West Catholic making a name for itself

By: Kate Harman

“Don’t forget about West Catholic,” one coach said, towards the middle of the season.

“There’s West Catholic,” another commented in a different conversation. “They are one to watch.”

“West,” a third individual stated. “They are good.”

What were these people talking about? Teams they thought had a chance to contend for a Catholic League title.

Five years ago, those conversations never would have happened.

Five years ago, Catholic League coaches and basketball fans wouldn’t have considered the Burrs (13-12) in the same breath as Archbishop Wood or Cardinal O’Hara. The thought simply wouldn’t have crossed their mind.

See, five years ago, West Catholic was 0-18 and teams like the Vikings, Lions and Archbishop Carroll were considered the cream of the crop – the ones to contend with – the squads everybody else was chasing.

In the years since, Neumann-Goretti, Bonner-Prendergast, and Archbishop Ryan have joined the ranks of contenders, with the Saints becoming a powerhouse.

You can add another name to the list.

“I respect all of that but it doesn’t impress me enough to paralyze me,” coach Beulah Osueke, in her fifth year, said. “I just take it on as a challenge. I want us to reach a point where West Catholic is synonymous with greatness. That’s the aspiration and shooting for anything less is a disserve to them [players]. I should go if I only wanted West to be mediocre or average. If I believe that, practice that, then they hold themselves to that standard.

“For example, if we are prepping for Wood and I’m talking about let’s just stay close – keep it close – small goals like that, they [the players] can tell,” she continued. “So, I have to get mad at missed layups, missed defensive assignments because we aren’t trying to keep it close, we are trying to win. We should be striving to win every game.”

Osueke, originally from Houston, knew nothing about Philadelphia basketball when she took the job five years ago – when her team only consisted of 6 total players.

She didn’t know that every week in the Catholic League is like going through the gauntlet, with legendary coaches, an excess of Division I talent, and a rich history unlike any conference in the area. She didn’t know that PCL teams have won ten state championships since 2008 and four separate programs have won the Catholic League title since 2012.

But as the years went on and Akyra Murray – the first real basketball player, not just a kid who happened to play the sport –  came to the school, the culture of the program started to change.

In the years since, the Burrs have won four consecutive District 12 championships – 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 – and reached the quarterfinals of last year’s state tournament, after finally winning the program’s first state game.

“When we play them we have the mindset that we want to shock the whole city,” sophomore guard, Tamiah Robinson said. “The idea that West Catholic beat Neumann. West Catholic beat O’Hara. West Catholic beat Wood. It hasn’t happened yet, but the games were close, we just couldn’t get there.

“West Catholic wouldn’t have been in anybody’s mouth but for the past two years we have been building and building and starting to get somewhere,” she added. “We are trying to make a statement this year.”

So far, so good, despite West Catholic’s youth.

The team’s starting lineup only features one senior – Jaelyn Durrett, who is the only 12th grader on the roster – as well as a freshman and a sophomore. Even further, more than half of the varsity roster is made up of underclassmen.

“When the season started, I knew there was a whole bunch of talent – raw talent,” Durrett, a Tennessee Tech recruit, said. “We just had to gel together. I knew if we gelled together it could be amazing.”

And yet, even with the lack of experience, the Burrs have made waves. There were a pair of six-point losses to Ryan and Prendie, two eight-point losses one - to Germantown Academy and the other to Wood, a ten-point defeat at the hands of Goretti, and a 16-point victory over Episcopal Academy.

 “Our path has been really home grown, organic,” Osueke, who purposefully scheduled more difficult teams this year to get her group ready for the state tournament, said. “All of the defeats really, really hurt and all of the victories are really, really sweet. I pride myself in development.

“It’s a testament to what is possible,” she continued. “We’ve invested. The administration has been supportive, the staff – it’s a community effort. We are all invested beyond basketball.”

Beyond basketball? Osueke knows that West Catholic is one of only three primarily Black schools in the league and that she is the only Black female head coach in the league. These factors weigh heavily on her.

That’s the larger goal – get the kids ready for the world, acclimate them to injustices, discrimination and how to overcome.

“It puts pressure on you,” she said. “You want to succeed because that success can affirm the messages you’ve been trying to teach to the kids. They’ll need those messages – lessons – outside of high school and apply them there.”

West Catholic looks to return to the elite eight, but first it must get through Southern Columbia on Tuesday, 6 p.m., at Hamburg in the second round of the PIAA Class 2A tournament.

Durrett, Robinson, and Osueke, all know what they need to do to get there.

“Finish the game the right way,” Osueke said, last Friday to Ciani Montgomery as she was about to check into the game.

The Burrs did.

And afterwards, O’Hara coach – winner of over 800 games – Linus McGinty came up to Osueke, shook her hand and had a few words for her.

“Congrats,” he said, with a smile on his face. “Keep it going.”

Five years ago, West Catholic never would have had the chance.