By Lil Swanson
The wisdom of an English teacher gets the assist for helping Abington Friends claim a girls' basketball crown.
During the regular season, Jenny Burkholder, an upper school teacher, had led the varsity players through yoga practices four times. So, on the day before the recent Friends Schools League title game against Shipley School, she sent the team an email of support.
She addressed the message to head coach Jeff Bond, but it was intended for the team as a whole. Burkholder wrote:
"Those girls are fierce, and it's their year to bring home the W. For AFS. For each of them and their lives. For the whole nation!
"Remind them to breathe. Besides their skill, focus, determination, and drive, it is their best weapon against Shipley."
Bond read the email to the girls during their final practice at Abington Friends, and once again before they took the floor for warm-ups before the title game at Haverford College's Calvin Gooding '84 Arena.
As expected, the contest was a nip-and-tuck affair during the first two periods, and AFS narrowly led at the half, 20-18. By early in the fourth period, Abington Friends extended its lead to as many as nine points, but Shipley, a deeply respected rival, showed no signs of giving up.
And so, late in the final period, as Shipley continued to chip away at the Roos' lead, a timeout was called to settle things down. In the huddle in front of the team bench, one of the AFS players reminded everyone of the English teacher's advice - "Breathe!"
"We all took up that mantra," the coach said. The girls went back onto the court, kept Shipley's relentless attack at bay, and went on to win, 47-41. The victory ended a nine-year drought by the girls' basketball team in winning a league championship.
Abington Friends is an independent, Quaker college preparatory school. It has three divisions - upper, middle and lower schools - and enrolls 550 students from preschool through 12th grade.
It's very common for youngsters in one division to interact with and teach those in another. In December, for example, the upper school French-language students read stories and taught basic vocabulary words to a class of first graders. Preschoolers who made whistles on a 3-D printer took them to the upper school physics teacher to determine which one was loudest. And last year, students in an upper school robotics class designed a robotics zoo in collaboration with a very excited bunch of first graders.
That is why, in a school where ties routinely crisscross the divisions, no one thought twice about an English teacher leading yoga classes for the girls' basketball team.
After the final buzzer sounded, jubilant fans poured out of the bleachers and mobbed the team. Arena officials repeatedly had to ask everyone to clear the court so the boys' title game could begin.
When the players gathered once again down a hallway, Bond had a few words for them.
"I talked to them about how proud I was of them," he said.
The coach believes in his bones that everyone - the starting players and the reserves, assistant coaches Angie Adams and Bianca Wombough - contributed to this remarkable 23-3 season.
"Basketball is a team game," he said the morning after the championship game. "Everybody has a role in every success you have."
Even a veteran English teacher, who also happens to teach yoga and cared enough to send an email.
Postscript: In the tournament for the state title, held last Friday and Saturday at Malvern Prep, the tables were turned. Shipley defeated AFS and went on to beat Germantown Academy to win the state championship in the Pennsylvania Independent Scholastic Athletic Association tourney.
Lil Swanson is the director of communications at Abington Friends School. email@example.com