ROCHESTER, N.Y. — In a neighborhood where it's badly needed, a game-changing opportunity has returned. Young women are driving toward it at a Rochester school.
To be part of a team takes a commitment. It also takes a good coach.
Chris Bianchi is in his first year as coach of the Franklin Upper School girls varsity basketball team. It's a team that for about the past 10 seasons, didn’t exist.
“Well, I will tell you that people thought I was crazy for doing this and they still think I'm crazy for doing it," Bianchi said.
Franklin is a high school of 1,100 students. It happens to be located in one of Rochester’s poorest neighborhoods.
Principal Rick Smith convinced Bianchi to help bring the program back. It was September and the school year had already begun.
“We had nothing in place, the district already had things in place," Smith said. "Schedules were already built. But we said 'you know what, let's go for it.'"
Bianchi recruited players in the cafeteria, during lunchtime. About 75 girls showed interest and 30 of them made it past tryouts.
“Everybody was telling me I really should," said sophomore Raylen Gaffney. "I tried playing at the rec center with the boys and I actually liked it. So I was like 'alright, I’m gonna give it a try.'"
“Yeah, my best friend, she was talking about joining, I was like, 'yo man, we all might as well do it, finish our senior year out good.' You know, have fun together," said senior Edie Green-Davis.
Starting a new program takes guts. Bianchi has done it before, both on the high school and college levels. But Franklin has no girls JV team. Just varsity.
“And I told everyone there's no way I'm cutting one kid who's taking a risk to come out for something new here that has an interest, is going to do the work in the classroom, be a good citizen, and then come out and work hard on the court," said Bianchi. "There's no I am cutting anyone.”
When Franklin does make the news, the school's principal admits it’s usually not for something good. Every kid there has a story.
“It is difficult at times, you know, many of our students have gone through some very very hard, hard times," said Principal Smith. "You know, many of them have persevered, which is great, but they're not the most open or showing the hand that they're holding, you know, until they get to know somebody.”
Bianchi is building that trust.
“Look, some of these girls don't just get dropped off by their parents, they're taking a bus to practice on a weekend, and then home maybe it's an hour, hour and a half," Bianchi said. "That's commitment.“
He’s a coach first.
“He’s a tough nut, a tough nut," said Gaffney. "He doesn’t care what anyone thinks. You say 'coach, I can’t do this.' He would think of can’t as a cuss word. But on the bright side, he’s doing it for the best for all of us and helping us improve.”
The coach has used his connections to get his team new jerseys, to completely renovate the girls varsity locker room. And to get new sneakers for the entire team.
When they can't get court time, the Lady Bulldogs practice in the cafeteria.
“You're just trying to utilize the time that you have with the kids, as best you can," Bianchi said. "It's time management and trying to get those extra reps in whenever you can because the kids understand that they're behind they're trying to play catch up."
Before this season, not a single member of the franklin girls varsity basketball team had played high school ball. Some never played organized hoops at all.
“Everybody's talking down on the girls basketball saying we're not going to be good and everything but I feel like it's just like a chance for us to show that we're better than just what people are saying," said Green-Davis.
That was negative noise, which needed to be blocked out. Still, even before the first home game, Bianchi told his players. This season is not about wins and losses.
“It's probably the most important coaching job that I've, I've ever had because of our kids," said Bianchi "And for me not to share my skill set would be selfish.“
On a recent Wednesday night, in front of a packed gym, the Franklin Lady Bulldogs played their first home game in years. From the opening tip, it was obvious it was going to be a long night.
Bianchi says he’ll measure success this season in small steps.
“How do we win? We win by having a team. We win by making sure that people don't quit," Bianchi said. "We win by being good citizens in the classroom. We win by getting good grades. We win by helping others out and showing people that this is something that can be done in mirrored throughout the district.”
“I have the mindset of oh, you say I can’t? I say I can," said Gaffney. "If you don’t think I can do better, watch me do better.”
Every team’s success has to start somewhere. The true final score for these girls is a lifetime away.