Westchester’s Basketball Stars Share The Highs and Lows of Their Athletic Careers
Whether the hoopster is in high school, a pro or on the bench, there’s a story to be told in the midst of Westchester’s solid basketball scene.
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“It ended up that West Virginia was indeed the perfect place for him,” Mount Vernon Coach Bob Cimmino says. “All of my expectations were surpassed by how well he did there and how quickly he assimilated and what a great job [West Virginia] Coach [Bob] Huggins and the staff did with him.”
Says Kevin, “I knew I was going to have to earn everything when I got there. Coach Huggins made that well known. He didn’t promise that I was going to come in and start or anything. He just told me, ‘If you go in there and put the work in, you’ll get playing time.’ I respected that, and I liked that and I wanted that.” (Huggins could not be reached for comment.)
As Ossining’s supremacy grew, so did Chong’s legend. As a junior in 2011-12, she owned every aspect of the game, averaging 33.3 points, 9.7 assists, 5.2 rebounds, 5 steals, and 1.4 blocks. Ossining went 23-1 and earned another Section 1 Class AA title. “She has this special way of making everybody around her better,” Ricci says.
After the “recruiting frenzy,” as Ricci calls it, Saniya—who, with a wiry frame and her hair pulled up in a bun, stands tall against many high school point guards—narrowed her choices to UConn, Louisville, and Ohio State, but the Huskies had everything she wanted.
“I just had that connection right away when I went there, with the players, the team, the staff, the coach,” she says. “Everything I loved about it—school, academics. Everything really stood out to me. Especially when it’s close to home. It can’t get any better than that.”
Rather than promise anything, Ricci says, Auriemma said to her, “‘If you feel you can play here, you should come here. If you don’t feel you can play here, then you shouldn’t.’ He said right then, ‘Do you think you can play here?’ And she said, ‘Yes I do.’”
No one can deny Chong’s dominance over her high school competition, but is she good enough or big enough to stand out on a college team full of high school stars? Ricci says that UConn’s current freshmen all heard the same thing before joining the Huskies and that, if anything, there will be less pressure on Chong there because she “won’t be the savior” that she would be viewed as at a smaller program. “The easy thing for her to do would be to go to some small school and be a stud,” he says. “She’s not going to take the easy way out, and she didn’t.”
Mookie’s work ethic “was great,” Rizzo says. “He did whatever was asked. But I just think that there were more things in place for Kevin, playing at Mount Vernon.” Peekskill has a great basketball program. Panzanaro knows how to build a winning team. But Peekskill is no Mount Vernon. Mount Vernon is a nationally recognized program that attracts more support, in terms of finances and manpower, than other city schools, such as Peekskill.
“Kevin was a workout freak already, in terms of strength and conditioning,” Rizzo says. “Mookie wasn’t.”
Mookie arrived at Syracuse physically overmatched. “I struggled a lot,” Mookie concedes. “Guys are a lot faster, guys are a lot stronger. I was a freak athlete. I just never touched weights until I got to college. It definitely took a toll on me.”
Mookie played sparingly as a freshman before injuring his hip and redshirting for the rest of the season. The next three years were filled with disappointment and little time on the court. In one particular moment of frustration, he walked off the bench into the locker room with five minutes left in a win over Cornell in which he didn’t play. “I made a huge mistake and walked off,” Mookie says. “After talking to Coach, he smoothed everything over. He’s good at making you feel comfortable.”