Basketball molds St. Joe’s team into one big family

  • January 13, 2011
Basketball girlsTORONTO - Most basketball players have a conventional notion of what makes a great basketball photo. The great photos show a player rising above the rest — a hand blocking a shot, a rebound plucked out of mid-air, a shot launched with precision.

But those heroic moments aren’t how 5’9” centre Cesarine Moundele of the St. Joseph’s College School Rough Riders thinks of her sport or her team. When I asked the team what sort of picture would best tell the story of basketball at their school, Moundele said, “A picture of the bench.”

Teammates all around her agreed. What makes their team is all of them, together, cheering each other, supporting each other. 

“We’re like family,” said 5’0” guard Christi-Ann Miole.

The Rough Rider’s improbable coach Francesco Maltifitano — who made his mark playing soccer, not basketball — turned away from the kids to hide his smile. He was as proud of this answer as he was of any of their wins.

Challenged to say why basketball should matter at all in a Catholic school, 5’4” guard Raize Dela Pena said, “You learn teamwork. You know you’re not alone in the world.”

When Maltifitano arrived at St. Joseph’s the school had no gym and no reputation in school athletics.

“When they played us (other schools) didn’t even know where our school was,” he said.

If academics or tradition were sports, opposing sides would know all about St. Joseph’s. The 156-year-old school, founded as St. Joseph’s Academy for Young Ladies, is nestled between Government of Ontario office buildings and the University of Toronto campus on Wellesley Street, just east of Queen’s Park. It has a proud history of sending young women on to success at university and beyond.

Though it was once a school that drew students almost exclusively from an elite of Toronto’s wealthier Catholic families, a substantial portion of St. Joe’s girls now come from Regent Park and St. Jamestown — tough neighbourhoods in the downtown core. The 700 students are just as likely to commute to  school from public housing apartments as from comfortable, single-family houses.

Principal Luisa Cangelosi is proud of her school’s ability to encompass its truly diverse population in a genuine, Catholic community. The basketball program is important because it’s one more way for girls to be part of the school community.

“Student success is not just for a select few,” she said.

From the beginning Maltifitano has known there was more to his senior girls basketball team than athletic ability. The girls have been willing to run at 7 a.m. and then practice after school. Some of them have to wake at 5 a.m. to be at the school for the 7 a.m. workout.

“We teach them how to work very, very hard,” he said. “Imagine if we took that and put it in the classroom.”

Kevin Taylor has seen his daughter, 6’0” forward Kimberly Taylor, do just that.

“It’s not only about basketball. It’s about keeping these girls inspired,” he said. “She’s had some success in basketball. That’s given her some great self-confidence, and it’s showing up in other things.”

Chances are Kimberly would have been a success in school even without basketball. Her sister is an academic star in Grade 12 at St. Joe’s, and the Taylor family doesn’t face the economic and social barriers many of Kimberly’s teammates have to overcome.

Kevin Taylor is awed by the solidarity among his daughter and her teammates.

“Right away there was this sort of sisterhood,” he said.

Jennifer Taylor, the Grade 12 sister, makes herself part of the sisterhood by tutoring some team members. When the Rough Riders lost in the semi-finals, the father was amazed to see his daughter, her teammates and their classmates celebrating at mid-court.

“We lost the game,” he explained. “But all the girls ran onto the floor and there was this big celebration. They celebrated just being there and having fun and team spirit and school spirit. There was some media there and they didn’t know who won the game. They were confused for a minute.”

That community is as catholic as it could be.

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