. Michael’s was closing.

Ford got over her initial shock after St. Michael's closed. Photo Credit: New York Post

Taylor Ford, who was a junior at the time, was absent from school that day. After receiving calls from Lisa Blair and another teammate Brianna Sidney, she thought she was the victim of a harmless prank, until the players convinced her otherwise.

“I was shocked at first,” Ford said. “I couldn’t see myself playing with anybody else. The people I played with at St. Michael’s, the people I played with at AAU since I was 10, 11, it’s like a family.”

Ford called an equally confused Paschall, who had not heard the news.

“I’ll call you back,” Paschall responded.

The coach sent out a mass text message informing the team not to worry and that he would take care of everything, but, questions still lingered, especially for juniors who were looking forward to finishing their high school careers in the same uniform.

“Everybody was like, ‘What are we doing to do?’ ” Tiffany Jones remembered. “Most of us have been together for six or seven years, and for us to go our separate ways, that would have hurt.”

After a month-long search to try and find a school for his team, Paschall and a group of parents picked the East Flatbush institution. Not everyone would follow. Allysia Rohlehr, Starr Breedlove, Erica Ward, Jazmine Hamlet, Shaniqua Reese and Tayshana Murphy chose to go elsewhere.

“Traveling every day was going to be hard, because they’re coming from very far places,” Blair said of some of the girls’ decisions not to attend Nazareth. “It’s very out of the way to come to school early [and stay] late.”

For the players who followed him, Paschall had managed to orchestrate exactly what he promised to deliver. For those coaches and parents who remain skeptical of Paschall, relocating his team was just another play to retain power in New York City’s basketball scene. Behind the gossip on high school hoops message boards and the back-and-forth digs in the newspapers hung a simple question: Was Paschall heroic, fulfilling the team’s wish to stick together, or a self-serving puppet master, tugging on the strings of his players to retain talent?

His former athletic director believes in Paschall.  “With all you read about the need for there to be smooth transitions in the lives of kids, for stability, how can you not laud him for trying to maintain that stability?” Maxon asked. “Yes, it’s also about, let’s keep a winning formula together, but it’s also about the bigger picture.”

But the girls hadn’t won anything yet while wearing Nazareth uniforms, and their lackadaisical attitude was not impressing Paschall, Kelley or assistant coach Lauren Best. Although the team had been praised by local sportswriters, Kelley sternly instructed the players at the end of practice to stop believing the hype.

“If you want to go where you say you want to go, then you can’t be regular,” Kelley told the group gathered at half court. “I don’t want to fight with you guys to be better – sorry – I don’t want to fight with you guys to be the best. And that’s what we should be.”

Paschall also laid it on. “Did I say to you, ‘Come here, so you can sit down?’ ” he asked as the group went silent. “All I can give you is the opportunity, you have to do the rest.”

Their debut at the Rucker Invitational Tournament at South Shore High School in Brooklyn wasn’t until Nov. 27, but there was still work to be done. Sure, many of the girls already played together on the summer AAU circuit for Paschall’s team called Exodus, but nothing guaranteed another state title. Coaches and players alike put their hands in the center of their circular powwow for one last cheer:

“One-two-three, Nazareth, four-five-six, champions.”

* * *

Twelve players from Paschall’s 14-girl roster have played AAU basketball with the Exodus program. The other two, freshman Shiclasia Brown and junior Jasmine Simmons, played elsewhere. The debate surrounding the growth of the AAU in girls’ basketball is simple:  Those opposed believe it’s contributing to the sport’s metamorphosis into the ultra-competitive boys’ game and that it’s a way for coaches like Paschall, who coach both high school and summer ball, to keep a year-round eye on their talent.

The AAU was founded in 1888, according to its website, and its 56 districts sanction more than 34 sports programs. But the most prominent AAU program is basketball, and Mike Flynn, who runs the Philadelphia Belles travel team and was the first consulting editor of the USA Today High School Top 25, believes the girls’ side didn’t really start growing until the 1980s. Flynn said female athletes and their parents started to realize that participating in AAU basketball could help them earn a free college education.

Exodus, founded in 1993 as just a boys’ program for its first seven years by Paschall and another coach Rodney Johnson, started to gain recognition in the early 2000s. According to Flynn, Exodus filled an untapped New York City market, recruiting inner-city and black players who weren’t always looked at by other travel teams like the Liberty Belles, another New York AAU powerhouse that was often a pipeline to Christ the King.

When Maxon, who coached the St. Michael’s team before solely serving as athletic director, asked her squad in 1999 who should take over while she was on maternity leave, those who played for Exodus suggested Paschall. He got the job, and Paschall has been involved in both the in-season and summer components of the game ever since. Nazareth assistant coaches Lauren Best and Ron Kelley were also involved with both St. Michael’s and Exodus.

“Exodus has a lot of kids from all over New York City, so it wasn’t just St. Michael Academy, but everyone who went to St. Michael Academy played with Apache, not because we had to, but because we wanted to,” said Janine Davis, who graduated from St. Michael’s two years ago and now plays guard at George Washington University.

As the program gained clout on a national level, underprivileged girls who normally couldn’t travel out of state were given opportunities to play in places like Hawaii and Russia. Now, Exodus is regarded by many as the best AAU program in New York City. “When you play for Exodus, you’re playing the top notch of your class,” explained former player Jennifer O’Neill. “It’s great competition. [Paschall] exposes you to so much at a young age. You just learn from the experience of playing people who are older than you, younger than you and the same age as you. You just see how talented you are, and you compare your talents to theirs.”

Kelley sees two major advantages to having an AAU program for the girls at Nazareth – Exodus helps maintain team chemistry during the offseason and it exposes the players to college recruiters. Annarie Sidney, Brianna Sidney’s mother, believes in the Exodus program so much, she even travels with the team to help in any way she can. Exodus has delivered for all three girls in the Sidney family:  Elon Sidney, the oldest, is a junior at St. John’s University; Jelleah Sidney, the middle child, will play for Syracuse next year; and Brianna has also received Division 1 interest as a junior.

But all three girls also had anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries, and one of the criticisms of the AAU circuit is the wear and tear on players. Bob Mackey, who is fairly removed from the AAU scene and views himself as just a high school coach, isn’t convinced participating in summer basketball is a necessity. “I’ve seen some kids who have never played a minute of AAU and they’re really great players,” Mackey said. “And I’ve seen some kids who have played in constant AAU, and they do great too.”

* * *

Wearing maroon warm-up shirts with “RISEN” on the front in yellow writing, the Lady Kingsmen wanted to send a message on Nov. 27, 2010 when they took the court at South Shore High School:  Even though our school shut down, we will not.

The Nazareth girls’ basketball team was shooting hoops before the 5 p.m. tip-off against John F. Kennedy in the Rucker Invitational Tournament, which matches CHSAA teams against opponents from the Public Schools Athletic League. Spectators in the crowd were as anxious as the coaches to see just how strong Nazareth would be during its first game of the season.

The Lady Kingsmen had a lot of talent to show off. “I can certainly say that his last year’s squad at St. Michael’s will all go Division 1,” Jennifer Maxon said. “Some of them will be low Division 1, but they’ll be there on scholarship.” That squad included seniors Taylor Ford, Tiffany Jones, Bra’Shey Ali and Lisa Blair, as well as juniors Darius Faulk and Brianna Sidney.

Ford, a 6-foot-1-inch forward, has matured from a scrappy eighth grader. Of all the girls on the roster, Ford might be the most outgoing, known for being fierce and unafraid both on and off the court. “Everybody that ends up running across Taylor Ford, they really like her,” Ron Kelley said before correcting himself. “They really love her.” Only turning 17 in April, the young senior plans to attend a preparatory school before heading to college.

Tiffany Jones, on the other hand, already has her college plans set. The hardnosed forward from the Lower East Side will play for Syracuse University, the first school to ever send her a letter when she was only in eighth grade. Compared to a boisterous player like Ford, Jones appears to be reserved, but according to the coaching staff, she has opened up tremendously to her teammates during the past four years.

Although Jones has been playing basketball since the third grade, she wasn’t a natural like Bra’Shey Ali. Out of the group of veteran players, Paschall had envisioned Ali being the best, but the 6-foot-tall guard’s high school journey has been a constant struggle. She missed most of her freshman year with a foot injury, and a tear to her ACL sidelined the girl from Plainfield, N.J. for her entire sophomore year. As a junior, Ali was still far from being 100 percent, but this year she regained her jumping ability and attacked the rim once more. Almost three months after this first game, Ali verbally committed to West Virginia.

Like Ford, Lisa Blair, another senior on the team, has also decided to attend prep school for a year after graduation to continue improving her game. The 6-foot-6-inch center, who is Nazareth’s tallest player, initially didn’t take her basketball future very seriously. Blair had wanted to model and only began playing the sport about three years ago. Since then, the girl built for basketball started believing she could succeed at it. Blair didn’t aspire to play college hoops before meeting Paschall, but she now dreams of playing for teams like Louisville and Ohio State, where her favorite player Samantha Prahalis is a guard.

Blair’s cousin, junior Brianna Sidney, didn’t get a late start. Sidney started playing basketball around the third grade, and unlike Blair, knew early on this was her passion. She grew up with the sport because of her older sisters, and developed into an excellent shooter with a bubbly personality. Every morning, Sidney’s mother Annarie gives freshman Yazmine Belk and junior Darius Faulk a ride to Nazareth from the Sidneys’ home in Queens Village.

Faulk, more than any other player, sets the tone for the team. “She plays well, we’re going to win,” Kelley said of the guard. “If she’s shaky, we’re not.” Faulk is a jokester but has been instrumental in helping to mold Nazareth’s young talent, and the Lady Kingsmen have a lot. There’s sophomore Shanice Woodson, “walk-on” Jasmine Simmons (the only player who attended Nazareth before the season), newcomers Shiclasia Brown and Arelis Cora, as well as Paschall’s “three-headed monster” made up of Belk, Sofia Roma and Chelsea Robinson – three freshmen who all are about 6 feet tall.

Cuevas is growing into a star at Nazareth. Photo credit: ESPN Rise

Bianca Cuevas, however, is Nazareth’s most talented freshman. One of the only reasons Paschall had resisted starting the 5-foot-4 guard was to keep her grounded. “She’s just a young kid with an old soul,” Paschall said. Cuevas is new to high school basketball, but with Exodus, she started when she was 11 and has played with stars like Bria Hartley of Connecticut and O’Neill of Kentucky.

Faulk chose not to play with Exodus last summer and nearly attended Baldwin High School due to its proximity to her Long Island home, but she was very much with Nazareth in its debut, scoring 11 points during the Lady Kingsmen’s 19-0 first-quarter run; by the half, they already had a 34-14 lead.

After the break, the team continued its balanced attack, pushing the margin to 26 points entering the fourth period. Spectators in the crowd noted Nazareth was running the floor like a scrimmage. Kennedy did eventually score 12 points in the game’s final five minutes, but the Lady Kingsmen won easily, 55-39.

The next day, Nazareth defeated Bishop Ford, 74-58, in its first home game, when some of the veteran players noticed something unusual about the stands – there were people sitting in them. “In our old school there was nobody at our games,” Sidney said. “We used to have a huge game and there would only be one person.”

Among the parents, administrators and fans was one curious onlooker who made sure not to miss Nazareth’s grand debut. Christ the King coach Bob Mackey made it to the game. Six days later, he would have his own shot at the Lady Kingsmen.

* * *

The elation that followed the December win over Christ the King did not last very long for the players or for the coaching staff.

Around 1 the next morning after visiting a friend, Tiffany Jones was waiting to ride the subway home at the Broadway Junction stop in Brooklyn when she said she was attacked and mugged by a group of about 15 to 20 boys and girls. “That was a fight in the night,” Jones said. “I was scared, but God was just on my side at the end of it.” The attackers, Jones said, took her watch, phone and money, and Jones suffered cuts and bruises in the process. She called a concerned Paschall, who kept her out of the lineup for three games.

Paschall knew he needed time off, as well. The coach’s reserved demeanor at Christ the King had more to do with his health than simply restraining his enthusiasm. After feeling ill during the Dec. 4 game, Paschall checked himself into the hospital that night and learned he had water in his lungs. He left only a few hours later. But the Nazareth coach would continue to be in and out of the hospital during the next month or so, being diagnosed with an enlarged heart and congestive heart failure. On Dec. 17, Paschall missed his first high school game in at least eight years.

“I’ve barely ever seen him miss practice, so missing a game was a big thing,” said Lisa Blair, who added the girls knew something was off. “He was much quieter than when he’s around us. He’s the type of person who always cracks jokes. But … he was quiet, not talking, distancing himself from everyone, so we were just wondering, what’s wrong? We felt that he was sick, but we didn’t know that it was something like this.”

Paschall wasn’t in a stress-free environment, either. Three days after the win at Christ the King, news reports were published saying that Paschall was being investigated for possible recruiting violations by the CHSAA Brooklyn/Queens girls’ Eligibility and Infractions Committee. A Nov. 22 article in the New York Daily News said Paschall visited parents to convince them to send their daughters to play for the Lady Kingsmen. Paschall was also quoted as saying that Nazareth honored the reduced tuition his players paid at St. Michael’s, about $3,000 less than the cost at their new school. Although Nazareth principal Providencia Quiles wouldn’t confirm Paschall’s statement, she did tell the Daily News that some of the girls received financial aid.

Recruiting in the CHSAA is illegal, but the committee, which convened on Dec. 15, would have up to 60 days to decide if Paschall had violated the rules. “You’re not supposed to try and convince a kid to come to your school, giving them any kind of monetary offer,” said Archbishop Molloy coach Tom Catalanotto. “There are no athletic scholarships in Catholic high school.”

Jennifer Maxon stood up for her former coach. “So if a player gets a phone call in their home, that’s not recruiting? If you visit their home, that’s recruiting, and you’re going to threaten suspension, forfeiture of season? What hypocrisy,” Maxon said. When the word of St. Michael’s closing made the rounds, Maxon said every player received calls. “I’m sorry that’s because you were talking about the academic opportunities at your school? Baloney. We could have filed paperwork against so many coaches and we would’ve had their cell phone numbers. I mean, we could have proved it, but we didn’t – not because we were letting them off the hook, but because we didn’t think it was wrong.”

Maxon doesn’t view reduced tuition as an incentive for players to attend Nazareth either, stating that other high schools offered to honor St. Michael’s tuition to any student affected by its closure. Joseph Gerics, associate superintendent for secondary education in the Archdiocese of New York, would only confirm in an E-mail that Cathedral High School and St. Jean Baptiste High School made that offer to students who chose to transfer to their institutions.

Although John Lorenzetti, the chairman of the infractions committee, wouldn’t divulge who filed the official complaint against Paschall, with the news breaking only days after defeating the reigning state champions, Maxon had little doubt that it was Christ the King. “Coincidence? No,” Maxon said. “Almost every rumor that gets started that involves official paperwork being filed gets traced back to them.”

Mackey refused to comment on her statement, pointing out that Maxon was not even associated with the Brooklyn/Queens CHSAA. “Last time I checked, Ms. Maxon is not working at Nazareth High School,” Mackey said in a phone interview in February. Mike Flynn, who had heard rumblings of the recruiting probe from his home in the Philadelphia area, said he thinks multiple parties were involved. Christ the King, Flynn pointed out, wasn’t the only team interested in those players.

Mackey's teams struggled against Nazareth in 2010-11. Photo Credit: New York Post

Paschall and Christ the King have had quite the history. According to Maxon, two years ago, during St. Michael’s state title season, Mackey filed paperwork complaining that Paschall had tried to recruit his player Tahira Johnson at midseason. Later, St. Michael’s filed a complaint against Christ the King, claiming the Royals were scrimmaging with a college team in order to prepare for the playoffs. Neither incident was true.

“Everyone knows that [Paschall] has a pure heart and none of the things that they accuse him of are true,” said former player Brittany Webb, who graduated from St. Michael’s last year. Webb, who grew up in Harlem and said some of her friends ended up dead or in jail, claims Paschall saved her life by keeping her out of trouble. “If you’re going to accuse a man for trying to help a kid and take them out of a messed up situation, and show them better in life, and give [them] opportunity, then shame on you,” she said.

Former players have praised Paschall for helping them realize the benefit of an education and how basketball parallels life. As Webb put it:  Without books, you get no ball. Janine Davis, who graduated from St. Michael’s two years ago and now plays for George Washington University, said in a telephone interview that Paschall was always concerned about her academics. “If I started to slip up in class, he’d sit me down and have a conversation with me to get back on track,” Davis said. “It wasn’t just all about basketball.” Maxon added Paschall would perform “little miracles” with girls who struggled on and off the court every day.

But still, Paschall continued to be a target. When asked why Paschall is so heavily criticized, those who continue to defend his character only have one response:  jealousy. “When you’re good at something, of course people are going to take shots at you,” said Long Island-based basketball trainer Jerry Powell, who worked with the St. Michael’s team before it claimed a state title. Speaking during a phone interview, Powell added, “He’s a great coach, but he knows how to manage talent. He’s more like a Phil Jackson. He knows how to manage egos. He knows how to control egos. He knows how to manage a bunch of stars, and that’s very difficult to do. Matter of fact, he’s not good at that – he’s great at that.”

As the rumors multiplied – without any resolution regarding the truth – the girls on the Nazareth basketball team knew that as their season continued the best kind of revenge was success. And the Lady Kingsmen were confident they would claim another state title. “I know we’re going to win it this year,” Jones said, “because [there’s] nobody in our way that can stop us – out here in New York? No.”

* * *

Jones was prophetic, but the start to Nazareth’s postseason journey was, in many ways, as rocky as its regular season. After Christ the King defeated the Lady Kingsmen, 74-57, during a February rematch, both teams, without other league losses, were forced into a tiebreaker to determine seeding for the Brooklyn/Queens CHSAA playoffs. While Nazareth easily defeated the Royals, 45-33, in their third meeting to secure the No. 1 seed, Paschall didn’t coach the game. Despite being told by Nazareth principal Providencia Quiles to not discuss the ongoing recruiting investigation, Paschall had opened up to the media during a Feb. 15 interview and suffered the consequences. Quiles suspended a regretful Paschall for a week of practice and two games.

Nazareth, used to distractions, continued to win through the first round of the playoffs. “With other people telling us that Apache can’t coach us and stuff like that, that just makes us want to work harder, and prove to Apache that we can do it without him, and prove to everybody that we don’t just need Apache to work hard,” Arelis Cora said. On March 5, the Lady Kingsmen claimed their first Brooklyn/Queens Diocesan Championship after defeating The Mary Louis Academy, 50-35. This time, Paschall was on hand for the win.

While coaches and players posed for pictures with the league trophy after the game, one parent-turned-photographer called out a request: “Can you cover the Christ the King on there, please?” Of the 26 plates fastened to the trophy’s base representing previous winners, 25 belonged to the Royals. The joke drew laughter from Nazareth’s players and fans, but the coaches and players somehow knew another trip to the state Federation title game would go through their rival.

In the CHSAA Class AA playoffs, it was a squad from Long Island in a semifinal match-up that came closest to ending Nazareth’s season.

That’s what Darius Faulk thought when she threw the ball into the arms of Kerrin Maurer from St. Anthony’s High School in South Huntington, Long Island, with 9.8 seconds remaining. St. Anthony’s had possession and a 44-42 advantage over the Lady Kingsmen. “I was petrified,” said Taylor Ford. “I was trying to hold back the tears.”

What followed, players said, was like a scene from a movie. St. Anthony’s Rebecca Musgrove went to the line for a one-and-one foul shot and missed. As the ball trickled down the left side of the basket, Ford snatched the rebound and passed to Bra’Shey Ali, who tied the score at 44 on a layup about five seconds later. Faulk stole the ensuing inbounds pass, dribbled down court and drew a foul on an off-balance shot. With 1.3 seconds left, Faulk made both free throws and secured the, 46-44, victory.

It was an astonishing finish, but the Lady Kingsmen still had two more games to play to complete their goal. They would face either Christ the King or St. John the Baptist of West Islip the next day in the CHSAA Class AA final and would need to defeat the top team in the Public Schools Athletic League to win a state title two weeks after that. Ford tried to shake off the near loss. “We’re going to think about how we played the last nine seconds,” Ford said. “We’re going to play [that way] for a whole 32 minutes.”

A few hours later on the same court, Christ the King defeated St. John the Baptist, 55-52.

* * *

The CHSAA title game was played at Holy Trinity High School in Hicksville, but to spectators, this was Nazareth’s gymnasium. On March 13, the Lady Kingsmen arrived prepared, and so did their fans who were wearing “RISE OF THE FALLEN” shirts. Posted on the wall behind them was a homemade sign that read “GO NAZ.” The Nazareth cheerleaders danced with maroon-and-yellow pom-poms near their team’s bench as players made their way to the court. Jones, Sidney, Faulk, Ford and Ali started for Nazareth, while Nia Oden, Bria Smith, Lauren Nuss, Rayne Connell and Sierra Calhoun got the start for Christ the King.

After a close half, the Lady Kingsmen never trailed in the third quarter, and with about seven minutes remaining and their raucous fans behind them, they pushed the margin to 17. Ford, who scored 18 points in the game, led Nazareth. The Royals kept working, though. “They’re a championship team,” Paschall said of Christ the King. “[Someone] said, ‘Don’t test the heart of a champion.’ ”

Christ the King rallied and scored 22 points in six minutes, and Nazareth watched its lead melt to 60-57 on a corner jumper by Calhoun with 18.8 seconds to play. Nazareth inbounded the ball, passing quickly to take time off the clock. After nine seconds, the girl who dominated in the two team’s first meeting was fouled:  Bianca Cuevas.

Cuevas knew she could put the game out of reach during her one-and-one trip to the line, but she had been shaky, only making two of five free throws so far. Cuevas approached the basket. She took a deep breath and sank the first free throw. Four-point game. She sank her second, giving Nazareth a five-point lead, while scoring her 16th and final point of the game.

Smith added one more point for Christ the King on a free throw a few seconds after, but the Royals’ season had run out. Smith hurled a desperate shot that hit the backboard as time expired, but even if it fell her way, it couldn’t have changed the outcome. Nazareth had won the CHSAA title, 62-58.

Seniors Ford, Jones and Ali wrapped arms around each other as the Nazareth cheerleaders took a lap around the gymnasium. The crowd rose to its feet. Then the chanting began:  “Apache! Apache! Apache!”

As Nazareth players, parents and teachers mobbed the floor, Paschall admitted he was relieved. It’s the match-up he had been looking forward to all season. “Last year they beat us in this same game,” Paschall said. “So that to me, that was the big one.”

The good news would continue for Paschall. According to John Lorenzetti, head of the CHSAA principals committee, the coach would be cleared of recruiting violations before the state Federation title game.

* * *

Throughout the year, coaches and teammates had begged Tiffany Jones to play better. “She’s been asleep the whole season,” Paschall said. “It’s been really trying with [her], just trying to get her to dominate the way I know she can.”

Tiffany Jones is headed for Syracuse. Photo credit: New York Daily News

Jones knew it too. “I should’ve showed up,” she said. “I don’t know where my head [was] at.” But the senior saved her shining moment for the state Federation championship against PSAL contender Murry Bergtraum. Jones set a tone early that day, only practicing three-point shots before the game. It worked. Ten seconds into the first quarter at the Times Union Center, Jones sank a three to put Nazareth ahead. The confident forward, who had predicted a championship early on in the season, had only one thought as she watched her shot sail through the net:  “Oh, game over.”

The Lady Kingsmen led, 33-27, at halftime. Jones scored 22 points and had 10 rebounds during the last performance of her high school career. “It was like seeing the real Tiff play,” Taylor Ford said. “Nobody’s really seen her full potential.”

Jones held the ball in her hands with four seconds left, before tossing it into the air as her teammates mobbed one another at half court, and Paschall’s work was done. Jones’s performance earned her the tournament Most Valuable Player honor, but she wasn’t surprised. She never was. “There’s nobody in New York that’s better than me,” Jones said. “Nobody is better than us. Once we stick together as a team, nobody’s beating us. We have each other’s backs on the court, and we did today.”

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