These girls are making the grade on and off the court

Plainfield — It was a moment that would have honored the greatest Saturday Night Live parody of all: Coffee Talk with Linda Richman.

Perhaps you remember the signature line from Mike Myers, who would pay homage to his mother-in-law in the skit by saying, "talk amongst yourselves."

So this was a day a few months ago when the girls' basketball players of New London High were talking amongst themselves. They were inside a lecture hall waiting to be interviewed before a GameDay webcast. And so while The Day's resident genius, Multimedia Director Peter Huoppi, did all the work — setting up lights, mikes, cameras, wires and backdrops — I merely pretended to be useful.

Really, though, I was doing what I do best: be nosey.

I know. Some old creep eavesdropping on a bunch of high school girls during their idle chatter. Ewwww. I get it. But it's part of the job sometimes.

You can imagine what about a dozen high school girls might talk about when they think no adults are around to listen. Except that the Whalers of 2018, the kids who became ECC champs again Wednesday night, talked among themselves about ... schoolwork.

Schoolwork, schoolwork and nothing else but schoolwork.

Spencer Roman, for example, made it sound like the next time she'd emerge from her room would be a week from Friday, given her pile of homework.

Cora Sawyer had a multiple-page paper due the next day that required her to read two books and an essay, combining morsels from said literature to opine on sexism's prevalence in America today.

And maybe this is why the team's grade point average is even better than the team's undefeated record.

"We were raised understanding that it's not just though sports that we'll get somewhere," Sawyer said. "We're competitive people. Not just on the court, but in the classroom, too. Class rank, grades. The need to succeed means something to us."

Nobody knows the narrative about New London High better than New London kids. Circles of high achievers in the burbs surround the grim urban core. New London is the sports school. Nothing more.

And then there's this group of girls who not only dispel the portrayal, but strive to rewrite the narrative: We open books — and read them — here, too, you know.

"I've seen people look surprised when they hear our team has such a high GPA," Sawyer said. "They're shocked. But it shouldn't be a surprise. We want to do well in life."

They're well on the road. Like Interstate 95 in the left lane. Take, for example, junior Tai Pagan, who was recently named to the all-ECC team ... and student of the month at the Marine Science Magnet High School.

"Taina is a high honors student with a rigorous course schedule that includes classes made up of honors and UConn ECE (early college experience) courses," the release read on the MSMHS website. "In the school community, Taina presents a measure of humility and kindness that are a testament to her upbringing from her supportive parents. With a GPA near 4.0, Tai will receive an invitation to apply for the MSMHS National Honor Society."

All this and some post moves, too.

Of course, academic achievement is inevitable when the coach values its significance. The Whalers have a role model in Holly Misto, who is actually Dr. Holly Misto. She's an optometrist in Westerly. Misto regularly talks to the kids about the sacrifices she made to become a doctor, unwittingly sustaining this old joke:

"What's the difference between an Optometry student and a trash can? The trash can goes out at least once a week."

"Coach is always talking to us about going to academic support to get help if we need it," junior Xaryia Melendez said. "She gets on us. She checks our GPAs. She tells us that she'd go to the library instead of parties. There's some sacrifice involved. We sacrifice things to get our schoolwork done and still play basketball. It sucks sometimes, but it's going to be worth it."

The kids got a chance to celebrate a little Wednesday night, another ECC title during this fun run of the last five years. But then there was the bus ride home from Plainfield, knowing it's a late night and school Thursday.

Another chance for them to get their homework done.

That's what they do here.

Books and jump hooks.

Representing their school and their city with understated grace, rewriting the narrative.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro


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