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Longtime Sacred Heart coach's contract not renewed

Sister Maria Pares, a local pioneer in women’s sports who defied society’s expectations and built a basketball dynasty at Sacred Heart Academy, has coached her last game.

That was not her choice.

Sacred Heart informed Pares on Tuesday night her contract will not be renewed.

“It surprises me,” Pares told The Buffalo News. “Sacred Heart wanted me to say I was retiring, but that wasn’t the right thing to do. They fired me for reasons I don’t know.”

Pares said Sacred Heart declined a request that she and longtime assistant Debbie Laux coach one more season and leave on their terms.

“Sister Maria has contributed greatly to Buffalo Academy of the Sacred Heart,” head of school Jennifer Demert said Wednesday night. “She’s been with us for five decades, and her dedication and leadership certainly have helped build the basketball program over the years.

“Really, everyone in the Sacred Heart community wishes her the very best.”

Demert declined to say why Sacred Heart won’t bring back Pares. Demert said a replacement coach has not been identified. Laux’s status with the program is unknown.

Sacred Heart’s decision ends a Western New York sports era. Pares’ final game was Saturday, a 49-28 loss to Mount Mercy in the Monsignor Martin Association semifinals.

Pares, 74, is a member of the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame, the Canisius College Sports Hall of Fame, the New York State Basketball Hall of Fame and the Sacred Heart Hall of Fame.

She’s also known for a fiery demeanor despite her vocation, despite her diminutive size and despite cancer the past 13 years. Even through her illnesses, officials and opponents still secretly refer to her as Attila the Nun.

“I’m not just a woman. I’m not just a nun,” Pares said. “I’m a successful woman. How can they say those things about me if they don’t even know me?”

Her aggressive persona is polarizing. Some consider her a character, but she also has been referred to as a bully.

She could be merciless on referees to the point some will beg off working her games. She would unapologetically hold a grudge when she felt her team had been crossed by an opponent.

“She’s going to tell you what she thinks, whether you’re an official or her best friend,” said LeMoyne College coach Gina Castelli, who played for Pares at Canisius College and was an assistant for her at Marquette.

“That is who she is. You get what you get. You either love her or you hate her, but I really enjoy that she’s so genuine.”

Pares had been frustrated with the nature of high school coaching in recent years.

She bemoaned too many meddling parents and the heavy influence of AAU basketball in the offseason, when players form teams that focus more on the individual in hopes of generating scholarship interest.

“One thing is undeniably clear,” said Georgia Tech associate athletics director Theresa Wenzel, whose family drove her from Hamburg every day so she could play for Pares at Sacred Heart in the mid-1980s. “While she won hundreds of games, she won more in life by challenging us to be the best version of ourselves regardless of what our role was or what we were doing.

“Not everyone wants that challenge, but she is responsible for decades of strong women who have gone on to become great mothers, aunts and professionals.”

Pares’ program admittedly was old-school. She emphasized an attacking matchup-zone defense and an offense based more on smart passing than shooting. She disdained individual statistics.

“One thing she has always said, kids want their last names on the backs of their jerseys or want a certain number,” Laux said Monday. “She always said ‘You play for the name on the front of the jersey, not the name on the back.’

“It’s all about the team, all about Sacred Heart basketball. As long as Sacred Heart won the game, she doesn’t care how many rebounds or points anyone had.”

Pares simultaneously coached Sacred Heart and Canisius College from 1982 through 1986. By the time she left to be head coach at Marquette University for the 1986-87 season, she never had lost two games in a row.

In Pares’ first turn at Sacred Heart, she went 229-10, with 13 straight Monsignor Martin Association championships, the 1986 Class C state championship and a 127-game winning streak that landed her in Sports Illustrated.

She also went 108-39 at Canisius, guiding it to the 1983 Division II NCAA tournament.

Pares became Sacred Heart’s coach again in 1999 at the urging of former Canisius men’s coach and current University of Michigan coach John Beilein. She won five more Monsignor Martin titles, including a four-year streak broken last winter by Cardinal O’Hara High.

“She’s the No. 1 all-time high school coach in Buffalo,” said O’Hara coach Nick O’Neil, whose daughter, Brianna Williams, played for Pares. “She’s one of the greatest coaches – men or women – in the history of Buffalo sports. She’s larger than life.

“I’m trying to reach her standard. I would like our program to one day be like Sacred Heart’s program.”

The standard in female athletics was remarkably low when Pares’ career began in the 1960s.

Pares loved playing sports while growing up on Oak Street, but the idea of a woman making a career out of sports was as absurd as a black president.

“Sports were my passion, but I wasn’t allowed to follow it because nuns didn’t do that,” Pares said of joining the Order of St. Francis of Penance and Christian Charity in 1962. “Nuns didn’t do much of anything but teach and scrub floors, I guess.”

But she refused to give up sports. Wherever the Church assigned her, she assembled girls’ teams and leagues. While teaching in West Virginia, she established a girls’ basketball program because the high schools there wouldn’t.

She eventually accepted a graduate assistantship at West Virginia University and received her master’s degree in sport science, a rarity for women, let alone nuns.

Pares flouted conventional thinking about nuns in the 1970s and 1980s. She became a national novelty when she went to Marquette. “The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers” brought her in as a guest.

Pares broke down antiquated barriers. Instead of a habit, she would dress like any coach would on the sideline – warm-up suit, sneakers – and then receive angry missives about it.

“I used to get letters,” Pares said, “horrible letters about being a nun and my vows and how I was supposed to act: ‘You’re gay. You’re not a girl. You’re not a nun.’ I’ve gone through that all my life.

“Now, I can handle it, but I don’t want my family to handle it. I received a letter once – about what kind of nun I was – that totally destroyed Thanksgiving at my family’s house. It was right then and there that I said, ‘No one’s going to know about any of this.’

“I tell my family not to come to my games. They’re going to be embarrassed. They’re going to hear terrible things.”

Jennifer Walters heard similar catcalls from the bleachers when she played for Sacred Heart in the 1970s and recalled Pares as a beacon not only for that time, but for any time. Walters, an ordained Episcopalian minister, is a Smith College associate dean and its dean of religious life.

“Sister Maria let us know that it was OK for us to do this,” Walters said. “It was OK to play basketball. It was OK to be strong. It was OK to be tough, to sweat, to get dirty.

“It was so important. It’s still important. Girls still don’t have enough role models telling them it’s OK to fall down and be strong, that it was a normal thing to be in the presence of a strong, confident, strategically thinking, competitive woman.”

Pares’ first cancer diagnosis came in November 2001. She had a mastectomy, but breast cancer recurred four years later and has spread to her liver. Surgery is scheduled Friday to treat cancerous lesions in her ears.

Pares also overcame a blood clot in her lung in 2010 and gives herself a blood-thinning injection every day.

“I remember seeing her at meetings and thinking she didn’t have much time left,” Tapestry Charter School coach Fran Snyder said Monday. “Then she’s out there the next game, roaring. It’s unbelievable.”

Snyder battled against Sister Maria for years as Holy Angels’ coach until the school closed two years ago.

“She’s just so fierce, and she instills that in her girls,” Snyder said. “She’s also fought tooth and nail for Buffalo to make sure our diocese didn’t get screwed in New York.

“She never gives an inch. She fought hard for her players and the league. She’s been great for this area.”

Through it all, she continued to win basketball games until she received the fateful phone call from Sacred Heart’s administration Tuesday night.

Pares was asked last week – the afternoon before she unknowingly coached her final game – what she would like her legacy to be.

“Thank God for the people who kept advocating for girls’ sports,” Pares said. “There was always something we were fighting for. It was never pleasant. We were always churning, trying to get this, working for that.

“I do think the women of my age and a few years younger did more things to advance women in more ways anybody will ever know.

“But I want to be known as a person who cared about what she did and the people around her, a Franciscan sister who took the talents she had and used them for the greater good.”