Syracuse becoming New York City North

The Syracuse women's basketball team won a program-record 22 games last year thanks to the play of city products such as Nicole Michael. Photo courtesy Syracuse Athletic Communications

It was the summer of 2006 when Syracuse was hot on the trail of several talented players from Apache Paschall’s Exodus AAU program. That was nothing new, a Big East college in pursuit of several of Paschall’s blue-chip prospects.

But this, Paschall recalled, was different, an out-of-the-box approach. Syracuse didn’t send a scout or an assistant coach. Every time the Exodus team featuring Vionca Murray, Nicole Michael, Shakeya Leary, Tasha Harris and Erica Morrow played, Orange head coach Quentin Hillsman was there.

“He came and watched the kids play the whole entire recruiting period,” Paschall said. “Each kid felt he was there for them.”

Hillsman has been reaping the benefits ever since. First came Michael, an athletic 6-foot-2 small forward, who averaged 12.3 points per game as a sophomore and was an all-Big East honorable mention. The following season it was Morrow from Brooklyn and Harris of the Bronx, best friends who committed at almost the same time and comprise the starting backcourt. Murray, a 6-foot-2 back-to-the-basket power forward from Rosedale, Queens, transferred in from Virginia Tech.

Those four contributed to the winningest women’s basketball season in Syracuse history, a 22-victory campaign that saw Hillsman named the Big East Coach of the Year. And this year Leary, a 6-foot-3 center, joined the quintet.

“We all decided to come to Syracuse,” said Morrow, who teamed with Leary at Murry Bergtraum for three years, “to try and build a great program.”

When Hillsman took over the struggling program in March of 2005, he basically made a beeline for the city. As a major Division I program based in New York, he sought to attract players from the five boroughs, as much for their skill as their toughness. After Michael’s sensational freshman year – she scored 501 points and was named to the Big East all-rookie team – he wanted more like her.

Hillsman noticed Michael’s toughness. The Jamaica, Queens native never backed down, no matter who the opponent was. He has seen that from her Exodus teammates, who won countless showcase tournaments together.

“They play against Maya Moore, they play against April Sykes, they play against the best players over the years,” Hillsman said at Big East women’s basketball media day Thursday morning at ESPN Zone in Times Square. “Now when they see them, they’re not star struck, they expect to beat them and play at a high level.”

As more and more have migrated north, the Orange have become a legitimate Big East contender. Once only known for its men’s program, Syracuse is now challenging longtime powers Connecticut and Rutgers.

And while getting all five has been a coup for the Orange, it has also helped the players’ transition to college.

Moving into a new town surrounded by new people can be scary for a teenager. But after Michael, they all had someone to reach out to, a friend and former teammate to learn the ropes from, where to eat and what to expect from Hillsman. When Morrow arrived on campus in August 2007, she called Michael.

“It’s just one less thing you have to do in terms of building relationships,” said the 5-foot-8 Morrow, who averaged 13.9 points and 3.6 assists as a freshman. “In any organized sport at this level you’re with your team so much – I see my teammates more than I see my family at home – so they become your family. The relationship is already there, you just expand them.”

And on the court, it is also a benefit. The five city players already know how each other plays, their strengths and weaknesses. For years, the five played alongside one another with Exodus, traveling together for out-of-state tournaments.

“We don’t have to jell and get that start-from-scratch (feel) as far as chemistry,” Morrow said.

“It’s a good feeling,” Michael added, “to play with girls you played with in the past.”

Getting over the hump won’t be easy, not with the likes of Rutgers and Connecticut around. Syracuse was picked to finish sixth in the 2008-09 preseason vote of the league's coaches. That’s where Hillsman’s recruiting comes in. Most of his core players have squared off against the conference elite, and beaten them.

“Just having that winning attitude is the first step,” Morrow said.

There may be more city players on the way, too, Hillsman said, particularly if he had his preference.

“We want to sign them all,” he laughed. “That’s my goal.”

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