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Manhattan's St. Michael leads the pack

11/7/2008

NEW YORK -- Describing the path to St. Michael Academy almost is as daunting as fielding a prominent girl's basketball team there. It's not quite uptown enough to be Midtown and not downtown enough to be Downtown. Making stops on the Seventh or Eighth Avenue subway lines, where most tourists disembark for the likes of the iconic Macy's department store, requires an additional trek on foot in and out of the shadows of Penn Station and the U.S. Post Office.

Blinking, evading traffic during a jaywalk, or checking Facebook on an iPhone, risks missing the place altogether.

Even Apache Paschall, the head girl's basketball coach at St. Michael, misses the mark sometimes. "The miracle on 34th Street," he calls the school, which technically is located on West 33rd (in Paschall's defense, the church and parish offices are on 34th). However, picking that nit is to miss Paschall's allusion to the holiday classic film of the same name, as well as the nearby basketball shrine, Madison Square Garden, host to many miracles of the hoops variety.

The next such miracle could belong to Paschall and his girls. St. Michael has big-time talent, as many as 11 eventual Division I players, and enough to be ranked No. 3 in the ESPN RISE preseason FAB 50. The team has Empire State size, guards with as much shake as the Studio 54 dance floor and a sharp-shooting superstar in Shenneika Smith, who is No. 7 in the ESPN HoopGurlz Hundred for 2009.

To hold its ranking, or contend for a national title, St. Mike will have to negotiate a road filled with the kind of potholes that would make any native New Yorker proud. With a limited travel budget (they drive everywhere), Paschall has set up a schedule that is national in scope – No. 9 Oak Hill and dangerous Keough at the beginning of December, Nimitz and otherworldly Brittney Griner later in the month, No. 12 H.D. Woodson in January and No. 14 University at Seton Hall in February. Then there are the locals with which to contend – No. 8 Christ the King and No. 16 Murry Bertraum, as well as St. John the Baptist, which returns Rutgers commit Christine Huber, the 73rd prospect in the ESPN HoopGurlz Hundred.

It is a schedule in which, as feisty point guard Jennifer O'Neill puts it, "no one is going to hand us anything." If they handle the schedule and grow as a team? "We'll be a force to be reckoned with," she says.

This is not a viewpoint held only by St. Michael, by the way. Being a national power has been for years a New York state of mind. Bergtraum was No. 1 in the estimation of some last year and 2004 with a team that included Shannon Bobbitt (WNBA), Epiphanny Prince (Rutgers) and Erica Morrow (Syracuse). Christ the King won consecutive mythical national titles in 2005 and 2006 with teams led by Tina Charles, now a starter at Connecticut.

Christ the King, located in Queens, struggled last year with a young team. But the youth, particularly long, athletic sophomore Bria Smith, is blossoming; transfer Aerial Edwards is eligible and ultra-athletic Tahira Johnson, who recently committed to South Florida, is ready to lead. Christ the King is a mainstay at the prestigious, pre-Christmas Nike Tournament of Champions in Chandler, Ariz., where the Royals' troubles began last year.

"Everybody is going to Phoenix knowing what to expect," Johnson says. "We believe we can make a run at a national title."

That belief also persists at Bergtraum, which lost stars Shakeya Leary and Krystal Parnell from last year's unbeaten team. "But we've still got a lot, too," notes assistant coach Chez Williams. The returnees are led by juniors Doris Ortega and CeCe Dixon, whose sister Lorin was the star point guard with Christ the King's national championship teams. "I think we're going to be just as good as last year," Williams says. Even so, they'll have to overcome a schedule that typically does not venture far from the Big Apple.

Not that St. Michael doesn't have bugaboos of its own. In the New York area, the program has a reputation of not being able to win the "big one." Last year, for example, the Eagles were upset in the Class AA semifinals by St. John the Baptist. "Everyone was upset after that game," O'Neill says. "This year will be like revenge." Senior Jelleah Sidney says the loss prompted her to "guarantee that I will be 'on' every game this season."

Some of St. Michael's biggest challenges are not on the court, though some involve, well, their own home court, which cannot be regulation sized. Further, administration rented out the gym through early this month, so the Eagles were rendered hoops diaspora, conducting some of their practices, for example, at the crackerbox gym at the Henry Street Housing Settlement, near the Brooklyn Bridge. St. Michael also has not bought the team a new set of uniforms, Paschall estimates, since his assistant, Lauren Best, played there about 15 years ago.

Paschall says he has not sought a job at a school with better facilities and a bigger athletic budget because St. Michael Academy, an all-girls school with a 16-to-1, student-teacher ratio and affordable tuition, serves well many of the at-risk kids he tends to attract. Paschall has been sort of a Father Flanagan figure in New York, taking in kids for whom he and Best not only coach, but provide financial, spiritual and life support. To some, they are more than surrogate parents.

Which all comes back to Paschall's assertion that St. Michael is the "miracle on 34th street." He really should not be faulted for adding on a block. One, even as big as they come in New York, just doesn't seem enough to contain all the challenges his team must face on a yearly basis.

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Glenn Nelson is a senior writer at ESPN.com and the founder of HoopGurlz.com. A member of the McDonald's All-American and Parade All-American Selection Committees, he formerly coached girls club basketball, was the editor-in-chief of an online sports network, and was a longtime, national-award-winning newspaper columnist and writer. He can be reached at glenn@hoopgurlz.com.