Bronx Science’s playoff game was just minutes from starting, and there was still no sign of head coach Phil Cancellaro. That’s when Science athletic director Mike McGrath received a text from Cancellaro saying he was in the emergency room at Bronx Lebanon Hospital.
McGrath took over, and like the 13 previous games they played this season, the Wolverines waltzed to a 5-0 victory in boys handball, advancing to the Public School Athletic League’s quarterfinals against Midwood. Cancellaro did manage to get to the game for the end of the final set, still wearing his hospital wristband, but more eager to talk about his program than what landed him for a brief stay in the ER.
“This was a first for me in my coaching career,” Cancellaro said with a laugh. “I was just thankful that I got here to see the end of this game. And I’m thankful for my AD covering for me because this was totally unexpected.”
And while the Wolverines eventually saw their stellar season come to an end in a 4-1 quarterfinals loss to Midwood last Friday, Cancellaro had bigger issues to contend with in his program — the waning popularity of the sport in the school.
“I’m always trying to promote it through the older guys on the team, having them tell the kids that are coming into the school what kind of program we have here,” Cancellaro said. “It used to have a good reputation here. We’re still getting kids at tryouts, but not the ones that have the skill. We have to develop more now than we had to in the past.”
Bronx Science has had quite a long run of success under Cancellaro. The Wolverines went 12-0 in the Bronx/Manhattan Division this season, winning the regular-season title. Science also posted a remarkable 45-6 overall mark in the past four seasons.
But now, with a roster that will graduate 12 of its 17 players next month, the search is on for more quality players to continue Science’s dominance.
“They’re in the building,” Cancellaro said. “It’s just a matter of us going in the building and finding them, weeding them out. I’ll have my juniors go out next year and bring some guys into the team. I hope.”
Andy Reyes is one of the seniors who will leave this year, yet he hopes the handball program continues to thrive long after he’s gone.
“Handball is not really a popular sport in the school, I guess,” said Reyes, who joined the team this year after becoming enamored while watching it last season. “There aren’t many fans. Sometimes we have a couple of friends come out to watch us play if we ask them to. But we’re all really supportive of each other on the team.”
But there are other factors involved with losing players, Cancellaro said.
“A lot of kids are getting jobs now,” Cancellaro said. “We had some older kids playing with us who aren’t playing anymore because they had to get jobs. There are also kids who are doing their college applications and the kids are prioritizing that as to playing handball. There is no scholarship money for handball. This is more of a recreational sport for them, so this doesn’t add to their college resume.”
The Wolverines are regular visitors to the postseason, and their loss to Midwood kept them from reaching the semifinals for the first time in five seasons. But Cancellaro is determined to keep his program rolling, saying his program is open to any kid in the school who wants to give the quintessential New York sport a go.
“Some of the kids, I think, are fearful of our success in that they don’t think they’re good enough to play here,” Cancellaro said. “But I tell them to come and try out anyway and be part of the program and see how you feel in the program.
“It’s a varsity program, and they get nervous playing against older kids. But I tell them there is always a spot for you somewhere in the program. As a person developing, as a starter or as an alternate, we can always find a spot for you, even though you might be in ninth or tenth grade.”
The loss to Midwood was the only blemish on the Wolverines ledger this season, and though Reyes will be off to college soon, he hopes to return to see future Science teams enjoying similar — or even better — success.
“It would definitely be sad if it went away here,” Reyes said. “It’s a really fun sport.”