With a mix of strong returning student-athletes, new talent and chemistry, women’s basketball is ready for the new season.
As an eight-year-old, Alexis Santarelli would step onto the basketball court in Hagan Arena as if it were her stage. She vividly remembers the excitement of showing off her dribbling skills alongside her friends at the annual “Ball Handling Kids Club” at St. Joe's.
Now, 15 years later, Santarelli is back on Hawk Hill as a graduate transfer on the women’s basketball team and she’s helping young players with their ball-handling skills at the Kids Club.
“I kind of developed my game at St. Joe’s and it’s just kind of neat that now I’m back and actually a player,” Santarelli says. “I always had a close tie to St. Joe’s through my basketball development when I was young, so when I discovered I had the opportunity to play another year — I had no doubt in my mind I wanted to do it back home in Philly and knew that St. Joe’s would be the right fit for me.”
Since 2008, the Ball Handling Kids Club has brought together young basketball players from the area to refine their dribbling skills alongside St. Joe’s women’s basketball student-athletes. Sarah Fowler ’16, director of women’s basketball operations, is at helm of the program, but she says it’s the current student-athletes who draw the attention of the young ballers.
Women’s basketball head coach Cindy Griffin echoes the importance of mentoring by the current student athletes who invest in these young aspiring players. Griffin says they started the program to help kids learn ball-handling skills at a young age. “Every kid wants to be a point guard,” she said. “So why not work on the skills to make it happen?”
“The little kids love them,” Fowler says. “So every time I hold a ball-handling clinic or session I always ask for a few current student-athletes to come on and they love participating and the kids love looking at what they do and how they act.”
When senior captain Mary Sheehan got the text from Fowler to participate in the event this year she immediately responded that she was in.
This year, the clinic looks a little different, shifting from the court to the computer screens, with kids tuning in from their homes via Zoom. Sheehan, who participated in the first session, said it was still great to see the kids’ smiling faces. For the young basketball players, it’s also an opportunity to stay active.
“Kids, especially kids who love basketball, need some sort of outlet,” Santarelli says. “So doing a ball handling clinic virtually, all you need is wifi and a basketball.”
Fowler said she wanted to keep the clinic active and engaging even if it was through a screen rather than in person. She said many of the kids chose to participate outside—tuning in and dribbling in their driveways.
“These kids are online all day for school so I wanted to make sure that if we’re going to be virtual it would be short and active,” Fowler says. “I don’t want them just staring at a screen watching drills, I want them up and doing their ball handling too and getting some exercise.”
“I think it’s always so cool to see that history—to see families and generations coming back to St. Joe’s.”
Bridget Multari who has attended the clinic for the past two years said it was different not being in the gym, but “still fun to see the players on Zoom and do the drills.” Her mom, Emily, adds that the women’s basketball student-athletes at the clinics are role models for her daughter and her teammates.
Sheehan, whose parents both went to St. Joe’s, also attended the clinics as a kid. She remembers driving down to campus after school to build her dribbling skills and learn from the college athletes. Now, she’s a captain on the team and reminds herself every day how she’s living out her childhood dreams.
“I’ve been around St. Joe’s since I was born, so to play here and be in that position that’s the same as the girls I looked up to when I was younger is super cool,” Sheehan says. “I just try to be as involved in that kind of extra stuff like the Ball Handling Kids Club as much as I possibly can.”
Like Sheehan, many of the current kids in the club have family ties to the University. Multari’s dad, Jim, went to graduate school at St. Joe’s and now teaches an esports marketing course.
“I think it’s always so cool to see that history—to see families and generations coming back to St. Joe’s,” Fowler says. “We have a really strong family tradition at St. Joe’s in whatever department or entity we’re talking about so it’s just cool to see generation after generation of people seeing how special St. Joe’s is.”