The Gatorade Player of the Year award is presented annually to student-athletes who excel in athletics and academics and display exemplary character. So when Corey Brown, the Juanita Sanchez girls basketball coach (10-2), received an email from the organization informing him that one of his players was a candidate for RI Gatorade Player of the Year, he wasn’t surprised. Genesis McNeill excels in the classroom and on the court.
Brown was also not surprised that they were looking for more information. The slender senior point guard, who stands nearly 6 feet tall, is one of the state’s top players – has been since she first played high school ball as a sophomore – has managed to stay out of the limelight.
“She doesn’t talk about her stats. She wants to win,” said Brown, who also happens to be McNeill’s cousin.
“I honestly don’t know what they are,” said McNeill. “(Brown) taught me to be really humble.”
Regardless of whether McNeill wants to talk about her stats or not, they’re impressive.
McNeill, who has started on two championship teams at two different schools, records a triple double in almost every game and has had a rare quadruple double on more than one occasion in her career.
The numbers aren’t Genesis McNeill’s story. She has faced more than her fair share of challenges.
“I had many challenges…many,” she said. “It (her upbringing) wasn’t rough. It was just hard for me to go through certain stuff I did at a young age,”
McNeill said basketball runs in her family, although she doesn’t know the specifics, except that there was a 7-foot ball player on her mom’s side and her dad played, too.
She’s quiet, shy and prefers to remain in obscurity, but her game – and her commanding presence – won’t let that happen. Unselfish, she is focused on doing whatever it takes to win on a team that has just five players.
“She is a team player,” said Brown. “We were playing a game (against a weaker opponent). I told her to get 40 and she said, ‘Why should I do that? Why can’t everyone get 10?’ That’s when I knew she understood. She gets it.”.
Brown gets it, too.
“We have five HONOR ROLL students,” emphasized Brown. “This isn’t about basketball. I’m not teaching basketball. This is about holding yourself accountable and the importance of school because I’ve seen the challenges these girls have faced.”
Brown has always used basketball as a vehicle to teach leadership, dedication and the importance of education. It’s the core of We Got Next, his highly regarded youth program in Providence’s southside.
He encouraged McNeill to join in when she was a little girl.
“I begged her to play,” said Brown. “She would always look at me and say one word: ‘no.’”
It wasn’t until McNeill watched her older brother play in a tournament that she changed her mind.
“I saw little girls playing and said I can play better than them,” said McNeill.
She was right.
McNeill gave in to her cousin and spent countless hours working to improve her game. Her teammates became her best friends. Basketball became easier. Everything else became harder.
She started out at Woonsocket High as a freshman, but was back in Providence before the temperature dropped and basketball season started. She enrolled at Charette High School and was planning to play for Brown with her best friends at Juanita Sanchez, but she missed her freshman year of basketball when her father became ill and she was needed to help care for her younger siblings.
She lived on the court that following summer, working hard to gear up for her first year of high school basketball. McNeill wouldn’t be joining her friends at Juanita. She was heading to St. Raphael.
She called on Brown to help get her ready.
A former Providence police officer, Brown would finish the overnight shift at 7 a.m. and head to Davey Lopes Rec Center to work out with McNeill.
“She was always calling me to work out. It was 7 a.m. and I’d still be in my work boots and throwing passes to Jenny,” said Brown. “She wasn’t even on my team. She wanted to work and I wanted to help her.”
The hard work paid off. Her talents were on full display in her first year at Saints. McNeill averaged double figures as the starting point guard on the Division I team that went unbeaten and won the state championship.
But McNeill wasn’t happy.
Perhaps the turning point came during the season when Saints played Juanita Sanchez. She hated going up against her friends.
“They were so mad at me. I was at the top of the press and I wouldn’t let them get the ball in. I felt so bad,” said McNeill.
So when McNeill walked off the court after the SRA won the championship, she never put on a Saints uniform again.
“The way I grew up it was just hard for me to fit in with those kids that go there,” McNeill said. “The girls there didn’t grow up the way I did. They didn’t face the challenges I did.”
She left Saints and headed back to Charette, a small, little known school in downtown Providence. There is no gym, so there’s no chance of getting a few shots up during a free period. Still, McNeill is happy at Charette, where she is an A student.
“The teachers are not afraid to help you. They’re willing to give you their time,” she said.
She also reunited with Brown and friends at Juanita Sanchez. Since Charette is a Charter school and does not have athletic teams, she is allowed to play for a school in the area; in this case, Juanita Sanchez!
“I’m home,” she said.
She’s happy, which was evident right away. In her first year at Juanita Sanchez, McNeill earned All-State honors and not only won her second straight state championship (Division II), but she also helped the Cavaliers reach the finals of the state open tournament.
This year Juanita Sanchez has just five players on its varsity roster and competes in Division I, the state’s toughest division. McNeill hopes to play Division 1 next year, but she isn’t the only star. She is joined by Charlize Romero, Dameris Antigua, Arhianna Fernandes and 1,000 point scorer Sabanna Berrios, who is on track to reach 1,000 rebounds this year.
With just enough players to fill a lineup, everyone’s role is crucial. Brown prays no one gets hurt and preaches the importance of staying out of foul trouble.
His slim roster is loaded with talent, but that isn’t what matters to him most. The girls are focused. They arrive at practice early and get right to work. There is not a cell phone to be found and no joking around. With just enough players to fill each position they must rely on each other. The bond extends off the court and has led to success.
“We walk in a gym and people think we’re a bunch of girls from the ghetto,” he said. “My girls are quiet and don’t say a thing. They are student-athletes who work hard on the court and in the classroom. They just keep their head down and go out there and play.”