Shooting to the Top
(This is one of the key chapters in the "The Glory Girls," a book about the Odessa-Montour girls basketball team's rise to the Class D high school state championship in the 2000-2001 season. For details on how to purchase the book, see Business.)
By A.C. Haeffner
The first time I saw her in action, I was mesmerized -- dazzled, really, on several levels, for she was so many things: tactician and practitioner, field general and motivating force, conductor and executor.
She was, with a calm born of confidence and experience and untold hours of practice, capable of taking control of a situation that needed correction, and of directing the flow of subsequent activity in a positive way - positive, that is, for the team she represented.
What she controlled -- what she took control of when the need arose -- was an American art form recognized as a member of the large fraternity of worldwide sports: a game registered under the somewhat plebeian name of basketball. It strikes me -- has always struck me -- as a simplistic name for a contest of wills that requires (when played right) a combination of military tactics, a ballerina's grace, supreme conditioning, nerve, speed, quickness, athletic instinct and the finest calibration of eye-hand coordination.
It also requires -- at least if success is to be attained -- a chemistry not easily achieved on a team of a dozen or so souls, five of whom get starting roles while the remainder sit, looking for an opportunity to exercise their muscles in place of those starters'. Success is also elusive when one player is by necessity and talent the center of the team's universe -- when the rest of the cast must play supporting roles to a Barrymore.
But in this instance, and with this cast, the chemistry was attained -- indeed, flourished -- as each member of the team took her role seriously and knew without a doubt that the squad's success was dependent on maintenance of that balance of an esprit that over months was seasoned to a perfect pitch, was molded by time and experience and the firm hand of a veteran coach and his veteran son-assistant.
We are talking here about a high school basketball team -- a very special unit that achieved a dream that few accomplish: a state championship.
We are talking here about a team led by a very special player -- a shooter in the purest sense, a stylish left-hander who worked unbelievably long hours to attain her skill level, and then amazed her coaches, teammates and fans by repeatedly raising that level notch by notch until the dream was reality.
We are talking here about a team of special role players, including one who moved from a neighboring district in order to honor the legacy of her father; and others who selflessly set interfering picks for their star shooter, dove for valuable loose balls when games were on the line, stepped up with a half-dozen points when a half-dozen points were desperately needed, and cheered each other on through every level of competition that led to the ultimate goal: the state title.
We are talking here about the Odessa-Montour girls high school basketball team of 2000-2001, and about the remarkable, game-controlling, senior point guard Stefanie Collins, and about girls with names that will ring down through the years and into local legend: Jill Pevo, Cristen Hill, Stephanie Cross, Jennifer Thomason, Christie Emerson, Amber Hoffman, Tiffani VanZile, Tracy Cooper, Cara Mundt, Anna Feliciano, Val Richardson and Allison Bloom.
And we are talking here about head coach Frank Gavich, who history will record retired with a state championship in his pocket after many years of trying - nearly forty years after his high school team visited the states and came up short in its quest for glory.
Now, the glory is his and the girls'.
I visited Gavich in his classroom in the south wing of the Odessa-Montour High School mere days after the team's return from its final game, a loss in a season-ending Federation Tournament of Champions in Glens Falls, New York. This was a competition created by politicians some years ago that has failed to gain credibility because of its odd configuration: it involves New York City and Long Island teams along with Upstate public school champions, which is fine, but insists on putting three teams from the Catholic schools association in the tournament, one to a class -- no matter what the actual size of the school. Since class is determined by enrollment, in this particular year a Class A school named Kellenberg ended up in the Class D portion of the tourney, creating an obvious mismatch.
Gavich just smiled and shrugged his shoulders when I brought up the last game -- a 64-40 Kellenberg victory that was just Odessa-Montour's fourth loss of the year. As is his way, he put a positive spin on it.
"The game was much closer than the score would indicate," he said. "We stayed with them -- within 10 points or so -- until pretty late. Then we just ran out of steam."
The contest followed by one day another battle in which the Lady Indians -- as O-M's team is called -- fought back from a 12-point deficit (and eight points with but three minutes to go) to claim a victory over an independent Manhattan school called Dwight. That contest in itself was draining, but in combination with the preceding week's state championship, and all the travel, and with the need in the end for O-M's smallish squad to go up against what looked like a forest of Sequoias well, even a well-oiled engine loses power when the incline is too long.
No, Gavich (and, I suspect, the team) let the last game roll off them as easily as they had let losses earlier in the year to Edison (twice) and Lansing -- both Class C schools -- pass by with nary a look back. They had set their sights on a goal -- the state Class D public schools championship -- and had attained it with a single-mindedness that comes only with good teamwork, good balance, good inside and outside games, and good coaching.
The season was well-chronicled in the area newspapers and on television, since the Lady Indians' quest was spiced with individual stories that media outlets found impossible to ignore: the return by the coach, after four decades, to a state tournament, with one last chance for redemption before he closed out his career and handed the coaching reigns to his assistant coach (and son); the move by the team's center, Pevo, from the Watkins Glen district in order to honor her late father, who had worn the number 45 (which she adopted) when he had played years earlier for Odessa-Montour; and the enrollment shrinkage that enabled O-M to drop a class, from C to D, thus making the path to a state championship a little simpler with the likes of Lansing and Edison out of the post-season picture. And there was the ongoing story of Collins, who was en route to setting a Section 4 career scoring record of 2,200 points, including a jaw-dropping 47 in a semifinal win at the state tournament.
But enough. Let's let Gavich tell the tale. I talked to him in his classroom -- with his son Greg present -- after most students had left for home. It was a break in Gavich's routine, a time when he could rest at his desk between the end of his day's teaching chores and his late-afternoon duties as golf coach -- a post he has held for seven years, a half-dozen less than his tenure as basketball coach. I started the interview with a simple question, and had to ask relatively few others in the ensuing forty-five minutes, a large part of which was taken up by an enthusiastic Gavich monologue on the development of Stefanie Collins as a basketball force and on the rewards she has reaped as a result of her dedication, skills and achievements. A partial transcript follows.
Interviewer: When did you guys know that you had something special going?
Frank Gavich: It was the third game of the season no, the second game. We started having an inkling after the Groton game, which was the second game of the year. A lot of people didn't know it, but Groton was one of the very best teams in Section 4. They didn't get a lot of publicity until near the end of the year, when people started realizing the only losses they had were to us and to Lansing. They wound up like sixth or seventh in the state poll. So they should have been getting coverage right along.
So we knew going into the second game, when we were going to play at Groton, we didn't really know if we could win that game, because they were so good. So we went over there and won; we led all the way, but we knew it was a very, very good win on the road. And we got thinking, well, we could probably play with anybody, now that we've won that road game.
And then after the Waverly and Watkins games, which came right before Christmas after those two games, we began to suspect that this team could be headed for something special. That's when we started thinking that way.
Interviewer: You could feel the excitement kind of building at that point, and then by the time of the first Edison game, it was nuts. How did you generate all that publicity all of a sudden. It was on TV and in the newspapers a week, a week and a half ahead of that Edison game, so that everybody was anticipating it. Now this is kind of unusual, especially up here, especially getting the Star-Gazette involved, because that's like pulling teeth.
Greg Gavich: You know, we actually went down and scouted Edison; they played Waverly like the third week of the season. And they beat Waverly; and I looked at their schedule on the ride home and I said they're going to come into our place undefeated -- because they didn't have anybody who could beat them along the way. And that's the first time I thought, hey, that's going to be a pretty big game. And we kept winning this was before we played Watkins and Waverly, and frankly, after we beat Watkins and Waverly, then it started to kick in -- we thought, hey, these two teams are going to be unbeaten, playing each other. And last year, because we played Edison three times, it already set a precedent; it had become a little bit of a rivalry. 'Cause they beat us, then we won, then we beat them in a playoff for the division. So the table was kind of set for that game; the seed had been planted last year to the media, that this was a big deal.
Frank Gavich: Plus, it was an Elmira team. And it was Edison's biggest, best team in 15, 16 years. And they were very intent on beating us, so they generated some publicity there. It was also a culmination of things, too. You say why did the media get on it so much? Well, Greg mentioned last year, but you worked in the media, so you can probably answer this better than I could, but I suspect it takes more than just a winning team. The media became aware of how special Collins was last year, and they got to know her, and she signed a Division I scholarship, and they started covering her last year a lot, and I think that added to their interest. And then when Pevo transferred -- the story about her and about her father having gone to school here -- I think they hooked onto that along with the team. I think that kind of got the snowball rolling here, and one thing just led to another. You know, my last year they probably figured in there, too; I don't know. They like human interest things, and the more they covered us, the more they got to know the girls, and like the girls.
Interviewer: I was surprised the TV got on it so completely. When I came over to see that Edison game if I'd come over any later, I'd have been out of luck. The gym was full. And I arrived early in the JV game. It was just crazy.
Greg Gavich: We were a little surprised at how many people were there.
Frank Gavich: Yeah, this gym has never been locked before (for reaching its seating capacity). It's the first time they've ever turned anybody away. Somebody said to me, about a week before the Edison game, 'Is there going to be an advance (ticket) sale?' and I said, 'No, we don't need an advance sale; that gym is huge. We've never had a sellout crowd.' But I was wrong.
Interviewer: That was wild.
Frank Gavich: Yes, it was.
Interviewer: And I think everyone saw right away how deep Edison was. A very impressive team.
Frank Gavich: Right. And you know, they were at their best both times they played us -- which is to their credit. But they had their 'A' game both times, you know
Interviewer: Yeah, when you've got five players hitting double figures
Frank Gavich: Yeah, the first time, they couldn't miss. Maybe if they didn't have quite their 'A' game, it might have turned out differently.
What we tried to sell this team all year on, from Day One, was the games we play are only steppingstones. You may have heard me say this before; I don't know. I've said this to so many different media people. We sold the girls from Day One on the fact that there's only two games that count this year: The sectional championship and the state championship. And we said that over and over and over again. And we went in the locker room after a big win -- like Groton or Waverly or Watkins, which were big wins -- and we said to them, 'Enjoy it, but remember, this isn't what we're talking about. This is only a steppingstone. It's the Section 4 championship and the state championship.' And when we went in the locker room after the losses to Edison, we said the same thing. We said 'Don't get down about it. Remember what we're here for. This is good practice.' Honest to god, those are the words we used. 'This is good practice to get us ready for sectionals and for the state tournament.'
And the same thing with the IAC championship game against Lansing. We told the girls all week long 'This is practice. We're practicing for the two games.'
Greg Gavich: Personally, I thought that game, that even though we lost to Lansing, I felt really good about how we played. Because we played fantastic offensively. I mean, nobody scores 63 points against Lansing.
Frank Gavich: Yeah, nobody has scored 63 points against Lansing in the last five years. It's kind of funny to say this, and I'm not taking anything away from Lansing, because they were the best team in the section, but they're not a great shooting team, and they shot the lights out against us that day. If they shot the way they normally shoot, then that game would have been right to the wire; and we might have been able to beat them. They haven't shot that way since; we saw them play, and they never shot that way again.
Now, they scored a tremendous amount of points because of their defense, which they're great at. Their outside shooting is suspect; but against us that night, everybody made their outside shots; and it's a good thing (for them), because if they didn't, we might have beat them because we scored 63 points, and they're not used to giving up 63 points.
But again, we went in the locker room -- other years, we'd be down, and dejected -- but we went in the locker room that night, the two of us went in with smiles on our faces
Greg Gavich: Yeah. The kids weren't down about that game.
Frank Gavich: Well, they didn't know what to do. But when they saw us smiling, and we said 'It's practice,' they lit right up and we instantly forgot about that and we got ready for sectionals, and the rest is history.
Greg Gavich: I think we kind of learned a little bit from Eggleston (the Elkland, Pa. coach) in terms of pointing for those two games and saying it from the get-go. Because I remember two years ago we took that quote, based on something he said before the season, 'There's only one game that counts, and that's the state championship game.'
Frank Gavich: We got to know him very well in the past four or five years because we scrimmaged his team a lot, and he got to know Stefanie a lot, and Jill, and one day when we were down there scrimmaging he made that statement about his kids, and we kind of said, 'Hey, that's the way we feel,' and we kind of took it and used it with our team.
Greg Gavich: Especially this year.
Frank Gavich: Especially this year. This year, we did it from Day One. We said, 'That's the only thing we care about.' And it worked.
Interviewer: What amazed me was you had hold of the media's attention so much that even the Federation Tournament was getting a lot of ink. Which delighted me, because Roderick -- was it Roderick Boone of the Star-Gazette? -- gave terrific coverage. When the Federation coverage kicked in, I thought, 'Man, they never cover the Federation.'
Frank Gavich: Well, they just got attached to the team. Even the TV guys did. They got attached to the girls. It was just one of those things where everything worked as the year went by -- and I'm talking about even like in September, as the pieces of the potential puzzle seemed to be falling into place you know, Jill decides to transfer here, which was a big decision, because they had to move, otherwise it was illegal; so they moved to Montour Falls. And all sorts of little things were happening -- like wow, this is going to help and that is going to help -- and all along I kept thinking, 'Well, sooner or later we're going to hit a snag, you know; something's going to creep up.' But it didn't. You know? Right to the end.
Interviewer: Let's talk about Collins. Her older sister (Samantha) is a track star at Geneseo. Are there any other siblings?
Frank Gavich: No. Just those two. But the older sister had a lot to do with getting Stefanie going because Greg and I decided, when Stefanie was in eighth grade, that we should bring her up to the varsity. But that's something that has to have the okay of the parents. So we went and spoke to the parents, and they didn't know what to do -- you know, an eighth grader -- and I told the parents, we had a meeting one night at the house, I laid it all out for them. I said, 'Look, this is what I think, we could jump-start her career here, she'll get instant recognition and so on; or you could go the AAU route if you want.' We put all the cards on the table -- and they weren't sure. But the sister, who was a player on the varsity at the time -- and sometimes it goes the other way with older sisters; they don't want the young sister coming up and showing them up, but this girl is just as great a kid as Stefanie -- she told the parents 'Stefanie belongs up here with us.' She was all behind it. And that helped the parents to decide, "Okay, let's let her come up to the varsity.' Then, once the season started, everybody realized it was definitely the right decision. But the sister played a big role, all year long, in allowing the little eighth-grader to get a lot of attention. So the sister helped enormously.
Interviewer: How much growth did Stefanie lack in eighth grade? Has she grown a lot since then?
Frank Gavich: She's gotten a lot stronger. And she's grown; sure, she's grown.
Greg Gavich: In the last year especially. That's another thing we noticed when practice started, was how much the weight training had helped her. When she went and visited St. Bonaventure, she met the strength coach, and he went over what those girls lifted down there, and I think she kind of said 'I better catch up here a little bit.' No it was in a program; she brought a program back
Frank Gavich: Every year with Stefanie, at the end of the season, we would sit down with her and tell her what she did well and what she needed to improve on. This was every year since eighth grade. And she did it, in the off-season. One of the things we told her she had to do was she had to start driving to the basket, because when she was in eighth grade she pretty much relied on her outside shot. We said 'You have to start driving to the basket.' So all summer long she worked on that, and she got better at it by the time she was a freshman. Then after her freshman year, we told her she had to what was it, Greg, do you remember?
Greg Gavich: We told her she had to get to the foul line a hundred times.
Frank Gavich: Maybe it was that year. We said 'You have to get on the free throw line a hundred times next year. You have to start drawing fouls, okay?' So all year long in the AAU and the summer league she worked on that. And at the end of her sophomore year, I knew the Bonaventure coach (Marti Whitmore, since resigned) a little bit, and I sent her an e-mail, just saying, 'Look, we have a girl here, she's a great kid, I really have no idea what position player she's going to be, but if you want to take a look at her some time, here's her name, whatever. Well, we get a call at the beginning of March from her, the Bonaventure coach, that says she's coming to Binghamton to see us play Bainbridge-Guilford, because they had signed this Mattingly girl out of Bainbridge-Guilford -- she was a great player when Stefanie was a sophomore -- and they were coming to see Mattingly play, anyway, because she had already committed to St. Bonaventure. So she was going to take a look at Stefanie.
So we went down to the arena to play that night, and we had a lousy game, and Stefanie didn't have a particularly great offensive game, but in the second half, because nothing else was working -- none of the seniors were able to do anything -- I put Stefanie on this Mattingly girl, to guard her. And she did a pretty good job. Well, when the game was over, coming home on the bus, everyone was saying, 'Well, we can forget about St. Bonaventure, because we stunk it up tonight.' Well, the next day I get an e-mail from (Whitmore) and she says 'No, I was impressed with her. She's only a sophomore. And I was really impressed with the way she played defense against this Mattingly.'
And that started it. You see, Bonaventure got a real big jump on everybody else. So they asked her to come down to their camp, and she went down to the camp, and they loved her. So we sat down with Stefanie at that point and said to her, 'Listen. There's some Division I interest here, but don't count on it.' And I said, 'If you want to pursue this thing, I'm gonna lay down what it's gonna take for you. You think about it and you tell me if that's what you want.' And I went through a whole litany of things. I said 'You think you worked hard up to now?' This was her sophomore year. I said, 'You have, but you're going to have to double it. If you think you want to have a shot at playing Division I,' I said, 'it's got to be eat, sleep and drink basketball, 12 months out of the year.' I said, 'And don't ever come back and tell me you're sick of playing basketball. Because you can't do that. You're going to have to give up spring vacation, you're going to have to give up a lot of things your friends have, because you're going to have to hit the weight room, you're going to have to devote yourself to basketball 12 months of the year.' And I said, 'There's going to be pressure, big-time sacrifices, and then you might not get the scholarship.' And then I said, 'Now, what do you want?' She said, 'No, I want to do it.'
And I said, 'Okay, if that's what you want, Greg and I will do anything we can to try and help you achieve that. Anything. You want to shoot in the gym? Call us on the phone, we'll come up and open the gym. You want to go some place, we'll take you some place. But there can't be anything in-between. You can't have boyfriends bothering you or telling you, well, you can't go to open gym tonight because we want to go here or there. I said, 'No exceptions to the rule, if you want to be a Division I player.' She said that's what she wanted, and she just upped her work schedule and was unbelievable. And, uh, that's when we told her 'You have to hit the weights,' and she did that, and 'You gotta get stronger,' and the big thing we told her, the beginning of her sophomore year, was 'You have to start creating offensive opportunities for yourself.' She was too unselfish at that point. 'You have to learn to take the ball and make your own play. You have to take control of the game and start driving and creating your own shot.' At the time, Mike Johnston was here; he was the principal and a genius at basketball. We discussed that many times, myself and him, and he said the same thing. And she did; look at all the stuff she did on her own. So that was the progress; that was the progression.
And in April of her junior year, we were in Syracuse, at a shootout in Syracuse. They have shootouts and the girls come together to play, and college scouts look at them, and college coaches. (The new Bonaventure head coach, Jim Crowley) was there, and he said, after the shootout, 'Look, don't tell the parents, but we're really, really impressed with her. If she plays that good down in Richmond next week, I'm going to offer her an early scholarship.' They can't do it in writing, but they can do it verbally. Well, we went to Richmond, Virginia -- to an AAU tournament at Virginia Commonwealth University (Stefanie was playing on an AAU team coached by Armando Toppi) -- and they played one of the best teams on the east coast, and she just lit it up. She had like 28 points, frustrated the daylights out of a point guard from Philadelphia, and he along with a lot of other Division I coaches saw all this -- and James Madison, Lasalle, Binghamton, and one or two other Division I schools started taking her name and asking me some questions; they were just getting on to this kid. When we got home, Crowley called me up. He said, 'Can you bring her down over Easter break?' So myself and Stefanie and her father went down - and I know she liked St. Bonaventure; she had been to camp there and liked the whole situation. But I didn't know for sure if he was going to her offer her the scholarship, and I didn't know what she was gonna say.
So we take her down, and he sits us down in the office and he says to her, 'We're recruiting a point guard, and you're on the top of our list. If you want the scholarship, it's yours.' He said, 'You don't have to answer me right now, but I need an answer by June. Because if you decide you're not going to come here, then I've obviously gotta go to my next choice. So, Stefanie, just let us know by June.' And she says, 'No, I'm perfectly happy here.' And Stefanie's father looked at me and I looked at him and we didn't even know she was going to say that. And, of course, the Bonnies coaches were ecstatic. The assistant came in the room and said, 'Did I hear what I just thought I heard?' Everybody was all happy, and that was it. And as it turned out, once word gets out that somebody has verbally consented, other schools get out of the picture. It's kind of like a courtesy. You very seldom try to pull somebody. It's done; it's done, but as soon as these other schools learned that Collins had verbally committed to St. Bonaventure, the ethics of the situation is stay away from her. And Crowley was smart to do that, because there would have been a lot of interest in her as time went by.
Interviewer: A lot of distractions, too.
Frank Gavich: Oh it turned out the best thing that ever happened to her. Some people question, they say, 'Why did she commit so early? She could have got a lot of other offers.' And we said, 'Well, she likes the school, she likes the coaches, she's comfortable.' And I said to the father, I said, 'Look, it's your call. But I like the coach, plus what happens if she blows out her knee? You know then what are you going to do? At least now you've got something in the bank.' Well, during the AAU games that summer, a lot of other girls on the team were still waiting for offers, and I went down to Washington to watch them play in the junior nationals -- teams came from all over the country to play, and the window was open for Division I coaches to come and watch and take notes. There's only certain times of the year they can do that legally. Well, the pressure was on these kids. They're all trying to impress these college coaches. Stefanie could care less. She's out there having a good time, playing relaxed because, like you said, the distractions were gone. She had her scholarship, she was happy with it, and she was loose as a goose. And the others kids some of them were crying because they had a bad game, and it's pretty high-tension.
And that's how it all happened. She's happy, her parents are happy. You know, it's tough to turn your back on $120,000 and say, 'Well, we're going to wait and see.'
Interviewer: I understand Collins is on the O-M track team this spring. She's not playing AAU ball?
Frank Gavich: There's not much for them after their senior year.
(Greg Gavich left the interview at this point.)
Interviewer: Everything's cut-and-dried by then; places are set.
Frank Gavich: Right. She's gonna try out for the Empire State Games in the Open Division this year, which is the college players. She's gonna do that. She played in the Empire State Games last year, and was the leading scorer on the team.
Interviewer: Right. I remember.
Frank Gavich: People really don't know what she's put into this. They think they do; but they don't. I mean, between the weight room, and shooting mornings before school down in the gym I can't tell you how many times she'd call me up and say, 'Can we go shoot?' I'd pick her up, and we'd come up to the gym, and it got to the point where I had a workout for her. Rather than just shoot, we did a specific routine. And depending on whether we went through it once or twice, she would shoot between 500 and 1,000 shots during that workout. And there were all different shots: shots off the dribble, shots off the pass, shots from different spots -- three pointers, two pointers. In fact, one thing I started doing with her last year, which really paid off this year, was the last part of the workout I'd have her shoot three-pointers back behind the three-point line; not just at the three-point line. I'd have her step back maybe three, four, five feet and shoot them from way back. And so many times this year -- especially in the post-season -- they weren't ready for that defensively. They're waiting for her at the three-point line and she's knocking them down four feet past that. They don't even come out and play her. And that was a big plus.
And her workout that she does off the dribble on her own -- I told Greg we got to tape it before she leaves because it's really impressive, and certainly younger girls can look at that and learn something from it. She goes through this thing off the dribble where she shoots, and I'll pass it out to her and she'll do a behind-the-back or between-the-legs and a jump shot and then a shake-and-bake or a back dribble. She's got all that stuff that she does out there on her own. It's impressive to see her do it.
And the Pevo girl was a big factor; I mean, you have to have an inside-outside game, and she's a great kid, too. She just plays so hard, and she wants to learn. She wants to be told what she's doing wrong so she can correct it, and I think her best days are ahead of her. She's just learning; she really is. That's what I tell some of the colleges, Division III colleges that are interested in her - I say, 'This girl's better days are down the road.' She hasn't anywhere near reached her potential yet.
And the other kids bought into their role. They were willing to let Collins and Pevo get all the attention and score the points. You know, I was watching a tape the other night of the Argyle game, I think it was (the state tournament semifinal) -- these kids were setting a lot of screens. You know, Cross and Mundt and Hill and Thomason and Emerson -- they're setting a lot of screens for Stefanie, and those things were very, very important, obviously. But good screens don't appear in the box score; you don't get your name in the headlines for setting good screens. But they were willing to do it. They were willing to sacrifice the notoriety, so to speak, to free her up, and that was all part of it. In fact, there were people up in Troy (at the states) -- officials, not basketball officials, but officials who ran the tournament -- who said that they were impressed with Collins, obviously, but they were also impressed with the way that the rest of the team was willing to do what they had to do to free her up and so on, and there didn't seem to be any problems out there.
You can't go that far without team chemistry; it's impossible. If you don't have it, sooner or later it's gonna get you. Sooner or later you're going to get beat when you shouldn't have, if you don't have chemistry on your team. No question about it.
Interviewer: Did you see any similarities between this team and the Chicago Bulls in their heyday?
Frank Gavich: (Laughs.) Well, we used one of their drills a lot. I got a drill off the Internet they said the Bulls used; I don't know.
Interviewer: Well, you had your Jordan; you had your Pippin
Frank Gavich: Yeah; I never thought about that.
Interviewer: And you had a supporting cast that always seemed to step up when it was needed.
Frank Gavich: You're right. I honestly hadn't thought about that; but you could make some comparisons. It's funny you mention that, because after the regional game, when we beat Immaculate Heart, we went to this restaurant over there in Oneonta, and the girls are at a table, and the parents are over here, and the coaches are here, and some guy went over to the girls and said, 'Oh, this is a basketball team.' And they said yeah. And he said, 'Oh, you must've won today,' and they all said yeah. And then he said to them, 'Okay, who's the Michael Jordan on this team?' And all fingers went, you know, from every direction at the table, they all pointed to Collins. I mean it was funny, 'cause all of a sudden all of these fingers were pointing at her, instantly from all different directions. It just struck me as funny when I saw that.
Interviewer: So what do you have left after Collins and Pevo and Hill and Cross graduate? Well, you won't be here, though maybe you'll be a spectator
Frank Gavich: Oh, yeah. I'll be around.
Interviewer: But what's the team lineup looking like?
Frank Gavich: Well, Greg's got Cara Mundt back. Jenny Thomason and Christie Emerson will play big roles. Tracy Cooper will help him some. He's gonna have a young team; he's gonna bring some young kids up from the JV. So he's gonna have a year or two of building. He's losing four stars. I mean, he's got his work cut out for him, especially with the success we've had. But there are some good young kids down in the younger grades. I think if people are patient, in a couple of years he'll bring them back. Because he's good; he's excellent. He knows the game; he knows the ins and outs. He's been in this school since he was this big (holds his hand not far off the floor). I mean, he gets some cooperation, he'll be fine. In a lot of ways he'll be better than I was. This is a different society, a different day and age, and he's a little more in tune with that. There's no question in my mind he'll be an excellent coach; it's just gonna take a year or two to bring us back to maybe a first-place team. Next year Edison is going to be the force in the league; Edison and Waverly, there's no question about it. But there's some good kids from the eighth grade down. There's some twins in third grade who are unbelievable unbelievable.
Interviewer: Third grade?
Frank Gavich: Yeah. I'm telling you; you ought to see
these kids. Third grade. Twins. Their name is Ayers. I mean,
they've got it all -- behind the back, between the legs. Third
grade. One of them scored 20 points in a game this year. A third
grader! And Kristine Gardner there, the sixth grader, is going
to be an excellent player. And there are some good eighth graders.
And you know, that group gets put together, in a couple of years
they'll be pretty good. Until then he's gonna have to keep his
head above water, but hey, in small schools, it doesn't go forever,
After my interview with the Gaviches, I asked Stefanie Collins for a few minutes of her time. She agreed to meet me after school a day later.
The interview was not a long one, for Collins -- though well-spoken and remarkably composed for an 18-year-old -- is not one for a lot of words. Few people of action are. We sat down in the school cafeteria, where two basketball hoops (it was once a gym) were in use by students. Our conversation took place with a backdrop of basketballs thump-thumping along the floor and clanging off of hoops and banging off of backboards - a fitting soundtrack to an interview with a basketball superstar.
Interviewer: I'll start out with a really general question: What makes Stefanie Collins tick?
Collins: (Laughs). Good question. It's a wide range of things. I mean, when it comes to basketball, I just practice all the time. I think it's because I just formed a love for the game when I was in like fifth grade, when I first moved her to New York (from Maryland). I attended my first basketball camp here at Odessa, and there was just something about it I liked - it's so intense. It's sort of an outlet, I think, for all my emotions, and I really get into it, and I think that's why I practice as much as I do. I just want to keep getting better and better; and I obviously have. (Soft, self-conscious laugh).
Interviewer: When did you start to really develop as a basketball player?
Collins: I started developing more when I was in eighth, ninth grade -- and then in tenth grade I started getting more involved in AAU and just playing all year round, and then by my junior year, I started getting in the weight room, which helped tremendously -- just making myself stronger and quicker. That has a lot to do with it.
Interviewer: On the team this year, you had a number of girls you'd played with before, but nobody apparently long term.
Collins: Right. Cristen Hill moved up when she was a sophomore, toward the post-season, and then she played when she was a junior. And Stephanie Cross, the same as with Hill.
Interviewer: And Jill Pevo came in late.
Interviewer: Things just kind of jelled late then.
Collins: Right. It's not like we played all along, since sixth grade, like you hear about a lot of teams -- like Lansing.
Interviewer: Did this surprise you, the amount of success the team achieved this year?
Collins: No, I don't think it did, because as a team, it's important that you all get along. And I know that on most teams, not everybody hangs out with each other, but we just had that thing where we just clicked. Everyone gets along with each other, and there were no problems during the year. And I think the reason we came together so quickly is because during the summer we went to basketball camp at St. Bonaventure and we got to stay overnight. That was really nice, to get that experience and be with the team for a night. So we clicked.
Interviewer: Now you're into track. Are you backing away from basketball for awhile?
Collins: No. I'm just taking a week off. Then I'll be doing track, and weightlifting, and doing some shoot-arounds.
Interviewer: When you go to Bonaventure this fall, do you have any specific goals in mind?
Collins: The main thing is, um, improving my game, basically. And getting a good education, of course. But I think I want to get stronger and quicker. And maybe when I'm out of there, I can keep playing. Overseas or something.
Interviewer: What about the U.S.?
Interviewer: Uh huh.
Collins: (Soft laugh.) A possibility.
Interviewer: That would be the ultimate goal there, right?
Collins: Yeah, that would be nice.
Interviewer: So basketball is the main focus down the road for now.
Collins: Well, it's mainly because I don't know what I want to do yet. Like I know I'll get a job and have a career in something. But right now, I'm not sure.
Interviewer: Tell me quickly, without even thinking too much about it, the highlights of the year.
Collins: The highlights of the year well, Watkins. That was nice. They knocked us out of the sectional semifinals last year; ended our season last year. That was a nice win, especially since it was the last time I was ever gonna play Watkins, and that's a big rivalry game. And the Waverly game was nice; that was huge. And the Groton game was a big game; we won by two. Um sectionals. We finally won the sectional title. And from the sectionals on; I mean, everything was just amazing. The road to get to states, to win states
Interviewer: Your coaches said they tried to instill in your team the belief that there were only two important games during the year -- the sectional championship and the state championship. Is that what you were thinking?
Collins: Right. At the beginning of the season, Mr. Gavich pointed out that there were only two games that really mattered to us: sectionals and states. I think everybody was anxiously awaiting sectionals and when that time came, we knew we had a shot of going farther -- especially with the lower classification (dropping from Class C to Class D) and Jill coming in and helping us out. We knew we had a good shot. And we were really excited about it.
Interviewer: And how big was that, Jill coming in?
Collins: Huge. I don't think we would have made it that far if we didn't have her. We wouldn't have won states, I don't think.
Yes, the first time I saw Stefanie Collins in action, I was mesmerized -- in the way that I have been mesmerized by other sports figures: Al Kaline in baseball, Payne Stewart in golf, Joe Montana in football and Michael Jordan in basketball.
I have found her and them mesmerizing because of their grace, because of their ability to take over a contest, because of the poise with which they could meet challenges head-on at key moments and almost always excel -- almost always.
It is that "almost" that makes such individuals so special; they are human, and yet they rise above the capacity of most humans through a combination of talent, conditioning, experience and hard work especially hard work.
Collins struck me in that interview as young, yes -- especially from my perch of a half-century -- but also as much more composed than I would be if someone were asking me questions. And she struck me as conditioned -- a finely tuned athlete who was not yet satisfied with her evolution, though clearly pleased by it. There would be more hard work down the road; more challenges to meet.
And as the interview ended and we bade each other goodbye, she struck me as one other thing, though I tend to shy from absolutes.
She struck me as the best basketball player I'd ever seen come through these parts, and maybe ever will.
P.O. Box 365
Odessa, New York 14869