The St. James girls 5/6 basketball team won a New England CYO championship last weekend in New Hampshire. Pictured below are, top row, from left, Coach Laura Qualey, Coach Dana Paolini, Emma Petrie, Avery Falco, Grace Petrie, Coach Lela Castaneda, Coach Shannon Grabowski; Middle Row, from left, Amirah Easter, Natalie Santiago, and bottom row, from left, Tess Wright, Emma Rial, Lily Recupero, and Samantha Roman. Not pictured are: Emma Donnelly and Gianna Ruas. (Contributed photo)

YOUTH BASKETBALL: St. James wins New England CYO 5/6 championship

STRATFORD—Youth sports is a lot more about teaching fundamentals and making memories compared to winning championships.

For the St. James’ Girls JV basketball team, however, the players who made up the roster got to experience all three in a very special season to remember.

St. James defeated St. Raphael’s of Boston, 31-21, last weekend to win the 2019 New England CYO Basketball 5th/6th Grade Basketball Tournament in Manchester, N.H.

“We’d been preparing for this weekend for about a month. It showed,” said head coach Lela Castaneda. “The mental game at this age is so important. They remained focused and unrattled, especially in the second half of the championship game. I couldn’t be prouder.”

St. James won the Bridgeport Diocesan tournament in early March, allowing them to qualify for the regional tournament.

In the first round of the tournament, the girls topped St. John Evangelist from Fall River, Mass., by a 47-37 score.

In the second round, St. James topped St. Leo’s from Worcester, Mass., by a 34-14 tally.

That set up the title game against St. Raphael’s.

St. James primarily used a rotation of six key players during their tournament run, Castaneda said.

Sixth graders Grace and Emma Petrie (twin sisters), Avery Falco, Natalie Santiago, and Amirah Easter were the starting five with fifth grader Lily Recupero stepping up in the sixth-man role.

“Grace is the heart of this team. She was the leading scorer all weekend,” Casteneda said. “She’s everywhere on the floor and could not be stopped.”

She was far from a one-man band, though.

In the title game, it was Emma Petrie who set the tone.

“Emma set the tone with a steal and layup on the first play of the championship game,” the coach said. “Emma scores many of our transition points.”

Falco and Santiago were the cool, calm and collected players who helped St. James keep their composure all weekend long.

“Avery Falco takes control on the floor. She has become our main communicator on the floor,” Casteneda said. “(Santiago) was the one who would go man-to-man (on the other team’s best player) and she kept her composure in the fourth quarter of the championship game, icing the game with a layup, then a steal and a layup where she ended up on the foul line and sank two shots.”

Easter and Recupero both improved a lot from the season’s beginning, allowing both to flourish in the postseason along with the rest of the team.

“(Amirah) became a key component to our success by filling the fifth spot,” Casteneda said. “(Lily) improved tremendously over the season and I had complete confidence in sending her into the championship when (a teammate) got into foul trouble.”

Also on the team were Tess Wright, Samantha Roman, Emma Rial, Emma Donnelly and Gianna Ruas, each of whom played a role all season long and were constant in their support of the the team.

“They had a great attitude,” Castaneda said. “They didn’t get much playing time this weekend, but they cheered on their teammates and showed great sportsmanship.”

Castaneda was proud of her squad, which finished with an overall record of 32-9 and winning six different tournament titles.

“It’s been a phenomenal season,” the coach said. “The way these girls have grown together and gelled is something that every coach is looking for, and I’m beyond proud of their success this season.”

Also on Castaneda’s coaching staff this season were Laura Qualey, Dana Paolini and Shannon Grabowski.

Castaneda, Qualey and Grabowski are all St. James’ alumni.

“I can’t forget to mention our incredible fans,” Castaneda added. “In the championship game, we started with (Queen’s) ‘We Will Rock You’ chant – saying ‘St. James Hawks.’ What we didn’t expect was every timeout and quarter before we took the floor, our fans continued this chant and eventually everyone in the gym who was not there for the other team had joined in by the end. We are all one big family and we had an amazing weekend with many great memories.”

And that’s what youth sports is all about.

With a championship throw in.

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