9/14/2008
Nanticoke’s fab five reminisce about storybook season
Holly Kozlowski Uzdella can rattle off memories of her high school basketball career like it was just yesterday.

jsnowdon@citizensvoice.com, 570-821-2060

Partial video of 1990 Trojanette team at end of game - Compliments of GNA Webdesign

Holly Kozlowski Uzdella can rattle off memories of her high school basketball career like it was just yesterday.
There are reminders, of course, to help jog her memory, such as the display of photos and trophies that decorate her father’s barbershop. Her scrapbooks are also close at hand, should she ever want to reminisce. Or she could easily go back by popping in the video of Nanticoke Area’s state title game.
Eighteen years have passed, but the memories from 1990, the sights, the sounds of playing on the greatest girls basketball team from the Wyoming Valley Conference are still vivid for Uzdella.
“One of my favorite memories is from the Eastern final at Pottsville’s Martz Hall,” Uzdella said. “We were playing North Schuylkill and when our names were being announced for the starting line-up we couldn’t hear a thing because the fans were going crazy. Our coach had to point to us when it was our turn to go out on the court. It was so amazing how many people were there for us. It’s things like that that will forever be etched in my mind.”
Uzdella and fellow senior stars Ellen Bartuska, Casey Comoroski, Holly Ryncavage and Lori Scally Zaleski, capped their tremendous undefeated season by winning the 1990 state championship. Along the way they captured interest from college coaches, bitterness from opponents and support from basketball fans throughout the Wyoming Valley.
“When you’re young like that you don’t realize how big (Nanticoke girls basketball) was at the time, but I’ll never forget the amount of support we had,” Zaleski said. “And it wasn’t only people from Nanticoke.” But the residents of Nanticoke certainly led the caravan of fans. And, rightfully so.
For four years the Trojanettes dominated the Wyoming Valley Conference and District 2. It wasn’t until 1990, however, that Nanticoke finally made it to the big dance at Hersheypark Arena.
As sophomores, the fab five were eliminated in the Eastern semifinals by Lancaster Catholic. As juniors, they were sent home in the same round once again by Lancaster Catholic. As seniors, they made a pact that the only thing that would bring them home from the state playoffs would be a victory parade.
“There was no way we were going to lose again,” Uzdella said. “Coach (Rose) Volpicelli put it in our minds that we were going to win and she executed the game-plan to get us there. It wasn’t a matter of how we were going to win, it was a matter of how many we would win by.”
The Trojanettes’ storybook season had its fill of villains. Lopsided victories in favor of Nanticoke angered coaches, opponents and opposing fans. Volpicelli and her talented group of seniors were often accused of running up the score and embarrassing their conference foes.
“It’s so hard when you’re that young because you’re always told to do your best, and we were just out there to play a game the best we knew how,” Ryncavage said. “We didn’t want to run up the score and we didn’t want to embarrass anyone,” Comoroski added. “But what do you do when you are trying to get to that (state championship) game?”
Each of the five starters had a scoring cap. As soon as she scored 18 points, whether it was in the first or fourth quarter, she was finished playing for the night. That was Volpicelli’s attempt at preventing a rout, but in most cases Nanticoke came away with a convincing victory.
One of Nanticoke’s romps took an interesting turn late in the fourth quarter and woke up an otherwise quiet crowd. With 99 points on the scoreboard and 38 seconds left on the clock in a game against Tunkhannock, Nanticoke’s efforts to keep the game under 100 points were denied thanks to the Tigers.
Tunkhannock’s coach at the time, the late Norm Sisle, called time-out. He waved his players to the bench and even got parents in on his master scheme. The Tigers had possession when they returned to the court and, instead of working an offense, their ball handler raced down to Nanticoke’s basket and gave the Trojanettes 101 points.
Unfortunately, to add insult to injury, the plan didn’t run as smooth as the Tigers had hoped. “I remember the girl just took off towards our basket.” Uzdella said. “She was all alone but she actually missed the lay-up. She had to get her own rebound and put it back.”
“Oh, I’ll never forget that game,” added Zaleski. “I guess there was some bitterness there. But the crowd started to cheer. It was kind of funny.”

The road to gold

Nanticoke’s dominance continued in the state playoffs. The team’s scoring cap was lifted and sitting out a quarter, or two or three, because of the score was in the past. Finally, the Trojanettes were putting their hours of intense practices to good use.
Against Strath Haven in the Eastern quarterfinals at Martz Hall, the Trojanettes poured in 41 points in the first quarter. It was a 41-13 lead that was never threatened.
In the semifinals they once again met the team that decided their fate the previous two seasons — Lancaster Catholic. “I actually think the loss to Lancaster Catholic our junior year prepared us for what we wanted to do as seniors,” Comoroski said. “We were so determined as seniors. There was no way we were going to be stopped our senior year.”
And so the Trojanettes eliminated their biggest nemesis, and in typical Nanticoke fashion — a 45-point victory.
North Schuylkill was Nanticoke’s next victim. The result was an 80-60 win which put the Trojanettes one victory away from their ultimate goal of winning a state title.
“It was unbelievably exciting,” Zaleski said. “When you’re young like that I don’t think you realize how big something like (going to the state final) really is. I wish I would have taken more time to stop and take it all in.”
In the biggest game of their high school careers, against Beaver Falls, the Trojanettes withstood adversity they rarely had to face over four years. With just four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Uzdella fouled out for the first time in her career. Bartuska was playing cautiously as well with four fouls. And the score was much closer than the Trojanettes were used to.
But they found a way to prevail.
Reserves Renee Pointkowski and Teri Glazin filled in perfectly, while the 5-foot-1 Comoroski put on a show. She nailed a remarkable 23-of-35 free throws and finished with 36 points.
The heartbreak from being eliminated in years past, the negativity that often surrounded the Nanticoke squad, the chemistry that was built from seventh grade, all came down to this, a 77-67 victory and a state championship. The Trojanettes’ smallest margin of victory also served as their biggest win.

Always a champion

Ryncavage and her fiance Jim Saba recently dusted off the videotape of Nanticoke’s championship game. It’s been nearly 15 years since Ryncavage watched the tape, but she doesn’t need to see it to remember the excitement that surrounded that season. She has photos, her gold medal and her varsity jacket. But most importantly, she has her teammates.
Each of the girls went on to be successful, and they continue to stay connected through visits, phone calls, e-mails and, of course, basketball.
Comoroski played at St. Bonaventure, was recently inducted into the college’s hall of fame and now serves as associate athletic director and senior woman administrator at Missouri State University. Bartuska starred at the University of Richmond and earned a degree in biology. She is living in Delaware and has been a zookeeper at the Philadelphia Zoo for the last 11 years.
Uzdella was a standout at Lock Haven University. She is married eight years to Chris Uzdella, has a stepdaughter, Natashja, and works at InterMetro Industries in Wilkes-Barre, where she is a senior accountant. Zaleski, who was also a state champion in javelin for Nanticoke, played one season at West Chester University, one season with Luzerne County Community College and graduated from Temple University. She is married 11 years to Matthew and they have 5-year-old twin boys, Michael and Jacob. She is a regional director of CareSite Pharmacies and oversees 10 pharmacies in Pennsylvania. Ryncavage played for a season at LCCC and works for CVS Caremark as a supervisor of pharmacy technicians.
“We definitely still keep in touch,” Zaleski said. “And basketball and that season is something that always comes up.”
“We’re all bonded by being apart of that team,” Uzdella said. “Looking back, I think being on that team helped define me as a person. It helped me set goals, accept adversity and embrace good times and I think that spills into my life now.”
While the fab five have moved on from basketball, one question will always remain — will there ever be another team like Nanticoke?
“It’s hard to say,” Ryncavage said. “You have to have five people who are really committed, really talented and have the same goal in mind.”
“It was such an awesome experience,” Uzdella. “You can only hope to see a team like ours again.”