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Philadelphia Academy Charter freshman off to fast start

McKenna Alston helped Philadelphia Academy Charter make the Public League playoffs. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

McKenna Alston didn’t know she’d become a Day 1 starter.

But no doubt she has been working for this her entire life.

Alston is a freshman on the Philadelphia Academy Charter girls basketball team. And when she first started playing for the Chargers and coach Casey Huckel, she made an immediate impression, and it got her a starting spot.

“I grew up playing basketball, I would go to the park with my brothers and my uncle and we’d just play,” Alston said. “I’ve been playing since I was 8, but when I got to middle school (Northwood Academy Charter) I tried out and started taking it seriously.

“When I tried out in fifth grade, I played JV, I didn’t make varsity, so I didn’t try my best. I wasn’t taking it too seriously. As I played, and I lost some games, I had the desire to win. I didn’t like losing. That’s why I started taking it very seriously.”

And it paid off for the Chargers.

Philadelphia Academy Charter girls went 12-3 overall, including a 10-1 record in Public League play during the regular season.

The mark was good enough to send the Chargers to the playoffs, where they suffered a first-round defeat at the hands of Dobbins.

It wasn’t the perfect ending, but it gave Alston and her teammates the blueprint for what they need to do in the future.

“Basically, I feel like I help the team by bringing effort and positivity,” said Alston, who can play both guard positions, and can also play forward. “I push my teammates. I can’t do it alone, I push them and they do it. They help me and I help them. As a ninth-grader, I wanted to lead my team to the championship. I didn’t, but I think we did really well.

“We have a really good team. I felt like at times I needed to be a leader, but we had a great leader, Carmella Gallagher. I tried to help her whenever I could. She was a great leader and the other girls would listen. We had a really good team and we all worked together.”

But right when Alston walked into the school, she became a player.

It didn’t take her long to prove to Huckel she belonged in the starting lineup. In fact, the coach saw it even before the player. 

“I found out after I came to tryouts, I was talking to coach Huckel and he said I was a very good player and had potential to start,” Alston recalls. “He didn’t give me the job, he wanted me to earn it. It wasn’t handed to me. 

“I think they gave me a lot of responsibility, but always made sure I was able to handle it. They never asked me to do anything I couldn’t do. And the more they asked me to do, the more I believed I could do it.”

But just as she tried to lead by example, she picked up a lot of tips from her senior teammate.

“On the court, I would say I was the secondary leader,” Alston said. “We had a very good senior. Carmella Gallagher. She helped me a lot, she really did. 

“She taught me some people are not going to be as advanced, sometimes you have to talk to people differently. Don’t hurt their feelings. If I wanted to tell my team, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t scaring them and came off on the right foot. I became their friend. I think she showed me that. She helped me a lot.”

While Gallagher won’t be back next year, most of this year’s squad – a team that caused a lot of problems for other Public League teams this year – will be back. And next year, they’ll have that experience.

That only raises expectations for Alston and her teammates.

“I learned this year how to play high school basketball and how to help lead the team,” Alston said. “I want to get back to the playoffs, and I really want to get a championship. I want to use what I learned and I want to lead my team to a championship.”

While being a leader in high school basketball is new to Alston, she’s been a leader her entire life.

She has two younger brothers, one a basketball player, the other plays basketball, but is more of a soccer star.

She knows how important it is to be a good person at home because her younger brothers are always watching. She wants to be the right example to follow.

“I want people to know that I am beside basketball, I’m a really nice person,” Alston said. “I have a lot of friends and I like to help everyone. I’m caring. I get that from my mom. She teaches me manners and respect and she doesn’t play. 

“I’m really close with my brothers. We talk a lot about sports. I try to help them. It’s important to have good role models. I had the best just with my family, my mom.”

She is a nice person, unless you’re guarding her.

And she proved that as a freshman.

“I was proud, I never thought I’d be scoring points as a ninth-grader,” she said. “We went against all different types of competition. Middle school, I would have 18 points sometimes. I wasn’t a scorer. In high school, it’s been way different. 

“I’ve gotten better, but that’s not just me, that’s my coaches. My coaches in high school and middle school have helped me so much. So have my AAU coaches (on Team Success). I’ve had a lot of help and I want to help people. That’s how you get better.”

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