It’s been almost ten years since Northeast High School’s powerhouse baseball team brought home its last Public League Championship in 1999.
The Vikings football team has won 11 Public League titles overall, but none since 1983.
And the basketball team? No city trophies since 1929.
But far from the big display case in the school’s main entrance, neatly hanging on a wall in the physical education office, are six framed certificates honoring Northeast High’s most successful athletic team of this century: girls’ badminton.
That’s right, badminton.
“Other students joke that it’s not even a real sport,” says Ina Jancaj, a diminutive senior and half of the city’s most feared doubles team. “But it’s taken a little team like girls’ badminton to bring all these championships to Northeast.”
The Lady Vikings’ championship run began in 1998 and was quickly followed by titles in 2000, 2001, 2005, 2006 and 2007. Over the last eleven years, the Lady Vikings have dominated the Public League, racking up a gaudy 122-5 regular season record. Entering this year’s playoffs, the team was 11-0 and poised to make a run at their fourth straight championship.
The School District of Philadelphia, whose badminton tradition dates back to high school club teams in the 1930’s, formed Pennsylvania’s first formal league in 1975. With 25 teams across the city and over 200 girls participating each year, Philadelphia’s remains the only badminton league in the state, even though it is an Olympic sport.
“This is not backyard badminton,” declares Karen Barrett, who has coached at Northeast since 1996 and taught Health and Physical Education at the school for 23 years. “You need to be competitive.
You need to be able to think quickly, and you have to master different types of hits. Most of all, you need to be able to move.”
Ninety minutes before Northeast’s April 29 match, before the bus has even arrived to take her team to Frankford High School, Coach Barrett is already moving at game speed, giving pointers, asking about prom dates, and jokingly making sure that the reporter covering the game isn’t picking up tips to pass on to their opponent.
None of the six seniors on the squad is better equipped to help new players get used to their coach’s demanding ways than the team’s star, who happens to be Coach Barrett’s oldest daughter.
Karen Barrett the younger has been on the badminton team for four years. She learned the game in middle school, when she came to Northeast High to meet her mom after school and played with the rackets and birdies after matches were over.
Coach Barrett insists that her instruction is confined to games and practices. Told this, the younger Barrett just smiles.
Her mother never pressured her to play, she laughs, but with the playoffs about to begin, her father has wearily resigned himself to a steady stream of badminton talk at the dinner table.
The family dynamic among the Lady Vikings extends throughout the fourteen-member team, which includes girls from China, Vietnam, Colombia, Albania, and Russia, as well as twin sisters from India.
Xiaoying Li, who was born in China and started playing badminton when she was eight, is the team’s number one singles player. Northeast’s top-ranked doubles team includes Barrett, the only African American on the team, and Jancaj, who came to the U.S. from Albania nine years ago.
“There are some challenges” in coaching such a diverse group, allows Coach Barrett. “But all my girls know that when they are selected to be a part of this team, they become not just my player, but my daughter. After going through the Barrett boot camp, everyone becomes part of the big badminton family.”