The St. Raphael’s seventh-grade girls’ basketball team made history at the four-decade-old church in February by going without a loss on the way to the playoffs of the Long Island Catholic Youth Organization’s B Division.
“I can’t even remember the last undefeated team they had,” said Dave Hudzik, president and director of the CYO basketball program’s board of directors.
Two years ago the team finished its season with a 6-6 record, and last year it finished 7-5 and missed the playoffs by one game. This season the girls were 12-0.
In the playoffs, despite playing in their home gym, they lost to St. Mary’s of Manhasset. “The girls didn’t let that go for weeks — I’m not going to lie,” said John Kawochka, their coach of three years.
But because the squad was undefeated in the regular season, Hudzik said, it will be moving up to Division A next year.
The girls scrimmaged against one other at the St. Raphael’s gymnasium on Monday as Kawochka spoke to the Herald about their success. The addition of four new girls this year illustrated the team’s ability to work together, he said, proving that each person on the court was equally important when it came to helping her team get to the playoffs.
Kawochka pointed out one of the girls, who wore No. 24 on her jersey. “Charlotte Viola is the team’s engine,” he said. “She’s got a killer mentality, but she’s also one of the sweetest kids you’ll ever meet.”
Viola passed the ball to a teammate. “That’s Gabby Cirillo,” Kawochka said. “She’s my little engine that could. She’s really, really come far. She was as shy as could be last year, and has so much more confidence now.”
As the girls passed the ball back and forth, Kawochka pointed out a few more. Emma Chungata, he said, is a “Tasmanian devil.” “She’s fearless, has nonstop energy and wreaks havoc on the court.”
Kawochka added that Emma constantly grabs rebounds and steals, drawing the attention of referees, who offer their compliments about her to the coach after games.
Asked about their victories this season, the girls didn’t hesitate to compliment one another. “We had a lot of new girls who came to the team this year and worked really hard,” Viola said.
“It was the icing on the cake,” added Natalia Kawochka. “Our team last year was really good, but when the girls came this year it really boosted us up.”
Many of the athletes play basketball on their middle school teams in the East Meadow School District. Those squads practice every day, while CYO teams work out just once a week. One advantage of coming from different schools, Natalia said, is that they learn different skills and techniques from their coaches that they often introduce to one another.
She described basketball as a “selfless” sport that requires every person on the court to work together in order to win. Viola agreed, and added, “Basketball is a team sport, and it can’t be one person who carries the team.”
“The parents are amazing,” Kawochka said. “We’re all a family here. They root for each other’s kids, and their energy gets passed down to the team.”
Kawochka played basketball at Holy Cross High School in Flushing, Queens, graduating in 1987, and went on to play for the Queensborough Community College team until he graduated in 1989. “I always wanted to go into coaching,” he said. “Once I had a family, it was the best way to get involved and spend quality time with my child.”
Hudzik said that Kawochka’s coaching fostered a community environment among the girls that helped the new additions feel welcome. “I was really impressed with how they came together so well,” he said. “There were no egos, and everyone played their role on the team. I think that’s why they had such great success this year. They’re great role models for the younger girls in the program.”