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Roxbury Community College women’s basketball scores on and off the court

Kassmin Williams
Roxbury Community College women’s basketball scores on and off the court
Nicole Spaulding takes a shot against Mohawk Valley in last year’s NJCAA Final Four in Rochester, Minn.

Amanda Hoover, Lia Bass and Nicole Spaulding have plans to attend a four-year college after graduating from Roxbury Community College in 2014.

Roxbury Community College’s women’s basketball head coach Mark Leszczyk has been working since his hiring in 2007 to regain the momentum that surrounded the team in the ‘70s, when Boston legend Alfreda Harris lead the team.

“There’s kind of been two generations of basketball teams,” Leszczyk said. “There were some starts and stops in trying to get the team running.”

When Harris headed the team, during its founding years from 1975 to 1980, the team compiled a 130-20 record, according to the National Junior College Athletic Association.

Harris, the city’s longest serving school committee member, was recently recognized by the NJCAA, which named her one of the “most successful and active coaches during the mid-‘70s.”

“You can’t mention anything about basketball without mentioning the contribution of Alfreda Harris,” RCC Athletic Director Keith McDermott said. “She was the trailblazer. She set the standards for us. There’s just no way it would’ve been possible.”

Although decades have passed since Harris led the team, she remains invested in the team’s success, attending games and offering pointers to Leszczyk.

For Harris, attending the games and supporting the team is a part of who she is.

“I’ve always worked with young people so anything that I do with young people that becomes successful — I feel like that’s a part of the same method of my encouragement to young people and the faith that I have in young people,” Harris said.

The second generation of the team formed in 2007, when Leszczyk was hired as head coach.

“We kind of call it the rebirth of the basketball program here in 2007,” Leszczyk said.

The team has been ranked in the top five for the past four years and was ranked in the top 10 five years ago. The team also competed in the NJCAA National Championship Tournament for the past three seasons and made it to the championship game, where they lost, during the 2009-2010 and 2011-2012 school years.

Despite the championship losses, Leszczyk is impressed with the team’s level of competitiveness and the strides the team has made in a short time.

“We’re the little engine that could here at Roxbury. We go out and play some big teams and big-time programs,” Leszczyk said. “We’re the team that should never win those games and somehow we end up doing it.”

Leszczyk and McDermott see winning the national championship as one goal, but they also say the overarching ambition is for his team members to graduate and use their experience at a four-year college.

“I think the women’s basketball is just a vehicle to a path to success. RCC is basically here to try to create opportunities for [them] and they just happen to play basketball, but education is the key,” McDermott said.

Leszczyk believes that students who end up in a junior college like RCC often have not planned two attend a two-year college, but have stumbled on a road block in their post-high school plan.

“There’s always a reason why people come here, so my job is to try to find out what that reason is,” Leszczyk said.

Lia Bass, 21, of Springfield came to RCC after taking a year off from school following high school graduation.

The criminal justice major has played basketball since childhood and said the sport has always been “a big deal” to her.

After not being able to play basketball directly after graduating high school, Lia said she appreciates having the opportunity to be a part of a team again.

“If I wasn’t playing [basketball], I wouldn’t be doing anything,” Bass said. “It’s kind of getting me into the habit of trying to work toward something.”

Team captain Amanda Hoover, 19, echoed Bass’ ideas about basketball producing good habits in other areas.

“It’s been a learning experience. I’ve been taught to grow up and be more responsible,” Hoover said.

Leszczyk describes his coaching as “old school,” and he often places high demands on his students on and off the court.

Leszczyk’s coaching style has paid off for Nicole Spaulding, who came to RCC from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., to improve her grades.

For Spaulding, playing under Leszczyk has created an environment that forces her to focus on academics.

“You want to play basketball so bad, but you have to do your academics first before you get to the athlete part,” Spaulding said.

The payoff for Leszczyk as head coach is reflected in the progress that students like Spaulding, Bass and Hoover have made as members of the basketball program.

Almost every player has graduated from RCC with a basketball scholarship to a four-year college in the last four years, Leszczyk said.