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Sacred Heart High girls go extra mile, but it’s no walk in park

The giant black metal gate slams shut, click, locked, leaving the scrubbed faces of the Sacred Heart High basketball players alone with the weathered streets of Lincoln Heights.

The girls collectively sigh. They shake away the worry that stretches from the bob in their ponytails to the dirt on their sneakers. They begin their daily journey.

For the next 15 minutes or so, covering a mile that feels like a marathon, the 10 players will walk or jog through a neighborhood that will stare and scowl. They will pass tiny shuttered houses with front porches filled with bored men in bandannas. They will pass a barbershop where men will turn their half-shaved heads and shout. They will pass a dry cleaner whose curb is home to a man who reaches out to them from his cardboard box.


FOR THE RECORD:
Sacred Heart basketball: In the Jan. 17 Sports section, a column about the Sacred Heart High School girls’ basketball team and an accompanying headline said that the school was in East Los Angeles. As the column indicated, the school is in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood, which is part of the city of Los Angeles’ Eastside, not unincorporated East Los Angeles. —


One minute, they feel the breath of charging pit bulls, the next minute they hear the whistle of a tattooed wolf, and eventually they will be confronted by the leering driver of a squeaking Chevy that has slowed to bounce alongside them. It’s always somebody like him, and, confronted with the sight of a group of young women walking through gang territory in the middle of the afternoon, he always asks the same question.

“Where you going, ladies?”

Their answer is always the wrong one, demeaning for girls who consider themselves athletes, distressing for a society that has supposedly embraced women’s sports, and befuddling for anyone who wonders how a high school could have existed for 105 years without a gymnasium.

“We’re going to basketball practice.”

***

Before they play basketball, sometimes the Sacred Heart Comets will play pretend. They gather at one end of the stuffy Lincoln Park court and inspire each other with a chant of hope.

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“Whose house? Comets’ house! Whose house? Comets’ house!”

“You realize, of course, that we’re just metaphorically speaking,” said junior Samantha Burrola.

This Catholic girls’ school has occupied a cluttered corner of East Los Angeles for more than a century, yet, indeed, the 200 students there still don’t have an athletic house. Amid a growing Southland sports landscape where seemingly every community center, school and church has a gym, the Sacred Heart girls inexplicably have no gym.

They play home basketball and volleyball games about a mile from campus at Lincoln Park Recreation Center, which leads the girls to the other side of a busy street and far beyond the imagination.

“The first time I saw the situation I was like, oh, my gosh,” said Sister Janice Therese Wellington, the principal. “I was like, these girls have to do what?”

Because the school doesn’t have enough vans or qualified drivers, the girls walk or jog to practice and games after the final bell, and always in groups. Last year one enthusiastic player left early, arrived at the park ahead of everyone else, and was jumped by gang members, and nobody has walked by herself since.

“The annoying part is when a guy is following you in his car,” said Rocio Arambula, a senior. “If you go faster, he goes faster. If you go slower, he goes slower. You don’t know what to do.”

Once the girls arrive at the gym, the difficulties continue. There is no locker room, only a public bathroom with no mirror and, often, no toilet paper or towels. The girls actually dress for the games in there, taking turns occupying the stalls while sometimes waiting in line behind women from the neighborhood. Opponents are often intimidated, not by Sacred Heart, but by the bathrooms, and refuse to use them.

Once the players are dressed, Coach Greg Nakashima gives them his pregame speech in a cramped hallway. During one recent talk, some neighborhood thugs walked in, leaned against a wall, and listened.

“I looked at them like, could we please just have a minute?” Nakashima said. “It’s just hard to get anything done.”

The games are played underneath a tiny scoreboard covered by bars, on a court marked by graffiti, surrounded by walls with prominent holes. There is a game clock and a shot clock, but more important is a watch on the wrist of the guy working the rec center.

Sacred Heart can afford to rent the gym for only two hours at a time. When that worker points to his watch, the Comets have to leave. The workers are nice, but the team has been essentially thrown out of its own practices. After games, the players sing the alma mater at midcourt, but if the game goes long, the tradition is often interrupted by kids bouncing balls and telling them to move. Once they leave, they sometimes discover that somebody has stolen their iPods or T-shirts from piles of belongings stuffed behind a bench.

The school can also afford to rent the gym only three days a week, so only four of their 16 games are at home, which is more bad news. Or is that good news?

“Players from other teams laugh at us like, ‘This is your gym?’ ” senior Viviana Valencia said. “I try to tell them, it’s not like that . . . we’re not like that.”

They really aren’t. This school is no joke. Sacred Heart is an important vehicle for the education of inner-city girls, charging one of the lowest tuitions in the archdiocese — $6,460 — while giving financial assistance to 98% of the students.

The student population is almost all Latino, mostly Mexican American, with many of the girls becoming the first in their family to attend college. Virtually every senior is accepted to college, and 98% actually attend, numbers that would make any tony private school proud.

“The thing about our young women is that they don’t give up,” said Kim Milkovich, the school’s athletic director. “They have a sense of familia that bonds them through these hardships.”

Sacred Heart isn’t the only school in town with no gym. In fact, it isn’t even the only school in its five-team league with no gym. But no other group of students has faced more difficult challenges, for longer, than Comets athletes whose days can actually be tougher when the school doesn’t rent the gym.

On those days, they practice on an asphalt court crammed into the school’s tiny square plot of land. One fastbreak could crash a player into a parked van, and a fastbreak the other way could topple a statue of the Virgin Mary.

When it’s raining, they move practice indoors to an auditorium they borrow from the adjacent Sacred Heart church, but there’s no hoop. And when it’s raining and the auditorium floor is oily from a recent cleaning? They practice in a classroom with, occasionally, a Nerf hoop.

“I have to admit, it takes its toll,” Burrola said.

While the Comets have had solid basketball and volleyball teams, those teams have never won a CIF championship because those girls who are serious about sports often go elsewhere.

“Sports is such an empowering thing for the women in this community, so when you don’t have a place to play, it’s a huge void,” said Juan Carlos Montenegro, the school’s director of marketing and admissions.

The school is owned by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the largest Catholic archdiocese in the United States. One might think it would be easy for it to plop down $10 million for a gym, but sports is far down the list of priorities.

Sacred Heart’s situation is even more frustrating when one considers that some Catholic boys’ high schools in Southern California are building bigger and better athletic facilities. Both of Sacred Heart’s “brother” schools — Cathedral and Salesian — have relatively new gyms, with Salesian’s even featured on the school’s website video.

“Would we have lasted 105 years without a gym if we were a boys’ school? No way,” Wellington said. “Women’s sports have come a long way in this country, but for the girls here, the uphill climb is much steeper.”

There is an old convent on the school grounds that could be converted into a gym, and the archdiocese approved the plans, but when they attempted to begin fundraising several years ago at the school’s 100th anniversary celebration, the economy tanked, and the effort stalled. The school would like to try to raise the money again, but sometimes officials wonder whether anyone other than the drunk guys following their girls to practice even notice them.

They recently started the first Comets booster club. It has six members, two of whom are the principal and athletic director, and enrollment is free.

“If you want in, you’re in,” said Milkovich.

Make that seven.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke


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