Photos by Ryan Samson ’07
With the lead tightening and only minutes left to play, the wisdom of an English teacher turned out to be key to lifting a fiercely competitive Abington Friends varsity girls’ basketball team to victory in the Friends Schools League championship game.
During the regular season, Upper School Teacher Jenny Burkholder had led the players through yoga practices several times. On the day before Friday’s title game against Shipley School at Haverford College, she sent them an email of support.
“I read her email to the team during our shoot around at AFS before we left for Haverford,” Head Girls’ Basketball Coach Jeff Bond said. “And then again right before we came out for our warm ups at Haverford.”
Here’s what Jenny wrote:
“Jeff, I am so proud of you and [Assistant Coach] Angie and the team! Those girls are fierce, and it’s their year to bring home the W. For AFS. For each of them and their lives. For the whole nation!
“Remind them to BREATHE. Besides their skill, focus, determination, and drive, it is their BEST weapon against Shipley.”
And so, late in the fourth quarter, as Shipley chipped away at the Roos’ lead, a time out was called to settle things down. The AFS players and their coaches huddled in front of their team bench. One of the players, Jeff thinks it was senior Alyssa DeNofa, reminded everyone of Jenny’s advice — ‘BREATHE!’”
“We all took up that mantra,” Jeff said. The girls went back onto the court, kept Shipley’s relentless attack at bay, and went on to defeat Shipley, 47-41, ending a nine-year drought by the girls’ basketball team in winning a league championship.
The girls’ strong defense, accurate passes and ability to convert from the floor and at the foul line all were important in sealing the victory.
“The girls played so hard. I’m so happy for them,” Jeff said the next day. “It got really hairy at the end, but they persevered.”
The Roos, 23-3, now enter the Pennsylvania Independent Schools Athletic Association (PAISAA) state championship tournament as the top seed, playing either Springside Chestnut Hill Academy or Friends’ Central on Friday, February 17, in the first round.
“Every day we practice in the gym, look up and see 32 banners on the walls. Our goal was to put ours up there. We did that!” Jeff said. “Now we have a chance to put two up there.”
To win a state banner, the girls would have to win their next three games.
“That’s our goal now, to go 3-0,” in the state tourney, he said.
Before the girls even took to the court at the Calvin Gooding ’84 Arena on Friday night, Abington Friends School already had something to celebrate.
The boys’ varsity basketball team lit up Hallowell Gym on Friday afternoon, beating Moorestown Friends, 59-34, to claim the Quaker Cup. Many players quickly changed out of their uniforms and headed for Haverford College to root for the girls’ varsity team.
The girls’ leading scorer, senior Jade Young, entered the championship game with 992 points to her name. During the second period, the game stopped momentarily when Jade sank a foul shot and notched her 1,000 career point, always a remarkable achievement for a scholastic player.
A cheering squad of AFS faithful — students, parents, faculty, administration and School Committee — packed the bleachers and raised a ruckus every time the Roos found the net — and especially when they sank three pointers. White-knuckled fans kept checking the scoreboard across the court as Shipley kept up a spirited fight. One observer later said the game was FSL competition at its best.
The last time Abington Friends had won a league championship was in 2007, defeating Shipley, 52-40. The following year, Shipley’s basketball juggernaut began to roll, playing for the FSL title eight times between 2008 and 2015, and winning six of those games. In the process, Shipley had dispatched AFS twice, in 2013 and 2014, in league championship games.
During the regular season this year, the Roos visited Shipley and logged a 47- 40 win, but only after rallying from a 12-0 deficit. On Friday afternoon, AFS guard Khadijah Hickson said the team had no intention of letting that kind of deficit happen again.
The strategy going into Friday night’s game, Jeff said, was to execute well both on defense and offense and to complete good passes.
“We thought if could defend against their three best players, we’d do well,” he said.
“And on offense, we’re at our best when we share the ball.”
The Roos had taken their basketball practices seriously all season, spending long hours running plays and polishing their skills. The seniors — Jade, Khadijah and Alyssa — had made a point of teaching the underclassmen everything they knew. Over time, they had learned each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and did their best to set up each other on the court.
But the X-factor going the game, the part that’s hardest to control, is the excitement that the players and the coaches feel, when all the dreams of a long season are on the line, the bleachers are packed with ardent fans and the basketball court is bigger than where they normally play.
“If you’re a competitor there’s that excitement of the big game. You try to block it out, but it creeps in, “ Jeff said. “You can’t help but be in awe of the situation.”
It was a nick-and-tuck contest during the first two periods, and AFS narrowly led at the half, 20-18. Abington Friends built up a lead of as many as nine points early in the fourth period, but Shipley showed no signs of giving up.
With 1 minute 37 seconds left to play, AFS led by five points, 41-36. But Shipley persisted, closing the gap to within just two points, 43-41, with 29.3 seconds left in the game. That’s when freshman Jordan Smith, a backup player for AFS, drew a foul that gave the Roos the ball, and stemmed Shipley’s comeback.
With 8 seconds left, the Roos led by 46-41, a margin that was too big for Shipley to overcome in a single possession.
After the final buzzer sounded, AFS fans mobbed the team. Arena officials repeatedly asked everyone to clear the court so the boys’ title game could begin.
When the team gathered once again down a hallway, Jeff had a few words for them.
“I talked to them about how proud I was of them,” he said.
He recalled an inspiring quote that he first brought to the team last year, telling them that it’s not the 1,000th chip that breaks the rock, it’s the 999 that come before it that matter.
The coach also believes in his bones that everyone — the starting players and the reserves, assistant coaches Angie Adams and Bianca Wombough — has played an important role in this extraordinary season.
“Basketball is a team game. Everybody has a role in every success you have,” he said on the morning after the title game.
And at AFS, that includes a veteran English teacher, who also happens to teach yoga and cared enough to send an email.