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Inspired by its coach, Penn Wood learns to rise above

Rise above, on three. So goes the call from inside the huddle. Rise above. The emphatic response. It's become a battle cry for the Penn Wood girls' basketball team - a mantra - even though it came from an ugly place.

Monique Boykins.
Monique Boykins.Read more(Ed Hille/Staff Photographer)

Rise above, on three.

So goes the call from inside the huddle.

Rise above.

The emphatic response.

It's become a battle cry for the Penn Wood girls' basketball team - a mantra - even though it came from an ugly place.

Two years ago, a coach from an opposing team was overheard saying disparaging things about the Patriots to a parent. Horrible, unfounded things about where the girls came from, their backgrounds, and the school itself.

Naturally, when the message was relayed to her, coach Monique Boykins was upset. So upset she talked to the school's athletic director, Rap Curry, about it.

"Tell them to rise above," he told Boykins at the time.

She did. So, they do.

But adversity is nothing new for Boykins, 32, known as "Coach Mo."

When she was a student at Penn Wood, people said she would never play in college. She did, at Kutztown.

When she was in college, people said to not follow her passion in science and major in biology. She did anyway.

Then there was the adversity at home. In seventh grade, she moved in with her grandmother, Bernice Bean, because both of her parents suffered with severe substance abuse problems.

Through it all - the doubt, the disappointments - Boykins rose above.

She did it long before the phrase would hold meaning to so many of her players, before they would mention it as the piece of advice they take along with them.

"It is definitely transferred to us," senior guard Gabby Hairston said. "She gives us the love and we give it back by winning games and trying our best and going as far as we can."

As her mentors, Rory Lewis, high school coach Chip Cifuni, college professor Ann Zayaitz, and middle school science teacher Jess Lupold, did for her in one way or another, Boykins is making sure her players know that they can do it, too.

"I want all the kids that play on this floor to know that you can be whatever you want to be," said Boykins, who is in her sixth season at the helm. "That's my message. It isn't all about basketball. I learned at a young age that basketball was a metaphor for life."

Four years ago, the Patriots won three games. Back-to-back Del-Val championship seasons of 16 wins or more followed. And now, they are talking states.

"It's an inspiration to all of us," senior guard Joy Morton said. "For Coach Mo to be one of the leaders on the banners out there is a great inspiration for all of us to keep working hard. We know at the end of the day it will pay off."

Penn Wood has qualified for three straight District 1 Class AAAA tournaments, reaching the second round two seasons ago - the farthest in program history. The team is athletic, as in years past. But unlike previous seasons, the Patriots have a schedule with tough nonleague opponents such as Bonner-Prendergast and Shipley.

Boykins, Morton, Hairston and forward Dahnye Redd are excited for the chance to prove what they are made of - to put the program on the map.

"With this group, they know they can do it," said Boykins, also a school board director who developed her own AAU program, Team Success, all while holding a full-time job. "They are very determined. They are determined to be great."

Looking at her or talking to her, you wouldn't be able to tell that at 5 years old, Boykins regularly got up in the morning, dressed herself and walked to the corner Lutheran Church alone. Or that her mother took her to crack houses that same year. That she didn't pick a basketball up until third grade, and that when she did, she practiced in jean shorts and her mother's Reeboks.

Or that after an estranged relationship with her father, he came back into her life, and those three years before he died were some of the best of her life.

No, Boykins' infectious smile burns bright.

"I'm not going anywhere," she says. "The kids need me here."

After a scrimmage Tuesday, Boykins stayed around talking with coaches and other individuals.

"Were you waiting for me?" she asked the group assembled on the bleachers about 40 minutes after the contest had ended.

Some nodded, while others verbally replied, confirming what she already knew to be true.

Yes, they do need her.