Notre Dame Jugglers end basketball season with championships and friendships
UTICA — History repeats itself. It is just short of miraculous, however, for it to repeat itself within both a community and family.
More than 30 years of history came full circle recently when the Notre Dame Jr./Sr. High School girls basketball team made headlines as first regional and then state champions.
The team finished a 24-3 season and won the Class B New York State championship title on March 15 in Troy and continued on to win state public school and federation titles later that month.
According to coach Micheal Plonisch, a 1998 Notre Dame alumnus, the most striking things about the team were leadership and focus. With several returning players this year, he said, leaders instinctively raised the standard for the entire team. “Even at breakfast when they traveled, you could see the focus in their faces,” he said.
One player setting that standard was five-year starter Emily Durr, who racked up numerous awards throughout her senior campaign. An early Christmas gift was her scoring 30 points against the Oneida Indians to capture the all-time scoring record for Notre Dame. Her New Year’s celebration included scoring her 2,000th point at Gates-Chili High School in Rochester on Jan. 4.
Flashback to 1983: A New York State Senate legislative resolution, on display at Notre Dame to this day, states, “Notre Dame girls basketball team established a standard for all others to follow.” That year, Shelly Pennefather led her Notre Dame team to state championships with a 26-0 season, where the average victory margin was 37.1 points. Pennefather was named to the Parade All-American High School Basketball Team.
One of Pennefather’s teammates, Margaret Sehring, watched the recent escorts of the 2014 team bus by the Utica police and fire departments and the Oneida County Sheriff’s department between the school and the Thruway while remembering the same scenario for her 1983 team. “It was the same excitement we experienced as a team. But, this time, it was great to see it through the eyes of my daughters,” she said.
Sehring has seven daughters, all of whom attend Catholic schools, including at the college level. Three of Sehring’s daughters played on this year’s winning team. She notes that the Sehring family is not alone — several of the players come from Notre Dame alumni families.
“It brings together the Catholic school bloodlines,’’ Sehring said. “These are families who have stuck with Catholic schools and certainly handed down some athletic talent to their children.”
Coach Plonisch agreed. “There’s a lot of history with basketball and all the sports programs at this school,” he said. It is evident on the coaching staff, he said, since many modified, junior varsity and varsity coaches are alumni themselves. And Emily Durr’s father, Michael Durr, has served as the head basketball coach for the boys varsity team for a number of years.
The sense of history exists in the minds of the girls on this year’s team in a more immediate sense. “What’s really cool is that Maggie, Emily and I have played basketball together since third grade and often we played against Katie. Over the years, we’ve grown close as friends outside of the team,” said Jaclyn Hajec.
“It’s really like a sisterhood,” said Katie Sehring. The girls spent close to three hours a day, plus all the travel time and off-season training, to form their winning team and these strong bonds.
“We’ve learned a lot about each other that we wouldn’t have if we only went to school together,” Hajec said.
While winning is good, they’ve weathered the inevitable storms of sports injuries, too. “With an injury, the team becomes different and sometimes that’s good,” Durr said.
Hajec concurred. “It might hurt the person, but it helps the team. It helps you get better, stronger. But, from the bench you might be thinking ‘Man, those sprints look hard,’” she said.
Maggie Sehring quickly added, “But then you think, ‘I want to be part of those sprints. I want to be out there.’”
“It really makes you realize what basketball means to you,” said Durr.
In fact, the game means so much to Durr that she will join the Iowa State Cyclones next fall, just as Shelly Pennefather’s journey took her to college ball and beyond. Pennefather played for Villanova University as well as the U.S. National Women’s Basketball Team, where she played in Taiwan.
Today, Pennefather goes by the name Sister Rose Marie as a member of the cloistered community of Poor Clare nuns in Alexandria, Va. Her communication with the outside world is limited to little more than letter writing.
In 2011, her 1983 team was inducted into the Sports Hall of Fame at Notre Dame Jr./Sr. High School. At that time, she wrote to school officials asking them to relay her greetings to her former teammates. She wrote, “I hold such fond memories of those days together, so full of joy and laughter. I will be united in spirit with all of them during these special days, enclosing them all in prayer and my heart felt embrace.”
History does repeat itself. But joy, laughter and heartfelt embraces do, too, on and off the court.
Dyann Nashton is the development director at Notre Dame Jr./Sr. High School in Utica, a freelance writer and a contributing writer to the Sun.