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Eagles soar to ‘B’ title

Juan Faya never bought into the undefeated season. To the third-year coach at Academy of American Studies, it was unimportant.
When asked why, he said, “I figured we would have our hiccup and move on to work on things we weren’t doing well.”
When the season moved past January and into February, the flawless campaign still very much a possibility, he used it as motivation. Outwardly, Faya never told his players how he truly felt. He used the unblemished record to keep them sharp.
“He tried to put us down before every game,” sophomore center Crystal James said.
So on the morning of the final test, the PSAL Class B championship game against Richard Green High School of Teaching, he asked them to surprise him one more time.
The Eagles responded dutifully, out-doing the bigger and more athletic Wolverines, 45-33, at St. Francis College in Brooklyn.
“I always knew we were going to go undefeated,” junior forward Raquel Gutierrez said after her 14 points garnered MVP honors and led the Long Island City school to the first city championship in any sport. “I never expected to lose and he didn’t either, I think. We have heart. We want it so bad nobody is going to take it away from us.”
Amid chants from the American Studies contingent of “Undefeated” and “Mr. Faya,” he broke out into a huge smile. Faya hugged every player at least once. In shock, he repeatedly asked anyone who would listen, “Can you believe this?” before and after the trophy presentation.
“I can live to be 100 years old and coach until I’m 90 and I won’t have another team like this,” he said, later adding, “We’ve played teams that are faster, stronger, more athletic, but we were always able to win. The one thing that shined through with my ladies was the size of their heart.”
Talent, too. It began last year, when American Studies, behind the trio of Gutierrez, James and junior guard Kaitlin Fitzgerald, won the Queens B II regular season crown before losing in the quarterfinals.
The addition of freshman point guard Diani Mason transformed a solid group into a formidable one. The Woodside native came off the bench, providing an immediate spark, Faya said, that reminded him of the role Vinnie “The Microwave” Johnson played for eleven seasons on the two-time world champion Detroit Pistons.
Together, they made history, becoming the first borough school to go undefeated since Christ the King achieved the feat in back-to-back seasons from 2004-05.
“It feels like I just won a million dollars,” James said.
Much of the credit goes to Faya, who led the only other American Studies program - girls volleyball - to a finals appearance in 2001, albeit in a loss to Brooklyn’s High School of Telecommunications.
Faya has attempted to raise the interest in sports at the education-first school, enrollment 600. Of the seven varsity programs, volleyball, softball and boys basketball has attracted notice from the student body, but not girls basketball. This fall, only 17 tried out for the team.
Faya, however, has inspired those who have. At the season’s outset, he expressed his own personal regrets, hoping this team would not have any. Some of his speeches, many of them touching personal stories, have left his players in tears, only for them to come out and destroy the opposition once the game started.
“He’s our inspiration and our motivation,” said Gutierrez, the Jackson Heights native who played through a sprained left ankle in the second-round win over Queens High School of Teaching, their closest postseason victory.
Their improbable ride is not over yet. American Studies will travel to Glens Falls, just north of Albany, for the state Federation Class B tournament. The Eagles will meet the winner of Fieldston-Briarcliff Saturday morning in the final. Admittedly, Faya had not prepared for the long trip north. His focus, as it should be, was on Saturday. However, that does not change how American Studies will approach their final game.
“I’m not satisfied,” he said. “I don’t think any of our ladies are going to be satisfied. We’re going upstate to win.”

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