She Shoots, She Soars

When Nike released its “Dream Crazier” ad during this year’s Oscars, they presented audiences with an empowering visual love letter to female athletes. The video––which was narrated by tennis superstar Serena Williams––championed the accomplishments of female athletes while footage of women doing what they do best played in the background. Other athletes featured in the spotlight included Simone Biles, Ibtihaj Muhammad, Chloe Kim, and members of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team. 
Before 2019’s “Dream Crazier” ad was released, and even before the first Ellis Athletics Hall of Fame inductees were announced in 2000, the athletic program at The Ellis School boasted a long, well-earned history of celebrating women in sports and keeping spectators on the edges of their seats. The 2018-2019 season proved to be no different as dedicated coaches encouraged Ellis girls to assert themselves on the playing field and realize their full athletic potential through the regular rhythm of mid-season highs and lows. From Tennis to Track & Field, Soccer to Softball, Crew to Cross Country, one thing is certain: Every athlete has grown from her experiences this season and approached her discipline with the heart and grit expected of the mighty Ellis Tigers. 

This year, the Varsity Basketball team made it to the WPIAL playoffs for the second time in four years. While they lost in the second round to Bishop Canevin High School with a final score of 55-33, Ellis Athletic Director Shayla Scott says, “The final score didn’t do this team and that game justice. It was a hard-fought game for our Tigers.” 

This story started years before the team made WPIALs in February. When the Class of 2016 graduated, Ellis’ basketball team experienced a moment of transition as they struggled in both numbers and leadership. Underclassmen at the time, Sydné Ballengee, Katharine Ference, and Kaia Iverson, co-captains for the 2018-2019 season, spent seasons leading up to their senior year working alongside their coaches to make small, but impactful, changes that would put their team back in playoff contention. Tweaks like spending time together during open gym sessions in the fall season or watching game footage in order to think critically, develop game plans, and foster connections on the court really made a difference for the squad. 

Fast forward to January 2019, when the team demonstrated the difference these small tweaks had made for them out on the court by avenging a tough December loss against Riverview High School with a triumphant 21-point win against the team––snapping a 13-game losing streak to this long-standing rival dating back to 2006–2007. The players dug deep to battle back against a team that consistently thwarted them, proving to themselves and always supportive Ellis fans that their dedication and perseverance had paid off. 

Sophomore Natalie Jasper says, “We worked so hard in practice to get prepared and our execution was flawless. Especially considering this was a team that blew us out last year by a staggering amount and this season by 10, everyone knew how important the game would be. Going into it, we knew we could win, and we were determined not to leave without winning–and that’s just what we did.”

A tight-knit squad guided by their devoted coach Dan LaGamba everyone on this year’s team set a high standard for themselves by holding each other accountable and pushing each other to improve. By making this culture shift, all members of the team learned important life lessons about the value of prioritizing the goals of the group over the individual. They know how to be both constructively critical and supportive of one another, and they realize that their success is not about each individual, it is about the team. 

While one of the benefits of playing sports at Ellis is that there is plenty of room for each girl to shine on a team, significant year-to-year variation in participation can sometimes make building a strong team over a number of years challenging for coaches. This year, however, several coaches went above and beyond to bolster their team rosters by taking an active role in recruitment and retention of athletes across campus. 

Tim Howard, Varsity Soccer Coach and Director of Technology, was one such coach. Leading up to the fall 2018 season, he and team veterans, Becca Rust and Renee Petersen, took a proactive approach to filling the roster. They increased interest in the soccer program by keeping practices fun and inclusive, and ended up rallying a full team. “As a soccer coach, I lead by example and teach my athletes that being positive leaders and working together are crucial to their success. I ask them to be goal-oriented with their thoughts and actions and I remind them that their hard work pays off in ways that they may not even understand right now,” Coach Howard says. As a result, many athletes have committed to off-season training and the program is expected to continue to grow next season.

While the Ellis Field Hockey program has been strong for many years, with a total of 13 eighth grade students on this year’s Middle School Field Hockey team, the pipeline to Ellis’ varsity team is stronger than ever and Head Coach Amanda Rose could not be more optimistic. Benefitting from already practicing and playing together, learning each other’s strengths, and having ample time to figure out how to leverage these strengths on the field, watch out for the team to pack a punch in the coming seasons as these rising freshmen infuse the team with an influx of competitive talent.

 The Varsity Softball Team grew not only in numbers with 22 athletes on the roster, but in talent and skills this year as the team scored a total of 72 runs for the season. Determined to battle hard and improve their standings, the team showed resilience in their doubleheader against Springdale High School by closing their loss deficit from 8-5 to 9-8 in their matchup against the section leader. Significant and celebratory wins came during games against Geibel Catholic High School where the Tigers won 23-2 early in the season, and then again 12-2 to end the year. With the loss of five seniors at the end of the 2019 season, the squad looks to build on the progress they made this year with the help of new freshmen athletes in 2020.

From difficult defeats to season-stunting injuries, Ellis girls were adept at handling stressful situations on and off the clock this year. While disappointments are oftentimes hard to face in the moment, it’s the setbacks athletes face and the support that rallies around them that build character, teach athletes how to overcome obstacles, and ultimately develop confidence.

Ellis’ varsity swim team was a shining example this winter of how athletics instills self-confidence in girls. “The environment and community of the swim team are entirely unique and supportive,” says junior Aniya Ahktar. “Whether you’re nervous to compete in an event or feeling tired during practice, everyone is always making jokes or cheering you on. The spirit and personality of the team are what make the sport so fun, even when you’re cold, wet, and tired.” This supportive atmosphere and fun spirit paid off for Aniya as her 50m breaststroke split improved from 47.72 seconds to 46.54 seconds and her 100m breaststroke went from 1:51.08 to 1:43.41.

Junior Simone Rothstein adds, “Being on a team, competing with these girls, and dedicating time to a sport together bonds us like nothing else could. They not only make me laugh every day, but they offer support in and outside of the pool. I love each and every girl on the swim team because we push each other to work hard in practice and at school. We have formed a swim sisterhood, and I couldn’t ask for a more hilarious and caring team.” Senior Bryn Luedde rounded out her last season as part of this “swim sisterhood” on a high note finishing eighth in the 50m freestyle and fifth in the 100m freestyle at WPIALs and advancing to the PIAA swimming championships in both the 50m and 100m freestyle.

Tales of trying new things and building confidence while doing so are not new to Ellis girls but doing so on land is one thing and doing so as a cohesive and supportive team while cutting across a pool of water is quite a different story. This year’s team pulled off a confidence-boosting season without one noticeable ripple along the way.

While there are sure to be plenty of up-and-coming female athletes to model resilience and success for future girls on the national stage, on Ellis’ state-of-the-art playing field nestled in Pittsburgh’s East End—as well as in our gyms and nearby pool—the Tigers will continue to learn valuable lessons about life and teamwork while fighting hard to make a name for themselves across the region. Athletic Director Scott’s vision for developing the program is one that includes athletics continuing to be an integral part of the Ellis experience and acting as an incubator for leadership, positive self-esteem, and community involvement. She knows that teaching girls valuable skills like teamwork and time management will serve them well at Ellis, in college, and beyond. Whether it’s a rebuilding or record-breaking season, for Ellis girls, it’s about more than wins and losses—it’s about building friendships, growing strength and fierceness both individually and as a team, and having fun.