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Closing the book The end of Villa Maria leaves some students with fond memories, while others search for a new school

The girls' time at their school is fading. They try to have fun -- "Go out with a bang," some said -- and they want to make the most of the final months Villa Maria Academy will ever know.

It's easier for the senior athletes. They can concentrate on the last games of their high school careers, knowing they'll be the final class of Bears. The underclassmen, though, have things on their minds besides beating Nardin and St. Mary's. They have to decide where they will study next year and whose uniform they'll be wearing -- if any.

Because of dwindling enrollment at the all-girls Catholic school, the sisters who run Villa Maria announced in December they could no longer afford to subsidize it. The 88-year-old school will close in June.

"We're just trying to make it the best we can for the girls so they can have some type of memories, even though they are scarred with the school closing," said Mike Gaspar, athletics director and basketball coach.

All the underclassmen are looking for schools, and the athletes are looking at schools and teams. They are "shadowing" at other schools, walking through a typical day and talking with faculty and coaches. Villa Maria, which has seen its varsity program drop from 11 sports to six, also has a recruitment fair scheduled for Feb. 16.

"We hope that the student is looking that they're going to be an academic fit first and that the athletics comes second," said Brian Kiszewski, executive director of the Monsignor Martin Association and a former Villa Maria coach.

The Felician Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Province said the school, nestled in the back corner of their convent on Doat Street in Cheektowaga, has 130 students. The low number makes it easier for girls to make an athletic team. When they arrive at a larger school, the competition for playing time or even a roster spot will increase.

"As a coach, I talk to them as a school overall, academics is a priority," Gaspar said. "Then when you talk about the school we look and say, 'Well, if you have a chance to play.' You look at some of these schools, they're larger. They may not have the opportunity they had at Villa."

Some are finding out they will. While "recruiting" has long been a taboo word among Catholic schools and is forbidden, contact rules are being eased because the girls have no choice but to go somewhere else.

"We've played against some of these other schools, and a lot of these other coaches will say, 'Well, you know, tell them they'd have a good opportunity to play if they came to our school,' and naturally we do that along with the academics," Gaspar said.

Junior Courtney Gehen, who decided on Villa mainly for athletics and also because her sister attended, plays basketball and volleyball and will go out for the track team. She likes the shadowing aspect while searching for a high school home.

"They've been very nice and friendly, helpful with us," she said. "When we shadowed (at Mount St. Mary) the principal was really nice and very comforting."

Sophomore Rachelle Besser, who plays basketball and soccer and may join the softball team, wants to keep playing somewhere.

"The athletics are a big part of my life right now because I love this sport," she said at a recent basketball game before lauding the search help from her coaches. "They tell us if we want to go into sports the schools that'll take us and that we'll be playing a lot, to help us. They're really good about that. They're supporting."

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com

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