February 15, 2006, is a date of special significance to the girls’ basketball team at the Academy of American Studies, an academically strong but tiny school perched on the fourth floor of Newcomers High School in Long Island City.
For most, the date is unfamiliar, largely because only one current player, senior guard Kaitlin Fitzgerald, was even there to witness it. But to head coach Juan Faya, who has quietly watched a special streak build and likes to challenge his team to maintain it, the Lady Eagles’ game against Robert F. Wagner Jr. Secondary School was just yesterday.
It marks the last time American Studies lost an in-league girls’ basketball game.
How does a coach help his team maintain a three-season winning streak? How does he instill a sense of confidence, in a small team at a small school in the small ‘Queens B West’ division, that is strong enough to carry a dozen girls to 41 consecutive victories?
In fact, Faya has often tried to do the very opposite.
“This is the last day! Prove me wrong,” he told his team last season, moments before the Eagles played the PSAL ‘B’ championship game against Richard Green High School of Teaching, a program based across the East River that has gone 35-2 over the last three seasons. The Eagles won 45-34 with a balanced offense, with then-freshman Diani Mason, discovered months before when Faya saw her “whipping all the boys” in the American Studies schoolyard, scoring a team-leading 14 points.
The words of arguable discouragement, which Faya characterizes as a warning against overconfidence, became a rallying cry.
“We’re a big family. We’re a big puzzle that fits perfectly. We do everything together. We have a handful of fans that are very loyal,” he told The Courier last year.
Those fans chanted “Un-de-fea-ted” and “Mis-ter Fa-ya” in the waning minutes versus Richard Green.
It was a day of celebration. But the team’s grounded attitude, which has persisted in various iterations amid numerous roster changes, may be its common bond. Faya, with prior experience coaching volleyball, baseball, and boys’ basketball, has helmed the girls’ team since 2005-06, when it finished with a 7-11 league record. Ever since, he has been telling his team that another undefeated season just isn’t going to happen.
Prove me wrong, the attitude goes, and the Eagles usually do.
Faya, then, has a clear affinity to the mental game. Yet his impact on the psychological aspects of the program has always been coupled with good tactical strategy.
“When I took over the team I decided that we were going to totally remake this team,” he says. “We bought new uniforms, changed our color - went red, the Ferrari color. We wanted to run. We wanted to score on the break. … The style of basketball that the team was playing here was just not conducive to success, to winning. It was a little too gentle.”
In 2006-07, the Eagles did not lose until they encountered Campus Magnet, a member of the higher ‘Queens A’ division, in the city playoffs. In 2007-08, they completed the regular season by going 26-0 overall, with an average margin of victory of 40 points.
This season, in spite of five new players and “a little bit of a disconnect” that leaves Faya unwilling to push his team too hard too soon, American Studies has kept up the pace, building a 7-0 league record and winning most games by last year’s margin.
Their new focus is on defense, with last year’s tough state Federation clash against Briarcliff Manor (Westchester), A 61-49 loss, serving notice that the Eagles’ defense could use some revamping.
“We came back down with a little bit of a different perspective,” Faya says. “Every coach says defense wins championships. Well, it was easier to sell that to the team this year.”
The improved backcourt appears to be performing effectively, only allowing between 10 and 41 points to every 2008-09 opponent. Against the High School for Construction on December 4, American Studies won 98-10.
The Eagles have been riding the performance of Fitzgerald, junior center Crystal James, and senior all-courter Raquel Gutierrez to their latest undefeated record. While the news-making James is a “double-double monster” averaging 20 points and 13 rebounds and the similarly-averaging Gutierrez leads the team in versatility, Fitzgerald is the team’s emotional leader.
“I knew right away that she was going to be a special young lady, and she was the one, she was the key, the one that made everything work for us in all these years,” Faya says. “She has a really nice knowledge of basketball, and she loves the sport. She’s really the one I look to for leadership out on the court.”
American Studies’ streak will be challenged on Wednesday, January 6, when the Eagles face Grover Cleveland High School, currently undefeated and always the biggest thorn in the Eagles’ side. The Tigers nearly won when they faced AAS in 2007; the final score of 50-48 makes it easy to forget that the Eagles needed all of their 20 points in the fourth quarter.
“Our divisional games have really not been super-challenging. We’re looking forward to playing Grover Cleveland,” Faya says. “It’s our first real challenge in a long time in our own division.”
“I think we’re still the team to beat in the [division],” he continues. “They say you’re the champion until someone knocks you down. [My players] flow with that confidence.”