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The comeback, RCC women back in the game after four-year hiatus

Liz Hoffman | 2/19/2009, 4:49 a.m.

Mark Leszczyk has a thing for lost causes.

In 1999, he took the girl’s basketball coaching job at Our Lady of Fatima High School in Providence, R.I., which hadn’t won a single game in four years. His first year, the team won one game. The next year, they went to the league playoffs. Last Saturday, six years after Leszczyk had moved on, they played for a Rhode Island state championship.

And so when Leszczyk met with Keith McDermott, the athletic director at Roxbury Community College (RCC), last June, the coach saw something familiar. RCC had once been a major feeder of Division I programs, but hadn’t fielded a women’s team in four years due to lack of interest.

Leszczyk saw one of the nation’s best facilities in the sparkling Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center. He saw an A.D., McDermott, committed to reinstating the program. And he saw a challenge.

So he left Dean College, located in Franklin, Mass., where he had led the Bulldogs to back-to-back National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) title games, and signed on with RCC.

“People thought it was a hopeless case,” he said. “I tend to gravitate towards those, I guess.”

One girl showed up to his first practice. When Leszczyk told her to run a mile, she ran one lap and then sat down. Two weeks ago, that player and five others played in the Massachusetts junior college state tournament, a capstone to a season that surprised everyone but the coach that took them there.

RCC went 18-11 in its first year back on the court and earned one of four bids to the NJCAA state tournament. There, they lost to No. 1 seed Holyoke, 67-49, on Feb. 23 in what Leszczyk called their best-played game of the season.

“In the beginning of the season, Coach told us the story about the man pushing a boulder up a mountain — it’s hard, but if you stop for a second, it will roll back down and you’ll lose everything you worked for,” said freshman Esther Jean, 21. “Well, we were pushing the whole time.”

What they lacked were believers — and numbers. A roster that once hovered around 15 girls had dwindled to six by the end of the season.

“We had a bench,” joked Leszczyk. “There just wasn’t anybody sitting on it.”

Some of those lost left voluntarily. Others, including two of the team’s most skilled players, one as late as early February, were cut by the coaching staff after coming late to practice and skipping classes.

“One thing that we really believe in is structure and discipline,” said assistant coach Shakur Yahya, who had with Leszczyk at Dean and made the move with him to RCC. “In the real world, if you’re late for work, you get fired. We’re trying to teach these girls more than basketball. There are always lessons.”

Leszczyk and Yahya had to balance those lessons with the logistical problems of maintaining a banged-up roster with few reserves on the court. At Dean, the two ran a full-court man-to-man press defense and fast-paced outlet offense. But with a core of seven or eight players for the heart of the season, details took a backseat.

“Our No. 1 goal was to put a team on the floor every night, so what we wanted to do and what we had to do were two different things,” Leszczyk said. “But once we started to practice and we saw what we had, we knew we were going to be pretty good.”

What they had, in addition to a coach with some experience in transforming wayward programs, was a motley assortment of skill. Some was unpolished from years of not playing, some from a lack of confidence.

Brandi Santiago was a former star at Charlestown High School, but hadn’t played since she graduated in 2001. Now a mother of three — her oldest daughter once served as a stand-in body as Leszczyk walked the team through his 1-3-1 zone defense — Santiago said she joined the RCC team to lose some weight, but now wants to play at a four-year school and continue her education.

Dorchester’s Kiel Banks was an all-around talent whose blossoming confidence translated into 20-plus points in four of the team’s final five games.

Guards named Esther made up a third of Leszczyk’s rag-tag roster: Esther Coelho, a 24-year-old nursing major from Medford, and Esther Jean, a 21-year-old graduate of Blaine Beauty School and aspiring hair salon owner from Brockton. Neither had been on a court in five years. Neither liked to shoot, either, and there, too was a lesson.

“The only reason you won’t shoot is because you’re afraid to fail, and if you’re afraid to fail, you’ll never succeed,” said Leszczyk. Leszczyk said that Jean’s three-pointer in the team’s playoff game was one of his favorite moments of the season.

An aspiring juvenile probation officer, Ashley Murchison, and an aspiring juvenile defense attorney, Venus Trent, rounded out the six-woman roster. Murchison, a 5-foot-9 guard from Dorchester, finished the season as the best junior college rebounder in the nation, averaging 18.3 per game to go with her team-leading 17.4 points per game.

Trent was a local talent, a graduate of West Roxbury High, where she was a Boston South All-League player in 2005. Trent, a full-time student with dreams of becoming a lawyer, also worked 30-plus hours as a mall security guard in addition to the time she spent on the court.

All six of those players will return next year, and an incoming class of eight to 12 — “the word is getting out quickly,” said Leszczyk — will swell the Lady Tigers’ ranks. With returning talent and enough bodies to run full-court drills in practice, Leszczyk believes his team will be one step closer to a return to national prominence.

“This year, I wanted to be the best junior college team in the Boston area, and we accomplished that,” he said. “Next year, I want to be the best team in Massachusetts, and the year after that, I want to be the best team in New England region.”

The New England regional champion earns a bid to the NJCAA national tournament.

In the arduous process of rebuilding a program, Leszcyk and Yahya also built a family. They brought in volunteer assistant coach Cody Elicier, who played under Leszczyk at Dean before going on to a two-year career at NCAA Division III Worcester State, to have an assistant that could better relate to the team.

“I never thought I could care about other people the way I care about this team,” Santiago, 24, said. “I’ve always been someone who looks out for me and mine, but I love my team and my coaches. I can’t wait for next year.”