By Justin A. Rice
Two years ago Darius Davis couldn’t mention he played basketball for New Mission High without enduring snarky remarks about the program being the perennial bottom feeder of the Boston City League.
“People would try to be funny, ‘Oh have you guys even won a game?’” the junior guard from Mission Hill said.
Today—just a season after Cory McCarthy took over coaching duties after leading the New Mission girls’ squad to the Division 4 state championship in 2007—Davis and his teammates are the talk of the town.
Going deep into the state playoffs last year, this year the Titans are in the Boston Globe’s Top 20 for the first time in school history, a feat the girls didn’t even accomplish during their title run.
On Sunday afternoon No. 11-ranked New Mission (12-0), who sits atop of the City League South division—butts heads with No. 5-ranked East Boston (10-1), the North division leaders.
“Everybody in the city is talking about this game,” Davis said of the 5 p.m. matchup at Emmanuel College. “This is like the state championship. We gotta just play hard. If we play hard and play as a team we can beat them.”
A Division 4 state championship of their own is not so far-fetched. Already this season, the Titans defeated Rhode Island’s defending Division 1 champions Bishop Hendricken, 66-52, on Dec. 29. Many members of the New Mission squad played AAU basketball for the first time this offseason. Some even traveled to Florida for the AAU National Championships.
And while there are many variables to account for New Mission’s new-found success and respect in Boston basketball circles, McCarthy says the school’s larger mission is the overarching factor—in other words, the personalized educational philosophy the 250-student public pilot school takes in the classroom transfers to the court.
“We’re learning how to be better people and how to show character,” says 6-foot-8-inch senior center Ousmane Drame who hails from Liberia. “It’s a growing experience, not just a team thing, not just a playing basketball thing. It’s more than that when it comes with us.
“We’re learning how to act well around other people because we’re still young. So there’s a lot that comes with that.”
Pilot schools are part of BPS but operate with autonomy from many district and union regulations, similar to charter schools.
“Pilot schools, no disrespect to [regular] public schools, are smaller and allow more interaction with adults,” says McCarthy, 33, New Missions dean of students. “They get more information and get information on a firsthand basis. It’s not as formal. It’s more personal.”
McCarthy said all the students have their teachers’ cell phone numbers and can call them at any time.
“Sometimes in a regular school you can’t have a relationship with kids,” McCarthy says. “For us we have relationship with kids. Kids ask questions and we give them real answers. Once you give a real answer it sinks in and connects to their life.
“You have to understand times have changed and you have to change the way you teach kids. They can’t come in a classroom and be competent in school. They don’t see immediate rewards in education anymore. In some cases you have to wait four years to see an impact.
“We try not to completely change the way kids are. Kids are not like they used to be.”
Pilot schools are given greater autonomy to set longer school days, reduce class sizes and choose their staffs. Three years ago English High
was converted into a pilot school. Last season, after the basketball program struggled for several years, English made the state tournament and graduated its center (Paris Massey) to a Division 1 program (Sacred Heart).
But unlike English High, which was America’s first public high school, New Mission, despite recent success, is nowhere close to being on the map of college basketball recruiters. McCarthy is having trouble getting Drame, 6-4 junior Samir McDaniels and senior point guard Osmel Odena noticed by schools.
He was only able to send two players from his 2007 state championship girls’ team to college. Brittany White and Bianca Flores play for Regis College—a Division 3 squad. Considering where the program came from, however, Division 3 ball is no small feat.
In the heart of Mission Hill, New Mission has no full-court gym and therefore didn’t have interscholastic sports until 2003 when it began to rent court time at the Tobin Community Center.
Before securing a bus the team took the T and before securing proper uniforms, the team taped numbers on the back of mismatched jerseys.
Before being admitted to the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association and the Boston City League in 2004 and 2005, the team exclusively played charter schools.
“We had to lobby pretty hard for that too,” McCarthy said of getting into the City League.
Despite all that, the girls’ team never had a losing season from 2003 to 2008, when McCarthy jumped to the boys’ team.
The year before winning the state title McCarthy’s team qualified for the City League tournament but due to a miscommunication with the athletic department couldn’t compete in the post season because they had played too many regular season games.
“Once we couldn’t play in the cities we promised to make states,” McCarthy says. “It was sort of a reach for me but hey it happened.”
The other downside to playing for a school with only 250 students is that they can’t garner the same kind of student and community support as bigger schools.
McCarthy manages to harness an underdog mentality within his players but he still feels bad for them at times.
“Some kids do wish deep down we’d get more fan support,” he admitted. “But come to our games. Our games are packed. We travel deep.”
Their fan turnout still looked skimpy before the 2007 state championship game when their opponent, Sacred Heart, brought five school buses of students to TD Banknorth Garden before losing to New Mission 65-59.
The girls’ big win was also a watershed moment for the boys.
“I was happy for them but I was like ‘Damn, I want to be out there winning and jumping around,” said Davis, who currently captains the boys’ team.
But even though they all knew McCarthy and knew what he did with the girls’ squad, the boys weren’t initially happy about him taking over the team in 2008. They were upset with the resignation of their old coach, Daryl Hilliard, who had just started making strides with the team.
McCarthy, who also serves as the school’s athletic director, decided it made more sense to hire a new girls’ coach and take over the boys’ himself since the girls’ were on “autopilot.”
Davis didn’t think McCarthy would be able to “bond” with the team and Draine said the team—used to playing improvisational ball—chafed at McCarty’s scripted style.
McCarthy found the boys to be much more stubborn than his girls.
“The girls were more willing to learn, they saw the bigger vision,” McCarthy says. “The boys, they don’t trust anybody. They had to learn to trust me and the coaching staff. Once that started to happen we started winning games.”
The boys, who won five games the season before McCarthy took over the team, proved to be quick studies, winning 14 games last year before losing to North Cambridge Catholic, 74-57, in the Division 4 state semifinals.
“I had something they didn’t have,” McCarthy says of his state title. “I told them they didn’t have to listen to me but I’ve been to the Garden. My goal is to get them to Garden so they can see what it feels like.
“It’s crazy to see [New Mission] in lights. We’ve come so far, from not having uniforms to taking the train on cold nights and now we were at the Garden. [The boys] are hungry for that. They won’t accept nothing less. They’re trying their best to get to the state championship and to win the state championship.”