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February 04, 2015

Smear campaign against top-ranked Neumann-Goretti traced to rival coach

High Schools Girls Basketball
020414_NG3_NG Neumann-Goretti/for PhillyVoice

Christina Aborowa (33) and Felicia “Fee” Aiyeotan (30) of the top-ranked Neumann-Goretti basketball team.

A relieved smile slowly creased Christina Aborowa’s face the morning of Nov. 12, 2014. The 6-foot-4 Neumann-Goretti senior forward from Ondo, Nigeria, thought she was set. She had signed and faxed over her national letter of intent to attend the University of Texas on a basketball scholarship, sharing the festive occasion with her teammates during the early national signing period.

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It ended, Aborowa (left) thought, a long, arduous journey from where she had been, to a new life and educational opportunities she otherwise wouldn’t have had in Africa.

Hours later that same day, a joyous moment took a dark turn when Texas Athletic Director Chris Plonsky and Longhorns women’s coach Karen Aston received a startling, masked email. This bewildered Aston, who then made a series of inquiries to get to the gist of the topic.

In the email were unsubstantiated allegations of the African girls on the Neumann-Goretti girls’ basketball team — currently ranked No. 1 in the nation, according to USA Today and other widely respected news outlets — questioning their NCAA eligibility, including Aborowa and her 6-foot-9 Nigerian teammate, junior Felicia “Fee” Aiyeotan, who could be one of the nation’s most recruited high school basketball players—boys or girls—next year.

The email, under the pseudonym “Kyle dUNN” with the email address “ktginpa@XXX,” was circulated to other “undisclosed” coaches that could be recruiting the Neumann-Goretti players.

It attempted to discredit the NG program, alleging that the African players on the Saints, here legally, are older than their actual age and are in the United States illegally. Contents of the email were posted on comment forums of media websites (since removed) alleging institutional misconduct, and stating that the “FBI” is looking into the matter.

What PhillyVoice has uncovered is that the email Aston received was not just from anyone. It emanated from an email address that is registered to the name and home address of another Philadelphia Catholic League coach, Archbishop Wood girls basketball coach John Gallagher, who through an attorney neither confirms nor denies sending the email to Aston “and others.”

Additionally, Archbishop Wood has known about this — and has taken no action to date. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia has known about this — and has taken no action to date. This has reached the courts: A subpoena was issued by former Neumann-Goretti coach Letty Santarelli on Dec. 4, 2014, to Gallagher in a court case she has filed for defamation and slander. Documents in the court records verify the email address sent to Texas was registered in Gallagher’s name and to his home address.

According to documents recently filed in court, the Archdiocese has known about the situation since Dec. 1, 2014, and declined to do anything about it. Further confirmation of this was the inaction following a meeting on Friday, Jan. 30, held at the Archdiocese attended by Maureen Tobin, Aborowa and Aiyeotan’s host parent, and Archdiocesan Chief Operating Officer Chris Mominey, Chief of Staff Jason Budd, Superintendent for Secondary Schools Dr. Carol A. Cary and Associate Superintendent for Secondary Schools Kevin Kijewski, Esq.

"What I’m unhappy about is that they have two teenage girls being dragged through the mud here by one of their employees and I want it to stop,” Tobin said.

During the meeting, Archdiocesan officials admitted, according to Tobin, they had knowledge of Gallagher’s email. They openly told Tobin they were investigating it — but had also admitted that they had not spoken to Gallagher about it, as of Jan. 30.

“I was there to figure what we were going to do moving forward, because we can’t undo anything,” Tobin said. “We were all very well aware that the emails to Texas came from John Gallagher, and my objective is to find out what other college coaches were sent emails, so we can protect Felicia going forward.

“They acknowledged they knew Gallagher sent the emails to Texas. They acknowledged to me that they know about it. They did say that they are looking into it. But it’s what they’ve been telling me since December. What I told them is that someone like John Gallagher shouldn’t be in a position to mentor young people, and they agreed with me. But they haven’t done anything about it. I don’t know what more I can do. What I’m unhappy about is that they have two teenage girls being dragged through the mud here by one of their employees and I want it to stop.”

When contacted for this story, Gallagher neither confirmed nor denied anything, replying, “I have nothing to say about it.” On Wednesday, Feb. 4, Tobin exhausted what she felt was her last measure by appealing to Gallagher himself, looking for an explanation why a missive was sent to Texas and what other possible schools were sent emails. She told Gallagher who she was and why she was calling, and his response to Tobin was, “I have nothing to say about it.”

Archbishop Wood Athletic Director Joe Sette, who has a sound, strong reputation among Catholic League coaches and administrators, replied “no comment” when contacted about the issue.

Archdiocesan spokesman Ken Gavin replied in an email, “I am not aware of any individuals circulating emails to college coaches regarding the girls on the Neumann-Goretti team. Any student coming to this country to study in one of our schools is required to fill out appropriate documentation, and is vetted by the appropriate government agencies. As such, any student from a foreign country playing on any sports team in an Archdiocesan school would be of the appropriate age.

“Were the Archdiocese to receive a report of wrongdoing by anyone working or volunteering at one of its high schools, the matter would be looked into and appropriate action would be taken, pending the results. If any such proceeding were currently in process, we would not comment on the matter. If we had a report of a problem, we would look into the matter seriously and appropriate action would be taken.”

The Saints should be enjoying this time. Instead, the sordid anonymous email has them feeling like they’re in shadowy crosshairs, not only upholding the strain of being the nation’s best basketball team, but lugging constant innuendo into each game.

They lost their coach, Santarelli, who built the program and resigned on Friday, Nov. 7 for personal reasons. She was replaced on an interim basis by assistant coach Andrea Peterson, a former standout at Archbishop Carroll and Drexel University.

The Saints have held up very well under the transition.

And they keep winning.

It’s an extremely talented team led by fiery, pint-sized senior point guard Ciani Cryor, who’s headed to Georgia Tech, and the Towson-bound pair of A.J. Timbers and Sianni Martin. Add in Aborowa, 18, a gifted, athletic forward who can dunk a tennis ball, and the 6-9 Aiyeotan, 17, whose basketball skills have vastly improved in one season. If they go undefeated, the Saints could be one of the greatest girls basketball teams the Philadelphia area has ever produced.

Over the last two years, the Saints are a combined 47-1—that setback coming in last year’s PIAA Class AA state championship in March, losing to Seton-La Salle, 58-50.

Spend any significant amount of time with the Saints and you’ll find that, collectively, they’re an affable bunch that enjoys the company of one another and will laugh at anything.

“We know people are looking at every little thing we do," Aborowa said. "We get back at them by winning. We have to be focused and disciplined all of the time."

It’s why it was hard to fathom before Neumann-Goretti’s game at Wood on Friday, Jan. 16, Gallagher snubbed the Saints when they came over as a group for the pregame handshake, turning his back on them and folding his arms.

“We know everyone wants to beat us, and I had to learn what lengths people would go to beat us, personally,” said the soft-spoken Aborowa, who carries a 90-plus GPA at Neumann-Goretti and wants to major in computer science at Texas. “We know people are looking at every little thing we do. We get back at them by winning. We have to be focused and disciplined all of the time. It’s why we treat every game like it’s a championship game.

“It hurt to know someone would go out of their way to send emails out like that about us — and about me. But once you start being successful, people don’t like that. They try to bring you down. I didn’t do anything to deserve this. My conscience is clear. I have nothing to hide. We won’t stop going until we win the state championship. Other teams used to look down on us. We’re winning and some people don’t like it. But I was afraid my scholarship would be taken away. Really afraid.”

Robert Coleman, Chairman of District 12, which is comprised of the Philadelphia Catholic and Public Leagues, questioned Budd about the authenticity of Aborowa and Aiyeotan.

“I spoke with Jason Budd, my counterpart at the Archdiocese, and he has provided me with adequate information to believe that everything is fine at [Neumann-Goretti], but that they were involved in an in-house investigation,” Coleman said. “Based on the correspondence that we received from the Archdiocese, yes, the African girls are here legitimately. I don’t know why anyone would question that.

“From our end, the District 12 perspective, there’s been no wrongdoing by the Neumann-Goretti program. I spoke with Dr. Robert Lombardi [the PIAA Executive Director] and he has not been contacted about any wrongdoing [at Neumann-Goretti].”

Gavin supported this, too, stating in an email: “If we had a report of a problem, we would look into the matter seriously and appropriate action would be taken. There is nothing to report regarding wrongdoing at Neumann-Goretti.”

According to the Code of Ethics in the PIAA By-Laws Section 3, Paragraph G, PIAA coaches are required to, “Counteract unfounded rumors of questionable practices by opponents.”

Coleman did not want to address any hypotheticals, but he did say he, District 12 and the PIAA take the Code of Ethics very seriously and will look into any dubious situation that arises.

***

Neumann-Goretti is a target, now viewed as the New England Patriots of the Catholic League. It wasn’t always that way.

A quick history lesson is in order.

Southeastern Pennsylvania has long been a basketball hotbed. Eight of the last 10 PIAA Class AAAA (large school) state champions have come from District 1, which is comprised of the four counties surrounding Philadelphia (Delaware, Chester, Montgomery and Bucks Counties). In Class AAA, Neumann-Goretti’s boys program has won four of the last five state titles. The last six Class AAA state champions have been Philadelphia-area schools.

On the boys’ side, inner-city, predominantly African-American teams are dominant on the state level. Conversely on the girls’ side, it’s been the opposite. The Catholic League — the most dominant in the area in regards to girls’ basketball — had been ruled for years by the iron suburban triumvirate of predominantly white teams like Wood, Cardinal O’Hara and Archbishop Carroll.

Wood’s girls threepeated as Class AAA state champions from 2009-12 and the Vikings have been to the state finals in three of the last four years. If you were a very good grade school basketball player, chances are you would have been funneled to Wood, Carroll or O’Hara.

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Christina Aborowa and Felicia “Fee” Aiyeotan flank Maureen Tobin.  (Photo courtesy Maureen Tobin)          
Before Santarelli arrived, Neumann-Goretti was a doormat. Few top athletes wanted to go there. A standout at O’Hara and a Division II all-American at Immaculata University while she was Letty Huntzman, Santarelli ran an outreach nonprofit for inner-city girls called Philly Girls Got Game. You would see her after Neumann-Goretti boys’ playoff games sitting with her girls at the Palestra.

As Santarelli was building the program, Wood, O’Hara and Carroll paid little attention to the Saints. Then, Timbers and Cryor were sophomore stars on a Prep Charter team that won the District 12 and Philadelphia Public League titles.

When Prep Charter came under a two-year athletic ban by Coleman for using ineligible players in 2013, Timbers and Cryor, who Wood tried to recruit, opted out. They received PIAA-approved transfers to Neumann-Goretti, an inner-city, predominantly African-American team. The Saints made a seismic culture change. They began winning. Wood, O’Hara and Carroll suddenly took notice.

In the second year under Santarelli, the Saints rolled to a 29-1 record last season, beating Wood in the Catholic League championship, 55-46, to win the title for the first time in 36 years. It also marked the first time since 1968 that the same school won both the girls and boys Catholic League basketball championships — commonplace for the six-time defending champion boys program.

Steadily, Neumann-Goretti’s girls have graduated from a state to a national power this year.

“If I were still in Nigeria, I’d be fat and have a baby by now, I know it, I know it,” Aborowa said. “... Life was very hard for me back home.”

Initially, however, Aborowa and Aiyeotan were hardly factors. When they arrived in the U.S., they didn’t have sneakers. Santarelli appealed to the 76ers for shoes that fit their feet. Aborowa received sparse minutes on the program’s ascent, while Aiyeotan was so raw she would grab a rebound during practice, tuck it under her arm like a football and run down the court without dribbling.

That Aborowa is headed to Texas, and legendary Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma is seated courtside watching Aiyeotan, shows how far both have come in a year.

“We know the history [of the program],” said Aiyeotan, a gregarious girl who’s feeling more at ease with her height. “People used to beat Neumann-Goretti all the time, and now that we’re winning, we know what’s being said about us.”

Especially Aborowa and Aiyeotan.

It’s similar to the scrutiny Carroll boys basketball coach Paul Romanczuk endured when 6-foot-9 Temple commit Ernest Aflakpui arrived at Carroll from Ghana three years ago.

“I think it’s very difficult for any African teenager to falsify information to even get in this country, with the student visa process, transcripts, birth certificates, and the interview process at the U.S. Embassy,” Romanczuk said. “And I’ve heard it all, like Ernest was really 23 and he already graduated high school. We made sure every ‘i’ was dotted and ‘t’ was crossed. There have been situations where other African kids, including those wanting to come to Carroll, were denied for one reason or another during the interview process.

“It’s difficult to get that student visa in the first place. Not to mention getting through homeland security and all of the various layers that these kids have in front of them before they get on that plane. Homeland security is involved and it depends on what kind of relationship our country has with the specific African country.”

The United States and Nigeria have maintained diplomatic and trade relations since 1960, although reported human rights abuses have strained that relationship at times through the years. Tensions have increased as Nigeria and the global community wrestle with the response to the terrorist group Boko Haram, which has a history of kidnapping, raping and killing school-aged girls.

"I’d be fat and have a baby by now, I know it, I know it,” Aborowa said. “I wouldn’t have imagined coming from Nigeria and being here today, and everything that I’ve been through to get here. Life was very hard for me back home.”

Tobin, a Hallahan and Long Island University graduate who manages a Center City business, has been Aborowa and Aiyeotan’s host parent for the last two years in her Manayunk row home. To see the three interact, Tobin dotes on the girls like an older sister.

“When I was told about the email sent to the Texas coach, I was infuriated,” Tobin said. “Christina didn’t deserve that. We know where the emails came from. I want answers. I’ve gone to the Archdiocese numerous times requesting face-to-face meetings. I started making the calls back in November when this was brought to my attention. [The Archdiocese] just spoke to me in circles and said there was an ongoing investigation and they couldn’t discuss anything. And that was in December.

“The email went to Texas on signing day and I spoke to the people at Texas. They had questions for me and I gave them honest answers. They told me they put no stock in what was sent. I want answers. I want to know what other schools the emails went out to, because at this point, we may have to do some damage control. This could affect Fee’s recruiting. We have all the paperwork. I want these girls to be apologized to, because they didn’t deserve this. We need to know what other schools were sent those emails. If another school receives an email like that, it startles them and they might not call her anymore. It’s because of false information. They don’t deserve this.”

PhillyVoice has obtained copies of Aborowa and Aiyeotan’s U.S. State Department I-20 forms, signed and validated by Kathleen Aruffo of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, approving their tuition and financial needs.

"Girls go through hell in Africa, especially Nigeria," Pearsall said.  "They’re raped over there, kidnapped. It’s not just about basketball. We’re talking about humanity."

It’s a process getting anyone into the United States from Nigeria. Aborowa and Aiyeotan arrived through Mobolaji Akiode, who played for Fordham and is the founder of Hope for Girls Africa, a nonprofit intended to aid underprivileged African girls to find greater opportunities in the U.S.

First, Aborowa and Aiyeotan had to go through International Cultural Exchange Services (ICES) and Akiode’s program to establish a safe residency in the U.S. Secondly, Neumann-Goretti and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia had to approve them. Then, transcripts of their education in Nigeria had to be provided, along with birth certificates, passports, visas or I-20 forms. After all of that was completed, they underwent an extensive interview at the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria and had to be approved by U.S. Homeland Security.

Dr. Earl Pearsall, who runs a Chester-based nonprofit organization called Youth Interlock Society, brings over kids from Africa on a regular basis.

“It’s impossible to falsify anything that comes from Nigeria; they’re legitimate,” Dr. Pearsall said. “Some African countries will falsify information on these kids. I’ve dealt with some of the European countries and they’ll falsify the ages of these kids. The kids coming over with I-20s are far more secure than the kids coming over with visas. I believe any young lady coming over here from Nigeria with an I-20 is as old as they say they are.

“But the African kids always arrive with those questions: How old are they, really? Are they really who they say they are? The ignorance lies, I believe, with people who think these kids come here and they’re taking advantage of the system. They’re not. Girls go through hell in Africa, especially Nigeria. They’re raped over there, kidnapped. It’s not just about basketball. We’re talking about humanity. We should be able to help young people who are from less fortunate situations. These kids come here with nothing but the clothes on their backs. All they’re looking for is an opportunity to get an education and a better life.”

Aborowa is going to Texas. She’s been properly vetted and cleared by the Longhorns and the NCAA. Aston eventually got her answers, signing off on Aborowa, saying on the Longhorns’ website, “Christina adds much-needed depth at the forward position as Nneka [Enemkpali] graduates this spring. Fans will be drawn to her because of her infectious smile. She has tremendous upside and brings athleticism and a motor. Great coaches, both in high school and on the storied Philly Belles program, have developed her well. I look forward to seeing her blossom as a person and player here on the Forty Acres.”

In the meantime, Archbishop Wood has refused public comment. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia hasn’t taken any action, and Gallagher himself has refused comment.

He still remains Wood’s girls’ basketball coach. And Neumann-Goretti still remains undefeated.

“This whole thing at first seemed like a joke that you laugh about,” Aborowa said. “You’re not really sure if it’s really happening or not; that someone would take the time to make stuff up and then try to pass it along to hurt someone else. Just by winning we shut them up.”

Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning freelance sportswriter based in the Philadelphia area

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