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No home court, but Fenway High girls’ basketball team excels

Posted by Your Town  December 11, 2013 06:07 PM

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Fenway High Girls Basketball Team after winning last year's Division 4 championship. Photo credit: George Papayannis Photography

After a long day of school and a couple of hours of study hall, Cadejia Matthews sits on the bus on her way to practice. On days with a lot of reading assignments, she crams in 30 more minutes of homework on the ride to the gym. She won’t get home until around 7 p.m.

“We really try to get everything done before practice,” she says. “Then when we’re at basketball, we can focus on basketball.”

Matthews is the captain of Fenway High School’s girls’ basketball team. The girls have won the Division 4 State Championships in each of the past two years.

But they don’t have a wall to hang their banners on.

Fenway High is one of a handful of schools in the region without a home gym. The school doesn’t have the space to accommodate indoor athletic facilities – leaving its athletes without the luxury of heading straight to the court after classes.

The girls’ team is bused to practice at the Tobin Middle School and plays games at the Shelburne Community Center, both 20 to 30 minutes away in Roxbury. That means no home crowd, no Panther logo on the floor – technically, no home-court advantage.

“Of course we wish we had our own gym,” says Head Coach John Rice, “to make a place [other teams] are afraid to come into.”

But even without a home gym, the girls say they still feel support – which is why they’ve been able to persevere and win repeat championships, school officials say.

Headmaster Peggy Kemp advocates the importance of athletics and does what she can to support Fenway’s sports teams.

“Sports help students develop leadership and make the school feel more connected,” she says.

Kemp works with other school administrators to advertise the games around campus and organize fan buses to take students to pivotal end-of-season matches. If the team reaches the state finals, she makes arrangements for students to purchase discounted tickets and provides transportation to the TD Garden, where the championships are held.

“We do create a sense of community,” says Kemp. “The girls will bring out a lot of parents – not just their own, but their friends’ parents, other basketball fans -- and just other parents in the neighborhood who want to (show) support. The faculty gets really excited for the games and makes it out, too.”

Director of Athletics Julio Avila says the support offsets the lack of a home facility.

“One of the main reasons we’ve been so successful is the support they get from the headmaster and the coaches,” he says.

While the drive to practice cuts into the girls’ homework time, Fenway High, in partnership with Boston Scholar Athletes, provides athletes with an academic resource known as the “Panther Den.” The Den is a quiet study space for the school’s sports teams. After-school tutoring and SAT-prep sessions also are offered.

The focus on academics contributes to “a high basketball IQ” on the team and translates to an on-the-court work ethic, school officials say.

“We feel really supported when we’re at school,” says Matthews. In addition, teachers make themselves available to help students with homework after they’ve left campus, Matthews says.

Rice says the team has been tested repeatedly on the court, coming back from a big deficit or clinching a win in the games’ final minutes. During last year’s state tournament, for example, Fenway won after being down by eight points late in the fourth quarter.

Rice and Avila say the lack of a gym only accentuates the team’s mental toughness. The girls have been able to look forward and find success despite a daily commute, no banner on the wall and typically empty stands.

"We’ve got a group of positive thinkers,” Rice says. “We show sportsmanship and high character. The coaches, school, teachers, players – we’re all that way. That’s where our success is.”

The girls head into their first competition Dec. 12, against Kipp Academy.

"They’re ready to go at it again,” says Avila. “I have a strong feeling that they should be able to repeat and capture the state championship.”

This article was reported and written under the supervision of Northeastern University journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel, as part of collaboration between The Boston Globe and Northeastern.

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