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Cardinal O'Hara hits the road in search for excellence

The Cardinal O'Hara girls high school basketball team doesn't play road games.

It goes on tour.

The Hawks already this season have played two games on Long Island against traditional powers, and two games in Syracuse including a matchup with a defending state champion Jamesville-Dewitt. Later on, Cardinal O'Hara will play a tournament in Erie and in a four-team competition in New York City.

In other words, this isn't a case of my school against the school down the road. The Hawks are seeking out top-flight competition, wherever it is.

"I believe that's why we are so successful," coach Nick O'Neil said. "We not only try to play the best schools around here, but we play some of the best schools through the state and the country. We've been invited to so many things because we show well against top programs. People see us and ask us to come. Long Island Lutheran saw us play and asked us to come. St. Anthony's saw us play and asked us to come. We've got Christ the King coming up. It's a very tough schedule."

And the Hawks have been successful. They have a Federation championship to their credit from 2014, and have often gone deep into the playoffs in recent years. Last year they fell in the Catholic state semifinals to a team from New York City.

Closer to home, no one has been able to stop Cardinal O'Hara for years. They have won 60 straight games against local competition, dating back to a 2013 loss to Sacred Heart in the Msgr. Martin Athletic Association championship game. When the first poll of large school teams in this area was released on Monday, the Hawks were in their usual position of looking down on the competition from above with a 3-2 record through a difficult first few weeks of the season.

The championships, local and state, are nice, but they aren't the point of everyone's efforts to be good. O'Neil has other targets in mind for a team that is filled with some of the best girls basketball players in the region.

"We want to get kids a college education for free," he said. "As much as college costs these days, if you can go to college through a skill that you have, we promote that to the fullest. Academically and athletically, we try to cut the cost of college education."'

Such an approach needs plenty of cooperation to work. For example, the athletic director and school administrators have to be on the same page.

"The main thing is that our retired athletic director, Angelo Sciandra, let us do things that other schools would do," O'Neil said. "This year we have a new AD in Brian Lamping. Angelo had a vision that I had and coach (Dan) McDermott had, to not be just a good local program, but be known around the state and nation for what we do.

"The principal," Mary Holzerland, "has been so cooperative. Sometimes the kids have to miss school. If everything is maintained with grades, they are very supportive."

Then there are the economic factors. It costs money to take trips to places like New York City for a weekend, even if there are no airplanes involved.

"We go by car," senior guard Shilah Parker said. "It's good to bond with your teammates. It helps on the court. Traveling is like a bonus."

"My coaching staff, we all coach for free," O'Neil said. "We donate our money back to the program. It allows us to travel with the help of parents and fundraising. It's really a winning combination. More schools are going to follow what we do."

This year's team lost an All-Western New York player in Summer Hemphill to graduation. She's playing significant minutes for the University at Buffalo as a freshman. The idea is for everyone on the O’Hara roster this season to help compensate for Hemphill's loss.

"The other players had to step up," O'Neil said. "We make up for Summer's loss with pieces from everywhere. We want to get everyone contributing."

The major piece of the puzzle is Anndea Zeigler, a senior who also was a first-team All-Western New York selection. Zeigler ranks as an early favorite to be the player of the year this time around. But even the 5-foot-8 standout had to change her game to make up for the loss of Hemphill.

"I'm a big, and I'm not big," said Zeigler, who will play at Canisius College next year. "I have to get rebounds, and I have to do everything she used to do. I'm a good post player. It's not that hard. But boxing out is a big key now. No one likes to box out, but I have to do that. The girls I play against from New York and Long Island, they're huge. So I have no choice."

One of the chores of the players who stay near the basket is the occasional jump ball. Zeigler had that responsibility at the start of a recent game with Williamsville South and its 6-4, eighth-grade center, Amari DeBerry.

"I actually won the tap," Zeigler said with a sly smile.

"She can guard the smallest person on the court and the largest person on the court," O'Neil added.

Two of the other seniors on the roster, Corean Dickson and Parker, play key roles at guard. Kiara Johnson and Angel Parker (Shilah's sister), a junior and sophomore respectively, already have received scholarship offers from Niagara.

"I was really surprised," Angel Parker said about the offer. "I went on a little tour of the school. They offered me at the end and I was like, whoa."

This year's team even has a little international flavor in Giorgia Maniero, who is an exchange student from Italy.

"We kind of fell into that," O'Neil said. "Her dad asked what would be a good school to go to, that had the academic standards. Someone told him O'Hara. She came here, and we love her to death. She likes the school, and it's going well."

There's some depth on the roster as well, so the overall talent level is very high - especially by local standards. Practices can be extremely competitive.

Members of the team see a lot of each other during the course of the year. Most are part of an AAU travel team called the I-90 Elite Girls Only Basketball Program, which O'Neil helps run. Some are in different age-groups, so they don't play games together there, but they do see each other in practices.

All of that talent, scholarships and wins has attracted attention in the last few years. O'Neil receives quite a few calls throughout the year from potential players who want to know more about the Hawks.

"It's a very interesting situation," O'Neil said. "Sometimes people get upset when kids transfer, and I'm the bad guy. But to me, we do everything for the benefit of the kids and their parents. The parents come in and see what we're doing, and they really, really like it."

"People don't give us respect," Zeigler said. "We all got offers. We work together as a team. We chose to come to O'Hara and we're working hard. I think everyone should respect that."

As the season goes on, Cardinal O'Hara will play with its usual bulls'-eye on the back of its jerseys. Local teams know that ending that long winning streak would be a season highlight. But the Hawks say they'll be ready.

"It's a lot of pressure," Angel Parker said.

Then she added, "But ... I like pressure."

email: bbailey@buffnews.com

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