St. Patrick’s School in Seneca Falls is home to two of the most successful teams in the Catholic Youth Organization’s local fifth- and sixth-grade basketball league. Both the St. Patrick’s Panthers and the Lady Panthers were undefeated as of press time Feb. 4, with 12-0 records and no more than two regular-season games left.
The boys’ team was also very successful last season, earning a 13-1 record even though all seven players were in fifth grade at the time and were sometimes competing against older players. Greg Lynch, coach of the boys’ team, said the most impressive thing about his team is the way all the players work together. Other coaches have told him they’re amazed that such a young team is able to pass the ball and execute plays the way the Panthers do, Lynch said.
“They just play together as a team well, and they understand the fundamentals of basketball,” he added.
Lynch said the team planned on entering several tournaments after the end of the regular season, including one at St. Mary Our Mother School in Horseheads. The team traditionally looks forward to that tournament because they get to stay in a hotel and it’s like a mini-vacation for them, he said.
The Lady Panthers began playing in the fifth- and sixth-grade league when they were only in fourth grade, according to Dr. Jerry Oleksa, who has coached the girls since 2002. That year, a group of fourth-grade girls expressed interest in playing, and since none of the school’s fifth-grade girls wanted to be on the basketball team that year, the fourth-graders were allowed to move up and practice with the sixth-graders on the team, he said.
Oleksa said he let the fourth-graders play in every third game, so they received some practical experience without taking too much playing time away from the sixth-graders. By the time the 2003-04 season began, the fourth-grade beginners from the previous season had become fifth-grade contenders, winning six of the 14 games they played that season. This was especially impressive because the team was on the young side, made up entirely of fifth-grade girls who often played against girls in both fifth and sixth grades, Oleksa said. This season, the girls’ extra year of experience is really showing through, he added.
“In the fifth grade we took our lumps, but I knew that this year would be a lot different. I didn’t know we would be this good, but I knew we would be good,” Oleksa said, noting that he hoped to enter the team in several tournaments after the regular season’s end.
Oleksa said he has taught his team more than just how to win basketball games. In his three years as coach, he has also tried to help the girls learn the importance of team work, patience and hard work. Some of the team’s strengths are the girls’ support for each other, unselfishness and willingness to pass the ball to each other.
“I try to tell them it’s not about how many points you score; it’s really about how well you play the game,” Oleksa said.
Even after they walk out of the gymnasium, the girls remember the lessons they learned on the court. Andi DeBellis’ involvement with the Panthers has taught her how to control her temper, even if she is angry with someone. She loves being on the team, and although she usually finds basketball relaxing, she likes the tension of not knowing whether the team will win or lose.
Cathy DeBellis, Andi’s mother, said basketball has helped the girls build character, and she’s watched as the teammates have formed a special bond. Andi and teammate Lea Battaglia agreed.
“I truly enjoy being on the St. Pat’s team,” Lea said. “Although we sometimes have minor disagreements, we learn to get through them, and before you know it, we’re great friends again.”
Like many teams, the Panthers have several routines they follow each time they play. Before leaving the locker room to start the game, the girls and Oleksa gather to pray the Our Father and recite a chant. Once they’re on the court, the team does another chant — this one to God, Battaglia said.
After chanting “Dear Lord, pray that we can pass this test! Pray that we will do our best! Win or lose we’re still with you! One, two, three, let’s go!” the girls are psyched and ready to win, Lea added. Oleksa also plays a large part in motivating the team to do their best, said Andi, who described him as an “awesome” coach who “really brightens up our day.”
“He is very encouraging. I have never heard him say anything that would bring any of us down,” she said.
Oleksa, who played CYO basketball as a child and got involved in coaching when his two sons played, said he has had fun coaching the team.
“Each and every girl has contributed on some level,” Oleksa said. “I think this team, if it stays intact, will be pretty competitive next year.”