The girls basketball players at Holy Cross Regional Catholic School were just six days away from opening the season when they received startling news: Their school forever would close its doors in June.
That November afternoon, coach Gerry Harter gathered his team inside the nearly 60-year-old gymnasium. He looked into the eyes of his nine basketball players and saw worry. Maybe a little shock, too.
“All right, ladies,” the affable coach began. “At the end of the day, whatever you guys want to do, we’ll do. If you guys don’t have the stomach to play basketball, we won’t do it.”
But the girls, realizing this would be the final season anyone would wear a Gaels uniform, had no intention of throwing in the towel. The decision would set the course for the next three months.
“To their credit,” Harter said while he stood inside the gym recently, “they said, ‘Hey coach, not only do we want to play basketball, we want to make this the best season Holy Cross has had in a long while.’ And they did that.”
The final season
The girls in the gym that day were surrounded by history.
Dark green banners hung high on the walls, telling stories of both athletic success and long, unfortunate dry spells through the decades.
The old maple court beneath their feet, which had weathered its share of thrilling victories and painful defeats, was waxed and ready for the approaching season.
Trophies watched from one of the gym’s walls, while others listened closely from the hallway, locked away in large cases also housing the faded jerseys of former standout players.
With the announcement of Holy Cross’ closure, the nine players suddenly had become the last girls basketball team in the school’s 140-year history. They were the final Gaels, and they wanted to go the distance.
“Once everybody realized the school is actually closing, they were expecting a lot out of us,” said Mariah Mrad, a 5-foot-10 senior from Lebanon. “They were like, ‘You guys are the last team. You’ve got to close the school with honor and show what you’re worth.’
“Everyone was expecting us to fail because the school is closing, so they didn’t expect us to be motivated to play. But actually, that was one of the biggest reasons that motivated me and my teammates.”
The campaign didn’t start off so well. HC lost its first two games, both at home. In fact, the early season was defined by dramatic swings: a 30-point victory, a one-point overtime loss, a 44-point defeat.
But by February, with the end of the regular season approaching, the Gaels had rallied to win five straight. A shot at the postseason was suddenly within reach.
Memories of Holy Cross
The Gaels used to be homeless.
For years, the basketball teams practiced and played wherever they could — the City Armory, Virginia Episcopal School or Lynchburg College.
That changed when the school added a gym to its Langhorne Road location in late 1963.
It often was filled to the brim in those early days. Over the years, the gym has seen it all: forlorn times when the Gaels couldn’t draw crowds, state title runs in boys and girls basketball and one particular electric three-year period, when the stands were so full people lined the walls to watch.
That was the case in 2005 when Roy Roberson coached Holy Cross to its most recent boys basketball state title in Division III of the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association before moving on to E.C. Glass and eventually becoming a men’s assistant at N.C. State in 2018.
Roberson recalled several times over the years sometimes crowds were so thick students would sit inside the narrow coach’s box to get a glimpse of the action. Randy Turille, who spent 17 years as Holy Cross’ boys soccer coach and nearly a decade as the school’s athletic director, remembers that time well.
“I loved the gym there,” Turille said. “It was always packed in our good days. It was such a small gym and always super loud — just a great sports atmosphere.”
Turille, currently varsity boys soccer coach at E.C. Glass High School and AD at Linkhorne Middle School, was drawn to Holy Cross when then-principal John Jones hired him under a two-year provisional contract when Turille was still in school at Lynchburg College. Turille remembers promising Jones, “As long as you’re here, you’ll get the best I’ve got.”
Turille took the Holy Cross boys soccer team to the state final four on three occasions and to the championship game twice. In his tenure, the Gaels advanced to the state tournament eight times. They never won a state title with Turille, but the Gaels do own eight state soccer titles (seven from the now-defunct State Catholic League and one from the VISAA).
Between the two leagues, Holy Cross boasts state titles for boys basketball (nine), girls basketball (seven), softball (four) and volleyball (one).
At one point during Turille’s tenure as AD, roughly 75% of students played at least one sport. “It’s a long, storied history of sports at Holy Cross,” Turille said. “And that’s one reason I enjoyed it so much.”
Some of the athletes’ names still haven’t gone away. There’s Ted Delledera, a 1981 grad who scored a school-record 127 career goals; Bobby Stewart, who led HC to the 1953 Catholic League AAA state title before going on to play for Al McGuire at Belmont Abbey; Amy Gillis, a 2003 grad who pitched her way to more than 100 softball victories; John Lesniak, the only other 100-plus goal scorer in school history; and Nick Gravely, who this past season became the last Gael to reach the 1,000-point plateau.
Van Porter helped guide the Gaels girls basketball team to back-to-back state titles in 2006 and 2007. Those were years of high-octane basketball. Porter, currently head cross country coach and a track assistant at E.C. Glass, combined with head coach Charles Sprouse to create something unprecedented for girls hoops in the area. They helped bring in players from Lithuania looking to eventually play college basketball in the U.S. and also benefited from players rising through a strong JV program.
Suddenly, after losing in the state championship game in 2005, the Gaels were blowing out the competition, backed by quick, tall and talented players, six of whom went on to sign Division I scholarships in a two-season span.
“These girls were better than a lot of DI programs, as a team,” Porter recalled, noting the team was nationally ranked in ’05 and ’06.
Porter remembers traveling to Dominion High in Loudoun County in ’06 for a game. Dominion, which boasted an enrollment of more than 1,000 students, dwarfed Holy Cross in terms of available players. But Holy Cross had height — players that measured 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-2 — and experience on its side. After the first quarter, the Gaels led 24-2.
“I hate to see it go away like that,” Porter said of the school and its sports history. “It really is sad.”
Harter, the current girls head coach, has learned about the history in his three years at Holy Cross, the first two of which he spent as boys coach. He’s looked back through pictures of standing-room-only games, so, like Porter and Turille, he knows the past means something.
And Turille, who spent a good part of his adult life in Holy Cross’s hallways and athletic fields, hates to see the end drawing near.
“We had something special going on for a long time,” he said. “We had a great run.”
Two final goodbyes
It was Feb. 13, the final night of the regular season, and Harter’s team was destined for the playoffs. They would enter ranked sixth overall, but Harter wasn’t sure the Gaels would play again in their home gym. So this game, he knew, could be the final one at home.
The opponent that night was Carlisle, a team from Martinsville that HC hadn’t defeated in a dozen years.
With middle school teams and the varsity boys team also in action that night, staff members pulled out both sets of bleachers. People flooded into the gym, kind of like it was in the old days.
The girls were victorious, with sophomore guard Kenadi Knight scoring 20 points as part of a 10-game stretch in which she finished in double digits, and Mrad hauled down 13 rebounds. The boys won, too, and so did the middle school squads. It was a clean sweep of the former heavyweights from the south.
“We played as hard as we could,” forward Emma Luther said.
Next stop for the Gaels varsity girls: conference play. They won once, outlasting Covenant by two points as Mrad collected 17 rebounds, then lost to Charlottesville-based Miller School two days later. The team regrouped and waited for the state tournament, a round they hadn’t advanced to in 13 years.
The first round of the VISAA Division III state tourney, comprised of 12 teams, kicked off Feb. 25. Holy Cross, the No. 6 seed, hosted No. 11 Brunswick Academy. Game day rolled around, making for a bittersweet moment, Harter noted.
“Sweet in the fact that we’re in the state tournament, but obviously it’s the last game here, so that can be sad,” he said.
The night before the game, Harter showed his players old pictures from the early 1960s. The gym was packed.
“We were hoping that we could fill the stands the next day,” Mrad said, “which we did.”
And that wasn’t all. With a 41-36 victory over Brunswick, Holy Cross notched its first state tournament win since 2007, the year of its most recent girls state title, and accomplished that feat in its final home game ever.
“I think this was the greatest team I’ve been on,” Knight said. Then she backed up her teammates’ story: “It’s sad that [the school] is closing, but it just motivated all of us to push forward and do our best.”
The team drove to Richmond the next day to play the defending state champs, mighty Richmond Christian, in the Division III quarterfinal round. Richmond romped to a 30-point victory, ending the Gaels’ season. On paper, they finished with a 17-11 record and a trip to the state tourney. But the season was about much more than that.
“We closed it the way we should,” Mrad said, “and I think we exceeded everybody’s expectations.”
No decision has been made about what will happen to the Langhorne Road building once Holy Cross closes in June, according to Deborah Cox, communications director for the Catholic Diocese of Richmond. Should anything change, she added, the Diocese “will let the community know.”
Harter stood in the gym recently and looked around. At the wooden floor from a bygone era, at the banners on the walls, at the space itself. Behind him, the lights on the old green and white scoreboard officially have blinked off for the final time.
“I’m a sports guy,” he said, “so you look at this gym and you’re like, ‘I hope this gym just doesn’t sit empty.’ Gym space is hard to find.”
Just like the building, players’ futures are somewhat up in the air. Like some of her classmates, Luther hopes to attend the new Holy Cross Academy, which is a parent-driven upstart hoping to begin holding classes at Centenary United Methodist Church on Rivermont Avenue on Aug. 17. The academy will offer traditional educational services for Pre-K through eighth graders, while high school students will be a part of the Collaborative Catholic Learning Community, a homeschool and co-op hybrid. Knight said she may attend the academy as well.
The academy may offer sports, said Cara Stephens, a parent helping structure the new school. “We’re hoping to,” she said, “but it all depends on the numbers. If we have enough [students], we’ll try to save the Gaels and have our own teams.”
Older students who want to participate in sports, she added, could join the Lynchburg Patriots, a home school association that offers multiple levels of competition in sports like basketball, soccer, cross country and volleyball should the academy not have enough interest to field its own teams.
After one year at Holy Cross, Mrad hopes to remain in the U.S. and play college basketball next winter. She’s looking at colleges in California.
It’s possible some Gaels could wind up at nearby E.C. Glass, since there’s a long history of athletes transferring between the two schools.
Harter hopes to find a new coaching gig. Individuals come and go, he knows, cycling through secondary institutions like Holy Cross.
Many, like Turille, coaches before him and former athletes, are trying to make the most out of the time they have. That’s also the philosophy that pushed the girls’ team onward back in November.
“I was just a very small part of a long history,” Harter said. “So it’s humbling and awe-inspiring.”
Then, as the late-afternoon sun began its journey below the horizon, he smiled and walked through the gym. A few of his players lingered around, their laughs bouncing off the walls inside a school where, soon, voices will give way to silence.
Ben Cates covers high school sports for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5527.