- Glenn Nelson, ESPNHS HoopGurlz
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NEW YORK -- Back in March, Annarie Sidney received an unexpected phone call from her daughter, Brianna, a junior at St. Michael Academy, a private Catholic school for girls in the shadow of Madison Square Garden in midtown Manhattan.
"Guess what?" Brianna Sidney told her mother. "The school is closing."
The news initially was difficult for Annarie to comprehend. The school had recently announced that a fundraising drive realized double its original goal. Still, two straight years of budget deficits and a reeling global economy had taken its toll: The 136-year-old school would not -- could not -- reopen its doors in the fall.
Brianna had been oddly at peace with the development, her mother recalled. Brianna's basketball coach, Robert "Apache" Paschall, the program's knight in shining armor, probably had sprung into action, Annarie figured. Pascall, Annarie says, "fixes things," and he'd dived into his biggest project yet.
Paschall, who likes to assign themes to his seasons and chapters in his life, already had a vision and, of course, a theme -- "Rise of the Fallen." It would make a perfect T-shirt, he thought. The path Paschall quickly traveled to delivering a nationally renowned and ranked girls' basketball team -- lock, stock and barrel -- to Nazareth Regional High School in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, had all the trappings of a fairy tale.
He was able to pull it off because, though his players and parents had taken an emotional roundhouse to the solar plexus, Paschall convinced them of their extraordinary opportunity -- the program, just a year removed from wresting the New York state federation title from perennial powerhouses such as Murry Bergtraum and Christ the King, was a free agent in a buyer's market.
As proof, three suitors -- including Nazareth -- materialized almost immediately. Dr. Joe Geric, the director of advancement at St. Michael, signed on early to aid in the search. Geric says he lent his assistance because of the atmosphere Paschall had built with his team.
"Apache treats the team as family," Geric said. "They are a unit, and he provides lots of support. If a girl needs a tutor, he gets her one. If a family needs help with tuition, he finds it. Given the type of world he created for the kids, I thought it was important to help keep them together. This was not about athletics for me. It was about preserving a community of young women."
Though the sporting public likes to celebrate youth as a paradigm for hope and renewal, the internal workings of a sport as entrenched as basketball is in New York often does not parallel such enthusiasm. So while the media has portrayed Paschall, 32, as somewhat of a wunderkind, he has been a lightning rod in girls' basketball for criticism, accusations and assorted folderol. The old guard never thinks it's time to relinquish and, further, doesn't take kindly to those who move in and refuse to kiss rings.
The whispers have ranged from his being a drug dealer to his tanking a game last spring to circumvent a tough playoff game at a rival's home court. The latter was sparked by St. Michael's unexpected 62-49 loss last year to St. Peter's in the Catholic High School Athletic Association (CHSAA) championship game. Though the loss avoided a state quarterfinal game at Christ the King which may have impeded its march to a federation championship, St. Michael did have a league title and a top-five national ranking on the line.
"Crazy," Paschall says of the rumor mongering.
The levitating profile of girls' basketball, combined with enrollment patterns and requirements increasingly untethered to geographic concerns, have combined to form an ultra-competitive witches brew of recruiting elements in New York. The St. Michael players, which includes a core of nationally regarded college prospects, lost their school, so they are free to enroll anywhere they can qualify -- a fact that was not lost on rival schools. That Paschall was able to assemble such talent at a school whose basement gym, with its low ceiling and column-obstructed floor, was so inferior that St. Michael actually resisted scheduling home games was the source not only of suspicion, but resentment.
Paschall, who was convinced by his sister to start coaching girls, reminds that his program tends to attract girls who "need a little extra TLC," and in some cases initially were unwanted by rivals. His first personnel break was Kia Vaughn, the cornerstone of an NCAA championship team at Rutgers who now plays for the WNBA's New York Liberty. She was so raw when she reported to St. Michael that Paschall and his assistant, Lauren Best, herself a St. Mike alum, recall an early Vaughn hook-shot attempt flying over a backboard at a Brooklyn playground.
Success, of course, breeds demand. Paschall has been able to not only field teams at St. Michael clotted with Division I prospects, he's operated a highly successful club program called Exodus. Doing so with a "Father Flanagan" approach has had its price, of course. A couple of years ago, Paschall scheduled St. Michael for too many games and it had to forfeit one in a major tournament in Pennsylvania. Last summer, the NCAA pulled its certification from a major source of funding for Paschall's programs because of paperwork issues.
Paschall and Best have had to focus their efforts and attention on mundane things -- like getting their team to games. Unlike most schools, which maintain or lease buses for their athletic teams, St. Michael typically traveled to games on the New York subway system. The Exodus teams rent vans and drive around the country all summer, sometimes getting embroiled in traffic and showing up late for games. Last year, the St. Michael team funded its own travel to the New York State Federation championships in Glenn Falls, N.Y.
"When people asked how we got there," Best said, "they wouldn't believe me when I told them we paid our own way."
Paschall said, "We have a lot of bake sales. We just find a way."
The process has its champions. Brianna is the third daughter that Annarie has entrusted to Paschall. Her oldest, Elon, is on basketball scholarship at St. John's. Jelleah is starting at Syracuse in the fall. Annarie Sidney, who lives on Long Island, believes her daughters are more well-prepared to live independent lives. "Having a kid out in the city is a learning experience in itself," she said. "I don't want my daughters going away to college without [first] learning how to get around."
Annarie Sidney also likes the St. Michael and Exodus tradition of everybody taking care of everybody. She says she learned the ways from parents who came before her, and that she is passing on the mindset to the families coming in. A lot of times this means having extra food and drink in the refrigerator for those who need them, or space in a hotel room for a couple extra bodies. Best's and Paschall's cell phone constantly hum with arriving texts or voicemails from players seeking advice, a ride, homework help or, often, just a good word.
Brianna arguably will reap some of the benefits of the building process her mother and sisters went through with Paschall. Nazareth, which the group chose over St. Barnabus in the Bronx and Bishop Loughlin in Brooklyn, has a nicer gym, weight room and access to transportation, in addition to good academics. Many of the girls will be grandfathered at tuition rates that were discounted from St. Michael's $5,800 per year.
Brianna Sidney will join five other seniors, including Tiffany Jones, ranked No. 72 by ESPN HoopGurlz in the 2011 class, and Taylor Ford, who is No. 92. The incoming freshman class, deemed the "Fab Five" by Paschall, includes point guard Bianca Cuevas, who already has played two years on the college-evaluation circuit; 5-foot-9 guard Arelis Cora and a ready-made front line of 6-1 Chelsea Robinson, 6-2 Yazmine Belk and 6-2 Sophia Roma. Nazareth, which has not fielded a girls' basketball team for seven years, will rejoin the sport with a bang.
"We walk into Nazareth," Paschall said, "as one of the top programs in the country."
They walk into Nazareth to finish a journey that started from nothing and fell back to nothing. Apache Paschall and his group truly have risen again.
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Glenn Nelson is a senior writer at ESPN.com and the founder of HoopGurlz.com. A member of the Parade All-American Selection Committee, he formerly coached girl's club basketball, was the editor-in-chief of an online sports network, authored a basketball book for kids, and was a longtime, national-award-winning newspaper columnist and writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.