Revolting season comes to an end

While the boys and girls of Christ the King ended their Diocesan seasons at the top of the Brooklyn/Queens world, a 0-9 team from Fresh Meadows was content just to finish out the year. In many ways, what St. Francis Prep did before a handful of fans is an even greater accomplishment than what CK did before a screaming bleacher section of several hundred.

“Our championship was to finish our season,” head coach JoAnn Wagner said.

As of February 11, the Terriers’ roster consisted of four players: Aliya Donn, Nevica Vazquez, Katherine Hickman, and Kelly Simon. The rest had all been suspended by the school for failing to board the team bus for a game at Christ the King on February 10. The cause was the desired removal of Coach Wagner, whose team has languished in the division’s depths for several seasons.

When the school’s principal, Brother Leonard Conway, failed to respond quickly to a January 29 letter – received February 5, the school says – articulating some parents’ concerns about Wagner’s handling of her players’ talents, nine girls’ parents refused to let their daughters board the team bus on February 10. The next day, those nine players were banned from school sports for the entirety of their St. Francis Prep careers.

Their parents faxed a letter of apology to Conway on February 13: “Our actions over the past week were irresponsible and thoughtless. We … embarrassed the school, Mrs. Wagner and the team and deeply regret doing so. Our children love St. Francis Prep. It was wrong for us to jeopardize their high school experience like this,” it reads in part. But Conway and athletic director Sal Fischetti refused to budge from their pronouncement, leaving their girls’ basketball team in dire need of personnel.

To see the Terriers close out their season in the Diocesan playoffs on February 24, then, was to appreciate what can happen when a few individuals band together for the good of an institution. They played sloppily all night, with some players forgetting to run, not walk, when the ball was elsewhere on the court. They scored their first two points – thank newcomer Johanna Rice for that – with 15 seconds remaining in the first quarter. They lost 55-34 to an Archbishop Molloy team that tried its best to play hard but avoid a blowout. Yet the tears in the eyes on some who emerged from the locker room were tears of pride.

“I just told them how extremely proud I was of them. … I think they worked so hard emotionally,” Wagner said. “I’ll never, ever doubt their effort [or] what they accomplished. … These last two weeks have proven to me why I do what I do.”

St. Francis Prep was able to play on February 24 because of the team-saving arrival of six players. Three of them – Kalyssa Daley, Mariel Gomerez, and Samantha Sammarco – were team managers who were approached by Wagner and who elected to step on the court as players. Three others – Kelly McArdle, Theresa Quinn, and Rice – were regular St. Francis Prep students who jumped at the chance to join the team and save its season.

“It means everything to us that they would come and finish [the season] off for us,” said Simon, an original player.

“I know how much it meant to all the players on the team,” said Daley, originally a manager. “I’m really proud.”

There are, to be sure, some hard feelings lingering at St. Francis Prep. Neither the affected girls nor their former teammates are particularly pleased with the school’s decision to ban them for life; if they transfer to another prep school, they will have to sit out a year. However, there also exists considerable resentment among those parents whose girls stuck with their coach, all of it directed at those parents who responded differently to the team’s struggles.

“She’s a senior. She felt she had a responsibility to the team and the coach. … That’s the way I brought her up,” Mike Simon said of his daughter, Kelly. “The parents, I’m sure, understood there would be repercussions. Maybe they needed to take a different course of action.”

“I raised my children differently,” said Kathleen McArdle, Kelly McArdle’s mother. “[Joining the team] was the right thing to do. I felt bad for the girls. I just told [Kelly] I was proud of her.”

Simon and McArdle both said they were approached by fellow parents but elected not to join in the movement against Wagner’s coaching. They have formed a tight-knit group with other parents of the Terriers’ current players, a dozen of them sitting together on February 24 in a corner of the bleachers at Bishop Ford. They are more than happy to talk about their girls’ decision to stay, whereas those on the other side of the fence have limited their official communications to letters to the school.

Some anonymous message board posters on the web site fiveborosports.com have taken up those parents’ cause, criticizing Wagner for destructive criticism and a less-than-full understanding of the game.

On February 24, Wagner was staying positive from the bench, shouting encouragements like “Come on, ladies, let’s go!” and embracing some disappointed players when they came off the court. (The quiet crowd allowed her to deliver some of her advice to on-court players in a whisper.) There is no doubt, however, that the controversy has affected her. When asked what the experience has taught her about her team, Wagner replied, “This team?” to make sure her feelings of pride were strictly contained within a certain class of players.

St. Francis Prep is declining its invitation to the CHSAA state tournament, which means that the biggest news out of Fresh Meadows will likely relate to fate of its suspended players.

“It was hard for them. It wasn’t really their decision,” Daley said. “They could have gone about it in a different way.”

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