For some reason, Schenectady High School girls’ varsity basketball coach Kathleen Wylie was smiling as she waved her girls over to the side of the court. There was less than a minute left in the game, and the Lady Patriots were trailing Notre Dame-Bishop Gibbons by eight.
Wylie didn’t kneel this time. At every other timeout, the coach would kneel before her players, a group of young girls in way over their heads. This time, she stood up straight and leaned into the huddle. The girls didn’t bother to reach for cups of water. They didn’t plop down into the chairs lined neatly along the court.
“I told them, 'We play buzzer to buzzer,’ ” said Wylie. “I said, 'There’s time on the clock. We’re going to set up our plays just like we always do. And we’re not going to stop playing until that final buzzer goes off.’ ”
The buzzer indicating the timeout was over seared the Notre Dame-Bishop Gibbons High gymnasium. The girls shouted “1-2-3 Patriots!” and they played like they had for the entire game — hard and unrelenting.
They guarded aggressively, missed shots, tumbled to the floor and got up again. When the ND-BG girls added to their lead with a pair of free throws, moving ahead by double digits, the Schenectady girls would look to the ground, letting only a flicker of frustration pass over their faces until they looked up again with determination.
With 6.8 seconds left on the clock and trailing by 11 points, Alexis Durham made her last pass to Kristy McFarline, a petite 12-year-old who had spent the game darting out of nowhere and zooming through tangles of arms and legs. In the final few seconds, the seventh grader scored.
The Lady Patriots lost, 29-20. It’s their 16th loss in a row. But really, it’s only the 11th consecutive loss for a team that lost practically all of its players in December and had to bump up its junior varsity girls in order to avoid forfeiting the season.
“I think tonight’s game was just a reflection of youth, you know?” said Wylie. “When you have a close game and you have young players, it’s hard for them to push through some of the challenges of the game. But every game, we’re starting to see that more and more. We put up a fight every game. We don’t go away. And that’s what makes me so proud of these girls.”
The change was swift and startling for the younger girls, many of whom had never played on a team before, let alone against girls older and bigger.
“I was scared,” McFarline said after Tuesday’s game. “I was scared about all the tall people.”
Off the court, McFarline looks her age. She wears a pink headband, and her sleeveless jersey and long navy shorts accentuate the thinness of her 5-foot, 4-inch frame. On the court, though, she’s a force to be reckoned with, one her teammates have come to rely on. She has played basketball since she was 3 , she said, and credits her skill to her father’s prowess in the sport.
Moving up to varsity has been the biggest accomplishment of McFarline’s basketball career so far, she said.
“I think it’s awesome,” her mother, Jasmine Santiago, said from the sidelines. “It offers her a challenge that I think a lot of children need and unfortunately don’t get. So I think God has played us a very good hand in this opportunity.”
At the start of the season, Wylie’s first coaching the Schenectady team, many of her players weren’t showing up for practice. After repeated no-shows, Wylie offered the girls an ultimatum: Show up to practice or you’re off the team.
“A lot of kids we removed, some just stopped coming, some essentially quit, and because of those number issues and lack of commitment, we just kind of started from scratch,” she said.
Only five girls remain from the original team. The rest moved up from the junior varsity, creating a 14-member varsity team that was extremely nervous, said Wylie.
“We took some time just making them more comfortable and teaching fundamentals and really getting across that we’re all in this together,” she said. “A lot of the kids really came around. I’ve had a number of kids come to me and say, 'Can we stay an extra half-hour for practice?’ ”
At 16, Durham is the oldest player on the team. Her tall, muscular frame stands out among her teammates, who are mostly freshmen. She is the “momma” of the group, according to Wylie.
Her teammates often turn to her for encouragement, and on the court, she’s a reassuring presence, a tall girl with her hands open, ready for a pass.
“At first, it was tough playing together and getting used to it,” said Durham after Tuesday’s game. “But now it’s just like, we’ve got to work together and work hard, and if we just stick together as a team, hopefully we can do some all-season work and then come back next year and hopefully win something.”
She said she never thought about abandoning the team during the midseason turnover because of her love for basketball.
“I have a passion for it,” she said. “It’s something fun to me. It means something to me. It gives me something to do. Like I get out of trouble and stuff because it just gives me something to do during the school year.”
Wylie smiled after the game, as kids stashed their candy and math homework into backpacks and girls sorted through belongings strewn against bleachers.
She plans on launching a youth basketball program for grades K-4 next month and another one for grades 5-8, with the hopes of instilling commitment in girls early.
The reason Wylie pushes the girls to play buzzer to buzzer, even with 6.8 seconds left, is to teach them that success is often just around the corner, so long as they don’t stop working hard.
“We don’t have a win in our win column yet, but we fight every single game,” she said as parents strolled across the golden brown court to offer up hugs and consolations. “And it would be so easy for these kids to just say, 'You know, coach, we’re 0 and 16. We’re done. We can’t do this anymore, you know, we tried our best.’ But they don’t. What character and heart these kids have.”