This 2020 athletic season, it’s not just the Penguin Hall community that has been cheering for the APH Varsity Basketball team — parents and educators from other schools have gone out of their way to let President Molly Martins know how much they appreciate the character, camaraderie, and courage they’ve witnessed on the court. As one parent from an opposing team wrote to Ms. Martins,

 “What I witnessed by the Penguin Hall team was something special. These young women played with heart and grace… They encouraged each other, played hard and handled themselves with class and dignity … In all my years watching athletic events, I have never cheered for the opposing team. I could not help myself as I watched these girls carry themselves with confidence… To me, this is exactly what being a part of a team is all about.”

What does it take to turn opponents into fans? Performance is important, but when a team is in the midst of a competitive game, it’s spirit and unity that fuel resilience and illuminate a team’s character, even if they’re down by 20 points. And the right coach can make the difference between tapping into or crushing that team spirit. 

Coach Marvin cheers on the APH team from the sidelines.

Head Coach Marvin Neal, new to the Penguin Hall basketball team this year, is that coach. Neal, a sales manager at Imajine That in Lawrence and and founder of Coach Marvin’s Sports & Leadership Project, heard about the open position through a current Penguin Hall parent, whose daughter plays on his co-ed team through AAU NH Spartans. “At first, I didn’t realize it was all-girls,” says Neal. A self-described fierce competitor, Neal’s only concern was that he’d be asked to scale back his vision for going big, for turning the team into one of the best in the area. But after an interview with Director of Athletics & Student Leadership Dr. Nicole Cervantes, Neal knew it was a “match made in heaven… she resonated with my goal of turning the basketball program around, she got it.”

After accepting the position, Neal posted on Facebook that he was looking for an Assistant Coach. Almost immediately, he received a response from Will Felix, a program manager for Wayside Youth & Family Support Network and an avid community advocate. Neal, who describes himself as very stubborn, chose Felix as assistant coach because “he’s one of the few people I listen to… he helps me see my gaps.” The two first met back in 2001 playing semi-pro football for the New Hampshire Wolfpacks through the NEFL and have stayed friends since. “We can read each other,” says Felix.

When it comes to coaching, Neal’s initial approach is straight forward: “Let’s see who wants to be here and who doesn’t. You have heart or you don’t, skills can be learned.” Neal kicked off the team’s first practice of the season with a conditioning challenge — the girls ran twice as many suicides as their current grade level. “It’s tough love, but the girls listen to what we say — they trust us,” says Felix, who recalls that learning and accepting trust was a challenge for him growing up. As a result, teaching and learning trust, as well as gaining trust with their players, is fundamental. “We’re tough, but we also use laughter,” says Neal. “I always say it’s got to be fun, or I’m taking you out… I like to call it ‘a party on the court’.”

Neal and Felix expect their players to give 100%, and they strive to lead by example on and off the court. “It’s all about the girls and respect for the game… we learn as much from them as they do from us,” says Felix. As for the girls, it’s obvious how much they respect and appreciate their coaches. They listen with rapt attention to their directions and encouragement on the court, and their faces light up when they see the coaches during unexpected visits to Penguin Hall’s bistro for lunch. 

“Our team is a family, and we reflect that in our play,” says Sophia B. ‘23, a captain this year for the APH basketball team. “Coach Marvin and Coach Will have been incredible leaders, and role models for our team. They’ve taught us about basketball, but also about life as well. I cannot say enough about how they push us to be our best and improve.” 

Working with teenagers, it’s sometimes inevitable that disagreements show up during practice, whether related to the team or some other social dynamic. “We make a point to stop practice, and to discuss and problem-solve,” says Neal. Learning how to collaborate, compromise, and find solutions happens on the court and spills over into other areas of life. Neal and Felix agree that as much as their goal is to turn APH into a winning team, “we aim to give them the tools to be strong women in the world.”