By Joseph Santoliquito
Philadelphia, PA (CBS)—Neumann-Goretti girls’ basketball coach Letty Santarelli has to turn the lights out after practice to get her team to go home. An hour after they’re finished, they’re still shooting around on their own, working on new moves, improving their game.
It looks as if the lights are being turned on the Saints the first month of the season. Neumann-Goretti is arguably the best girls’ team in the area, there with Central Bucks West, led by Michigan-bound Nicole Munger.
The Saints are 11-0, their best start in school history, and beating traditional powers like Cardinal O’Hara and Archbishop Carroll for the first time in years.
Neumann-Goretti is doing it with an influx of new players, juniors C.C. Cryor and A.J. Timbers, transfers from Prep Charter, mixed in with returning players from last year, like Sianni Martin. Not that long ago this program was a doormat, finishing seasons 7-14, like they did in 2009-10.
Now they’re a favorite to win their first Philadelphia Catholic League title since the early-1980s (Saints John Neumann and Maria Goretti Catholic High School merged in 2004), the District 12 Class AA championship and PIAA Class AA state title.
But it is only January. And the Saints don’t want to get too ahead of themselves, a fact Santarelli stresses every day to her team.
“These girls play hard, they play until the end, they’re passionate about the game,” Santarelli said. “We know every team in the Catholic League is looking to take us down, so we’re going to look at it as one game at a time. We’re building and we have super players. I think what surprises me the most is that we continue to hit threes and how well we’re playing defense. We’re still sorting some things out and we still have a lot to improve on.”
The foundation of what looks like a special team starts with the Cryor-Timbers tandem. They’re both juniors and extremely tough to defend. Cryor, a 5-5 point guard, reminds some of Dawn Staley, with her ballhandling skills and deft shooting. Timbers is a 5-11 shooting guard and highly athletic (she can touch the rim).
“Everyone wants to get better and we have to stay humble,” said Cryor, who is getting a ton of college interest. “We do push each other. Right now, we’re not anywhere near as good as we can be. We can be really, really good. We have to keep the intensity up at all times, but to improve, we’ll need to communicate better on defense.”
Here’s what makes Neumann-Goretti scary: the Saints have barely used 6-4 junior Christina Acoworo and 6-foot-9 sophomore Felicia Aiyotan, who’s from Nigeria and wears a size 17 sneaker.
“We can look a lot different a month from now,” Timbers said. “Felicia can make a really big difference for our team. But we know we’re not getting any breaks from anyone. I think we’re getting the respect that we deserve, because everyone is looking at us now.
“But I also know there are a lot of people that don’t like us—I think that comes from with me and C.C. being here and we’re winning. They may not like it, but they have to respect it. There are a lot of good girls on this team. We have girls on the bench that could start for a lot of teams.”
The Saints have almost equaled their victory total of last year, when they finished 14-12 and lost in the Class AA state quarterfinals to Notre Dame-Green Pond, 51-49, in double-overtime. A state championship is a possibility.
The culture change from a program that languished for years in the shadows Neumann-Goretti’s highly successful boys’ program is a reality.
“I’m just happy these girls love the game and want to get better,” Santarelli said. “I have to turn the lights out on them after we get done practice because they’re still shooting. That’s a great thing to see.”
So are the Saints.
Joseph Santoliquito is a contributing sports blogger for CBS Philly.