Sign Of a Champion: Learning Center’s NEPSAC Banner Understood By All

By Maggie Cassidy
Globe Correspondent

On the bench to the right of the scoring table at Noble & Greenough’s Rappaport Gymnasium yesterday, young women in bright blue basketball uniforms began their intimidating battle cry, bringing down one foot at a time — stomp, stomp — before smacking their hands in unison — clap, clap.

They repeated the bone-shaking rally throughout the game — stomp, stomp, clap, clap, stomp, stomp, clap, clap. And while their teammates on the court couldn’t hear the noise the bench produced, they knew it was there.

The Learning Center for the Deaf relied on pure teamwork to capture the NEPSAC Class D girls’ basketball championship with a convincing 43-35 win over Chase Collegiate of Waterbury, Conn.

It was the first time in NEPSAC history a deaf team made it to the championship game.

‘‘I feel like a lot of people actually are shocked,’’ senior Danielle Sprague signed through interpreter Crista DeBenedictis. ‘‘No one believes that a deaf team could win, and here we are, proving today that it doesn’t matter if you’re a deaf team or a hearing team. It doesn’t matter. You can win.’’

Junior Shaquana McDonough said the win meant a lot to the school.

‘‘It means that everyone in New England knows The Learning Center,’’ she signed. ‘‘Before, nobody ever really heard of The Learning Center. It’s a really recognizable name and it feels good.’’

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The Learning Center for the Deaf, which was incorporated in Framingham in 1970, began its basketball program after the school built a gym in 1991. Both the boys’ and girls’ teams enjoyed immediate success, as two players, Kristin Feldman (’93-’00) and Justin Bennett (’93-’98) recorded 2,000-point careers. Feldman went on to play at Gallaudet University, a school for deaf and hard-of-hearing students in Washington, D.C.

Coach Brad Crowell, a hearing person who communicates with his players through sign language, took over the girls’ program in 1995. The Lady Ghosts have dominated their opponents, losing only three games in the past three seasons while winning two Eastern Schools for the Deaf Athletic Association Div. 1 championships. Last year they were named the co-team of the year by the National Deaf Interscholastic Athletic Council.

After years of petitioning by Crowell, the New England Preparatory School Athletic Council tournament committee finally recognized the school last year. But the Lady Ghosts lost in the semifinals to the Wooster School of Danbury, Conn.

With his team 28-1, Crowell said this is easily the best season The Learning Center has experienced. Their success is thanks in part to continuity. Many of the team’s four seniors have been playing together since sixth grade, and most players have known each other since preschool. Plus, Crowell said, “basically nobody” has graduated in the past three years.

“It’s three years of working together in a lot of different situations,” he said. “They’ve seen everything.”

Although The Learning Center lost the ESDAA final this season, several players said yesterday’s win made up for it. “It’s a bad feeling to lose, but it feels good to win, that’s for sure,” senior Desiree West signed. “We’re ending on a good note. This year is big for us because we have three seniors who are leaving, and it’s important for us.”

Assistant Peter Bailey agreed. Bailey, who is deaf, said the team rearranged its defense and changed “everything from A to Z” after losing the ESDAA final to his former team, Maryland School for the Deaf.

“It was more like a regrouping, with that loss,” he signed. “It doesn’t mean we’re all done with that one loss. It means, what do we need to do to make up for it? We can’t erase that loss, but this win does help, for sure.”

The Learning Center commanded yesterday’s matchup, building a 26-13 lead by halftime and putting the brakes on Chase’s attempt at a comeback.

Dozens of fans showed up to support the Lady Ghosts. Parents led them in signing cheers like, “Fight, fight, Lady Ghosts!” and “Blue, white! Fight, fight, fight,” emphatically crossing their forearms for the word “fight.”

Even without words, the Lady Ghosts seamlessly stitched series of passes together. On one play, McDonough tossed a long pass from halfcourt to West, who couldn’t control the ball under the basket but managed to slap it inbounds. Sprague was there for an easy bounce pass back to McDonough, who was rushing at the basket and made the layup.

McDonough had 18 points and 13 rebounds, while West added 15 points and four rebounds.

And while the players agreed that teamwork made The Learning Center basketball program, they said they’re more than just a basketball team.

“It’s more of a sisterhood to me. They’re my girls, they’re my friends,” West signed. “Like I said, we’ve been on this team together for so long. We’ve been through a lot. It’s just our family.”