Facing stiffer competition and boasting a roster without any seniors, St. John’s Prep wasn’t expected to thrive right away.
But so far in their 2019-2020 campaign, the team has a 13-5 overall record and is 7-2 in conference play, good for second place in their division.
“I couldn’t be prouder of the group right now, they’re out there overachieving,” said coach Michael LoCascio. “Nobody thought that we would be where we are right now in the season.”
LoCascio attributes the team’s success to hard work and a commitment to winning. The girls put in extra work on their own time in the weight room and conditioning.
He has also noticed that the team has better chemistry, more trust between coach and player, and a better understanding of the system.
“They play as a unit, they play hard,” LoCascio said. “They’ve been together now for three years, so they’re starting to understand what’s going on.”
The team’s growth has been exemplified by their ability to win close games. On January 28 on the road against Monsignor Scanlan High School in the Bronx, St. John’s Prep was down by 13 points with six minutes remaining.
The Astoria-based team went on a run and won by four points, 82-78.
LoCascio said the team has come a long way since its first division loss to St. Francis Prep on December 4, where St. John’s Prep was blown out, 78-38. They face St. Francis Prep again on February 11, this time on their home court.
“There’s a ‘never say die’ mentality,” LoCascio said. “Up or down, they play as hard as any team in the league.”
St. John’s Prep is led by junior guard/forward and co-captain Alexandra Tarul. She has already committed to the Fordham Rams women’s basketball team, and is closing in on 1,000 career points in high school.
“We came a long way from freshman year,” she said. “To move to AA and be winning and doing a lot better than everyone expects you to do, it’s completely surreal.”
Tarul said the team struggled to come together as a unit in the past, which is a source of improvement this year.
“People are starting to understand their roles on the team,” she said, “and that we need to work as a team in order to win.”
Junior point guard Mia Fuller, the other co-captain, said many people thought they would be in last place because of their move to AA, “but we are succeeding.”
The competition is tougher in the top division, Fuller said. The girls are bigger, stronger and understand the game better.
But the St. John’s Prep point guard said the team’s unity, and the fact that they “have a coach who knows what he’s doing,” has made the adjustment easier.
In addition to winning the city championship this year, Fuller said she wants to earn “respect on our name.”
“People downplay us,” she said, “and I don’t like that.”
Sophomore forward Kaila Berry and junior guard Courtney Ortiz also agree that they are starting to play more as a team this year.
“We definitely went through ups and downs,” Berry said, “but we’re getting there.”
While the girls pointed to significant wins this season against Bishop Loughlin, who was previously undefeated before facing St. John’s Prep, and Archbishop Molloy, in which the team narrowly won by two points, the game that stood out the most was their January 11th victory over Christ the King.
The win was particularly meaningful for LoCascio, who was a junior varsity girls basketball assistant coach there for 15 years.
“They’ve always been the class, and still are the class, of the league,” he said. “They’re what women’s basketball has been about in New York for 30 years.
“They’re the benchmark,” LoCascio added. “For us to defeat them on their court was big.”
St. John’s Prep was down 13 points at halftime. When they returned to the locker room, LoCascio gave them a pep talk they did not forget.
“What I told them was, there’s opportunity here to prove to people that we belong,” he said. “This is where you make your bones.”
The girls came out in the second half and “held their composure,” LoCascio said. Tarul knocked down three huge three-pointers to begin the half, one further than the next.
“She just kept stepping back,” he said. “It put us right back in the game.”
When the final buzzer sounded, St. John’s Prep emerged on top, 55-51.
“It was a huge win for our program, it was a moment they needed to believe in themselves,” LoCascio said. “It puts us in the light of being able to compete with the best.”
With just a handful of games left in the season before the playoffs, LoCascio said he wants his team to work harder on defense, put in the work in practice, and continue to believe in each other.
He said he hopes the girls take nothing for granted, and believe that they’re 0-9 in the division, rather than 7-2.
“Hopefully, we get to the mountain and we make some noise,” he said.
Although this year was about exceeding expectations, LoCascio has even higher goals for next year. Every player will be returning, this time as seniors and juniors.
“Next year, we should come back as one of the favorites in the league,” he said.
St. John’s Preparatory school president Nuala Martinez said she has noticed the team coming together this year.
“The girls teams always impress me,” she said. “They raise the bar, and now they’re accomplishing what they want.”
Principal Maria Johnson said the team’s success is even getting the boys team to play better.
“They are really some fabulous young ladies, they’ve been working very hard,” she said. “They give 150, 200 percent each and every day.”
But it’s not just about basketball, Johnson said. The girls are role models in the school, and are often the first students to step up to volunteer.
They are also “outstanding” students, with many taking Advanced Placement (AP) classes.
“They really are sending a message to the younger students of what it means to be successful,” Johnson said, “on and off the court.”