There was just a bit of irony as brand new Horace Greeley girls’ basketball coach Sarah Benischek made her debut late Friday afternoon inside, of all places, the gymnasium at Lakeland High School.
After all, just over a decade ago, Benischek was a sharpshooting guard, and captain, on the ultra-talented Lakeland Hornets team that won 27 straight games and captured the state’s Class A championship. So as she stood along the sideline guiding the Quakers for the first time, it was impossible for her to avoid a flood of emotions.
“Yeah, it was surreal, it was awesome,” she would say afterwards. “A lot of people are still here that I love. I saw them yesterday and told them I wanted to sit on our bench, not on the guest bench. That was probably the weirdest part for me. I’ve never been on THAT sideline before. But it was awesome. I mean, this is home.”
Unfortunately for Benischek, her Quaker squad could not quite replicate the same sort of storybook finish she grew used to in Shrub Oak. Despite 13 points from Brianna Gadaleta and 11 apiece from Safia Gecaj and Jessica Harris, Greeley fell to the host Hornets 44-41 in the opening round of the ninth annual Carolyn Conroy Memorial Basketball Tournament.
The Quakers, trailing by nine points with just under five minutes remaining, managed to narrow the Lakeland lead to a single point and then would have forced an overtime session if Gadaleta had been able to connect on a 3-point try from the top of the key in the final seconds.
“We had a great, great look,” said Benischek of the shot by her junior guard. “That’s a great player that took that shot. Brianna’s phenomenal. You ask me 10 times, give her a wide-open, top-of-the-key 3, do I want that? I’d say yes, no matter what point in the game, no matter what’s the score. Her wide open at the top of the key, I’m gonna say yes. She’s that good.”
On a day the Quakers only made 12 of their 28 free throws, they trailed 22-16 at halftime. Greeley’s last lead, 7-6, came on a 3-pointer from Rachel Janis with a minute left in the opening quarter. But the Hornets answered at the other end with a trey by Sarah Carroll and never trailed again the rest of the way.
“I told my team it was a tale of two stats,” said Benischek. “It was missed layups and it was missed free throws. If we made half of our free throws that we missed or half our layups we missed, we would’ve won by 20 or 30. So it’s tough. But they fought, they battled, they played good defense and they talked. They communicated. They came out with a hunger, so I can’t really say anything.”
Gadaleta had eight of her points in the third quarter when the Quakers were outscoring Lakeland 17-13 to close within two points heading to the final period. Harris, just a sophomore, made two free throws with just over a minute left in the stanza and then provided an old-fashioned 3-point play 35 seconds later that tied the score at 33 apiece.
But a bucket by eighth-grader Tyler Hormazabal, her only one of the game, on a baseline drive with six seconds remaining in the third quarter began a 9-0 Lakeland spurt, and the Quakers were forced to play catch-up the entire final period. A couple of jump shots by Harris near the foul line, followed by a basket from Gecaj, enabled Greeley to respond with its own 8-0 burst that sliced the deficit to 42-41. But Jessica Ascencao’s shot in the lane with 17 seconds to go put the Hornets back up by three points and set the stage for Gadaleta’s 3-point attempt with time running out.
“We were down by nine at one point and fought back,” said Benischek, whose first varsity victory had to wait until the next day when the Quakers defeated Clarkstown North 44-35 in the tourney’s consolation game. “They fought. They should be proud of it. They did not give up tonight. That’s what we need this year and moving forward with this program for the future. If they can fight, they’ll be in any game.”
And if the wins start to come in bunches, Benischek might even start to feel like she did back when she wore a Lakeland uniform. She quickly found out Friday that watching from the bench is far different than running up and down the court as a player.
“A lot of adrenaline,” she said of her initial game at the Quaker helm. “Probably more nerves and more anxiety than I’ve ever had in this gym before because when I played I felt I was in control. Tonight I felt like I was letting my kids fly on their own and I felt like I had almost no control. But it was nice to watch them compete.”