In the wake of Catherine McAuley High School’s fourth straight Class A girls’ basketball state championship, veteran Portland sportswriter Steve Solloway wrote a rather snarky column in which he praised the McAuley Lions for “Playing just for joy, not a future.”
The thesis of the column was that the McAuley girls were “playing for joy” when they drubbed Oxford Hills 67-41, but that some of them play for “a future” when they play post-season Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) basketball.
“AAU basketball,” Solloway wrote, “is the business of selling young basketball players.”
I guess that’s one way to look at it. Another is that teams often get to play for the joy of a state championship because their best players play AAU basketball. The best players in most sports practice and play year-round.
I’m not sure what’s so selfish or mercenary about playing for your school team and then playing in summer showcase leagues so college coaches can see you play.
I once asked Sarah Marshall, a McAuley alumna who went on to star at Boston College, if she thought BC would have recruited her had she stayed home and played at Falmouth High School. She told me she was pretty certain she would have because the BC coach saw her in AAU games, not McAuley games. College coaches rarely see prospects play in high school because of schedule conflicts.
But McAuley’s success has its detractors. The complaint you hear is that the little Catholic girls’ school has become a basketball powerhouse by virtue of being a virtual southern Maine all-star team. Of course that’s a fairly recent development.
In 1999, McAuley was 1-17, the doormat of Class A. Then came the Cinderella season of 2000, when fiery point guard Danielle Jendrasko led the 8-10 Lions from a 10th seed to the Western Class A championship. McAuley lost to Mount Blue in the state championship game, but that championship run inspired girls all over greater Portland.
In 2001, 2005 and 2007, McAuley knocked at the door as Western Class A champs and state runners-up. But the Lions blew the doors off Class A by winning state championships in 2002, 2003, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014.
You’ll hear rumors that McAuley recruits players, poaching talent from area schools, but McAuley doesn’t need to recruit. Winning programs are self-perpetuating. If you’re a Division 1 college prospect in a town with a so-so girls’ basketball team, you can’t be blamed for at least thinking about McAuley.
Fans in Falmouth and Yarmouth, however, also can’t be blamed for wondering what their girls’ teams might have been had not some of the town’s best players in recent years gone off to McAuley.
Yarmouth saw tall, talented Ashley Cimino (Stanford) and Olivia Smith (Dartmouth) play for McAuley. Falmouth has been hit even harder, sacrificing Sarah Marshall (Boston College), Elyse LaFond (Emory), Alexa Coulombe (Boston College), Marisa Berne (Bowdoin), and now Allie Clement (Marist) and her sister Sarah (still just a sophomore) to the Lions.
There is nothing wrong with a young athlete wanting to play for a premier program and to be part of a winning tradition, but it is also true that Catherine McAuley High School has a distinct advantage over most of its competitors: It can attract top players from a far greater talent pool than most high schools.
If the Lions win a fifth consecutive state championship next year, it may be time to consider whether they should be playing in the New England Prep School Athletic Conference rather than the Southwestern Maine Activities Association.
But ultimately, the real joy of playing doesn’t come when playing for a gold ball. It comes years later, when you’re playing just for the fun of it, pickup games at the playground or gym, rec league games early in the morning or late in the evening, games where nothing is a stake except a few beers and bragging rights.
The players of the McAuley dynasty still have that joy to look forward to long after their high school, AAU and college careers have ended.