Up by 34 points with just 4.7 seconds remaining for the Public League girls’ basketball title, Coach Joe Ryan, his eight seniors, and the rest of the Lady Engineers could finally savor a victory four years in the making.
As senior leaders Keisha Hampton and Shamyra Hammond turned to the crowd and raised their arms in triumph, the raucous Engineering and Science student section erupted in celebration, prompting the players to throw their jerseys into the stands at Temple University’s Liacouras Center.
“We were crying,” senior guard Marqesah ‘Marty’ Spicer explained afterwards, “but this time, it was happy tears.”
It’s unusual for any school to have eight contributing seniors on a team of only 12 players. It’s especially rare at a small magnet school like Engineering & Science.
Two days before the game, during practice in the school’s gym at 17th & Norris Streets in North Philadelphia, Coach Ryan reflected on what this group means to him.
“I will probably never see another team like this,” said Ryan, a history teacher at E&S for 25 years and head coach of the girls’ basketball team for 19 years. “I’ll be long retired before a group like this comes together again,” he predicted while watching Hampton, Hammond, Spicer, Sharay Hall, Tesha Harvey, Vanessa Johnson, Shanda Kennedy, and Brittany Williams prepare for their final Public League game.
“Four years ago, our program was this close to being finished. Then, the eight kids who are now seniors just showed up. I thought they had come to E&S to play with me because of our basketball tradition, but they had no idea who I was. Some weren’t even sure we had a team. But then we held a real tryout, and I saw how talented they were,” he said, shaking his head at the memory.
“It’s amazing. You just don’t get that at a place this small.”
Ryan led E&S to its first and only Public League title in 1997. Eight years later, with the eight freshmen who had walked unannounced into his gym just months before, they made it back to the “chip,” only to be dismantled 79-56 by Public League superpower Central.
In 2006, with rising star Hampton sidelined with a broken thumb, E&S again lost to Central in the championship, 58-46. And last year, Central made it three in a row over E&S and six straight Public League titles overall with a 53-44 victory. The last one hurt the worst, agreed E&S players and coaches.
“Last year was the only time I really gave us a strong shot to win,” said Ryan. “It could have gone either way, but [Central’s star senior and current Villanova Wildcat] Sarah Jones just took over.”
“She wanted it more than us,” said the feisty Spicer, a diminutive but lightning-fast point guard. “It was her last year, and she was going for her fourth chip in a row. She wasn’t going to let them lose.”
“But that’s how we feel now.”
The E&S seniors and coaches all say that last year’s heartbreaking loss laid the foundation for this year’s success.
“We came up short at the end of [last year’s title] game because we started playing selfish,” explained volunteer assistant coach Dave Hargrove, who did his student teaching at E&S and now teaches at Duckrey a few blocks away.
“We had the talent, but we didn’t play as a team. That’s why we lost.”
The talented group of eight were all back at E&S as seniors this year.
All-everything forward Hampton averaged 20 points and 14 rebounds a game. She was named all-Public League for the third time, is a candidate for Pennsylvania player of the year, and will play next year for DePaul University in Chicago.
Hammond is a four-year starter and three-time all-Public League star who can play either guard position, drive at will, and extend defenses with her range.
Johnson is a rugged interior player who does much of the team’s dirty work.
Together, sparkplug Spicer, three-point specialist Harvey, and Kennedy comprise a formidable trio off the bench.
And this year, the seniors were joined by ultra-talented freshman guard Brittany Hrynko.
At the beginning of the season, Assistant Coach Hargrove and team captain Hampton sought to build the trust and teamwork that had been lacking in their last disappointing loss to Central. The two of them came up with a new slogan: “Together we can.”
From the beginning, the team bought in.
To make room for Hrynko, Spicer, a two-time all-Public selection herself, accepted her new role off the bench. “Whatever I need to do to make the team better,” she explained at a school pep rally the Friday before the title game. “I’m tired of losing to Central. I want to see them crying this year.”
Hammond, forgoing an opportunity to score 1,000 career points, slid over from shooting guard to point guard to provide the team with a steadying influence.
And the Lady Engineers embraced a rugged schedule to toughen themselves up.
After December losses to defending New Jersey state champion Trenton Catholic and local powerhouse Mt. Saint Joseph’s, E&S traveled to New York City to play defending Washington, D.C. champs H.D. Woodson.
E&S lost again, 67-58. But the team came together in defeat.
“We lost,” said Hargrove, “but we played hard, and we played together. After the game, no one was mad at each other or pointing fingers.”
“It was a turning point in our season,” Hampton agreed. “We started to trust our communication and continuity on the court.”
The Lady Engineers went undefeated the rest of the season, finishing the regular season 20-4, winning their Public League games by an average of almost 40 points, and blowing out Prep Charter and Bodine in the playoffs.
But by February 24, all that was merely back story for the fourth installment of their running grudge match with Central.
On game day, confidence at E&S was running high. Central (18-6) looked vulnerable after recently having their remarkable 101-game Public League winning streak snapped by Northeast.
In the locker room before the game, Coach Ryan told his players, “What’s going to happen today, no one will ever be able to take away from you. Ten years from now, you may be having a bad day at work, and you’ll always be able to remember this, and it will make you smile.
“When you’re a champion, you’re a champion forever. This is the year.”
From the game’s outset, it was clear that 2008 would indeed finally be E&S’s year.
Hampton blocked Central star Jillian Barrett’s first field goal attempt.
Hrynko scored six first-quarter points and led a suffocating full-court defense.
On the court for barely 60 seconds, super-sub Spicer drained a three-point shot from the wing.
And when Hammond put E&S up 16-6 with a 15-footer to end the first quarter, the rout was on.
Co-MVP’s Hampton (18 points, 9 rebounds) and Hrynko (16 points, 7 steals, 6 2assists) were the stars. But everyone on the E&S side – from players and coaches to the parents in the stands – stressed that the 63-29 win was a team effort a long time in the making.
“We knew what we came for,” said a teary-eyed Hammond as the team celebrated on the floor after the final buzzer. “We wanted to win, but we also wanted to show everyone that E&S is a team.”