Cmor: Area can brag about its girls basketball

Darby Lee put on her University of Hartford hoodie, pulled out her hair and turned to thank her family and Lady Lion basketball coaches who helped fill Altoona Area School District’s Kimmel Board Room on Wednesday for making this day possible before she got choked up and stopped amidst a flood of joy-induced tears.

“I’m so excited,” Lee said.

It wasn’t lost on Lee’s father, Daryl, how it probably would have been different had he not moved to Altoona from New Smyrna Beach, Fla. 20 years ago.

“It’s like night and day from here and there. This is like the basketball mecca here in Altoona,” said the elder Lee when asked if he thought his daughter might still be signing a letter-of-intent with Hartford or another Division I college program had she grown up somewhere else. “She still would have played down south had we lived in Florida. I don’t know if the success would have been there.”

Darby Lee’s signing with Jen Rizzotti’s college program made her the third Division I product to come out of Altoona in two years and the 40th all-time. It also was a continuation of the celebration of girls basketball excellence in this part of the state.

In addition to Lee’s choice – which will cover a $200,000 education over the next four years – Portage center Olivia McCabe will sign a letter-of-intent with UPJ at her school on Friday, while Hollidaysburg’s Courteney Storm has committed to IUP. McCabe had some Division I programs chasing her, too, but she decided to stay home and play for the Lady Cats, who were giving her a full ride.

McCabe came through the PA Pride AAU program and got recruiting advice from Altoona grad Sam Pierce.

“A lot of the girls I played against, in the summer time, they would be my teammates. I learned a lot from them, because each school has their little thing, so you can pick things up from another player,” McCabe said. “It really helped make me the player I am.”

Such is how big a deal girls basketball has become in this region. Almost every school in the Mirror coverage area can boast a player that’s gone on to play at a Division I or Division II college.

The most famous girls player Portage has produced is Stacy Alexander. Alexander, of course, went on to become a big part of the group that turned St. Francis into a perennial Northeast Conference championship contender and NCAA Tournament participant.

Those Red Flash teams were heavily impacted by District 6 talent, like Alexander, Lock Haven’s Jess Zinobile, Altoona’s Deanna Jubeck, Southern Huntingdon’s Mary Markey and Marion Center’s Denise Bence.

That’s what girls basketball in Central Pennsylvania is all about, what it’s been all about for the last four decades. The best play it and keep getting challenged and pushed to make themselves even better.

Lee’s dad was a basketball player and had a basketball in her hands from the time she could walk. But Darby Lee recognized the influence growing up that playing in this hoops hotbed had on her.

“This is a huge basketball area. Just the competition helps you in the long run, playing against all these other great players,” Lee said.

Lee had a lot of potential role models on the court growing up. She didn’t settle for just one. She chose to emulate all of them, as her dad took her to games at the AAHS Fieldhouse, Bishop Guilfoyle’s Pleasant Valley gym, Hollidaysburg, anywhere there was a big game.

“I just liked being around it. It was fun for me,” Lee said. “I’d see one girl do a move, and I’d just take it and try to make it my own. You learn from just watching.”

It’s not just the players either. Lee’s coach, Jill Helsel, went through the process herself as a Lady Lion in the mid-1990s. Jubeck has guided Hollidaysburg to three straight district championships and sent several of her players on to continue playing in college. What they and others learned as players is being passed on to their players.

“She [Helsel] and Coach [Jill] Lane had a huge impact,” Lee said. “My dad coached me all the way up through junior high. They got me and worked off what he gave me and developed me that much more.”

Among the other people and throng of relatives in the room as Lee signed her documents was her younger sister, Darcy, a promising-looking ninth-grader who already is 6 feet tall. She said her sister still is way ahead of her in the skills department but seeing Darby fulfill her dream was motivation for her.

“It makes me want to achieve what she did and be so much more like her,” Darcy Lee said. “You can go onto college. Maybe you can go on to the WNBA or something like that.”

Darby Lee is planning to major in biology. McCabe, meanwhile, is focused on elementary education, which will help her live out another ambition down the road.

“I’ve thought about coaching,” McCabe said. “I have a lot of little kids around.”

And so the cycle continues.

Cmor can be reached at 946-7440 or