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WOMEN’S BASKETBALL: City Battle Unearths Familiar Faces Between St. Joseph’s and Drexel

By John Knebels, 11/24/23, 11:30PM EST


By John Knebels

(Photos by Ryan Nix and Zamani Feelings /Video: John Knebels )

PHILADELPHIA – The rich history of Philadelphia basketball excellence – particularly Philadelphia Catholic League lore – has glittered locally and nationally for decades. So for those top talents who finish high school and dribble themselves to colleges near and far, competing against former foes and even prior teammates becomes commonplace.

In a spirited women’s battle between city squads St. Joseph’s University and Drexel University November 19, a bevy of former high school stars dotted both the floor and the sideline. After SJU improved its record to 4-0 had defeated the 2-2 host Dragons, 64-53, largely behind the All-Atlantic 10 trio of junior Talya Brugler (26 points and 10 rebounds), junior Mackenzie Smith (18 points, five rebounds), and sophomore Laura Ziegler (8 points, 12 rebounds, 6 assists) along with all-around production from graduate student Chloe Welch (7 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals, 2 blocks), several former local standouts reflected on how their high school experience helped guide them into playing at the nation’s highest level.

Drexel sophomore Grace O’Neill, who as an Archbishop Carroll freshman in 2019 scored 13 points in a 48-42 Philadelphia Catholic League championship overtime victory over Archbishop Wood, immediately rattled off a handful of former opponents.

Drexel sophomore and Archbishop Carroll grad Grace O’Neill swishes a free throw.

Grace O'Neill talks about how the Philadelphia Catholic League Prepared her for the City 6 Stage.

All those different colleges,” said O’Neill, named to the Colonial Athletic Conference’s all-rookie team last season after starting 30 of the Dragons’ 31 games last year. “Like Vanderbilt with Ryanne Allen (Archbishop Wood 2022 grad). And Kaitlyn Orihel (Archbishop Wood, 2021), Maggie Grant (Archbishop Carroll, 2022), and Annie Welde (Cardinal O’Hara, 2022) all at Villanova . . . just so many good people and players in the PCL that prepares you for college.”

O’Neill – whose collegiate resume includes scoring 10 or more points on nine occasions and leading the team in rebounding 14 times – collected four points, three rebounds, and four steals, marking her eighth game of contributing three or more thefts.

“Playing at Carroll, the coaches did a great job of just preparing me and teaching me a lot to help me get to the next level,” said O’Neill. “Things that we did at Carroll, we even do here at Drexel.  It made the transition so much easier. And the coaches here at Drexel do a great job of helping and developing players. It makes it fun to come to practice every day.”

One of O’Neill’s college and high school teammates, Drexel senior Erin Sweeney, offered similar sentiments.

In the aforementioned Carroll 2019 PCL championship, Sweeney – then a junior – scored seven of her 18 points in a the pivotal overtime. She finished her career with more than 1,000 points.

“It’s really fun seeing people you’ve played against years ago,” said Sweeney. “I think it shows how great the competition is in the Catholic League. Having all the players out here together shows how tough the league is.”

Drexel's Erin Sweeney talks about her team's dynamics and getting to play with familiar teammates.

Yet another Catholic Leaguer, junior Cardinal O’Hara graduate Amaris Baker, plies her trade as a Dragon.

At O’Hara, Baker was a second-team All-Catholic and helped the Lions capture the 2021 PIAA Class 5A state title. After a year at Kennesaw State, she transferred to Harcum Junior College, where she led the NJCAA in scoring.

Now that she’s at Drexel, playing for St. Joseph’s University graduate and basketball Big 5 Hall-of-Famer Amy Mallon, Baker has undoubtedly found her collegiate haven.

“Cardinal O’Hara assimilated with Drexel’s basketball program, and that definitely helped out a lot,” said Baker, referring to O’Hara’s offensive system. “I was super excited being close to home, being able to have family come to the games and get support. It definitely was a big thing for me, and I’m super-appreciative of Amy for believing in me and choosing me to come here. It’s awesome.

Drexel junior and Cardinal O’Hara grad Amaris Baker cans two foul shots

Drexel's Amaris Baker Scored 14 points for the Dragons in game vs. St. Joseph's

“I’m having a lot of fun. Getting comfortable with my staff and teammates, and believing in myself. Just coming in every day being a sponge and absorbing all of the new information, and them having confidence in me. So, we’re growing.”

Against the Hawks, Baker scored 14 points – matching her four-game average – and added four rebounds in a game-high 37 minutes, 50 seconds.

Mallon, a former coach at Episcopal Academy from 1997 through 2004, raved about her new guard, one of several new budding weapons in Drexel’s arsenal.

“We’re very excited about what she brings,” said Mallon, a native of Maryland. “From the defensive end, I love what she does. Her intensity. Every day, she shows up and she’s working hard. She rebounds the ball. She can score the basket in a couple of different ways. I’m really excited.”

Drexel Coach Amy Mallon appreciates the contributions of junior Cardinal O’Hara grad Amaris Baker.

Two of the Philly area’s top scholastic hoopsters from last year – Aleah Snead and Gabby Casey – come off the bench for St. Joe’s. 

Snead eclipsed the 1,000-point plateau at Penn Charter and, in her final two seasons, ignited the Quakers to consecutive Inter-Academic League championships. Casey, who as a senior at Lansdale Catholic became the school’s all-time leading scorer, fueled the Crusaders’ first-ever Catholic League championship and, a month later, initial PIAA Class 4A state championship.

In last week’s Big 5 win over the University of Pennsylvania, Casey displayed her offensive acumen with 16 points and three assists in only 19 minutes of action.


St. Joe's Freshman Guard and Former Penn Charter Standout Aleah Sneed Cheers on her Team in Game vs. Drexel.

While her only scoring against Drexel occurred on an “oops” three-point banker from the wing, Casey contributed an important 11 minutes, 22 seconds as the second substitute. 

Gabby Casey immediately fit in to a college environment and enjoys contributing to her team..

SJU freshman Lansdale Catholic alum Gabby Casey hits a three-pointer from the corner.

Casey reminisced about raising the PCL plaque in last year’s final at a jam-packed, extremely loud Palestra.

“Winning at the Palestra was amazing,” she said. “Then just coming here and still playing in Philly and being with a great team. It’s the same vibe. It’s great energy.”

St. Joe’s coach for the past 23 years, Cindy Griffin, is a Hawk graduate. Under her maiden name of Anderson, Griffin celebrated two PCL championships at since-closed Bishop McDevitt in 1986 and 1987. In the latter title bout, she amassed 17 points and seven assists.

Griffin said the Hawks have “built a chemistry from day one in the summer and are building a positive culture that is selfless and relentless; that’s our value system.”

She reflected on the palpable support and enthusiasm that SJU’s bench effuses throughout every game, regardless of the score.

“They’re genuinely really happy for those who are playing, and they show that with that emotion,” said Griffin. “They also show it every day in practice, making these guys better. Their time will come, and they know that.”

Opening remarks by SJU coach Cindy Griffin after win over Drexel University

No doubt.

And the tradition continues.

*** Three days later, SJU upped its record to 5-0 in a 67-65 overtime thriller at upset-minded Temple University, which fell to 2-4. After SJU raced to an early 19-4 lead and led 10 at halftime, the Owls forced overtime with a 30-20 second half.

For the Hawks, Ziegler scored 21 points and grabbed 13 rebounds. Her steal with 10 seconds remaining ultimately resulted in a game-tying free throw by Welch with two seconds left. Casey’s 15 points on 6-for-7 shooting in 21 minutes proved pivotal for St. Joe’s.

Temple freshman Tristen Taylor (21 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists), senior Aleah Nelson (16, 6, 8), and senior Rayne Tucker (10 points, 12 boards) helped spark Temple’s comeback attempt


Contact John Knebels at or on Twitter @johnknebels.)