Isabella Santoro grew up and still lives in Durham, but there was never a doubt where she was going to attend high school.
“Mercy was always the plan. I don’t think I had another school in mind,” Santoro said. “Cassie went there.”
Yes, Isabella was following in her older sister Cassie’s footsteps. Cassie played for the Mercy basketball team and reached the final game of the season each time – the Class LL state tournament final at the Mohegan Sun Arena.
The first three games were losses for Cassie and the Tigers. The last game was different in March of 2013, a buzzer-beating shot by Mercy to defeat Lauralton Hall.
Isabella Santoro had plenty of success during her career, but the Tigers didn’t have as much success in the postseason. Mercy didn’t reach the final the next four years. It took until this past March for Mercy to return to Mohegan and make it a successful trip – a 49-37 victory over Hall in the Class LL state final.
Finally, like Cassie before her, a state championship for the senior class led by Isabella Santoro, the Register’s Area MVP.
“It’s indescribable. I still can’t really believe it. I look at the medal and wonder, ‘Did we really do that?’ It’s increible. To be with them (her senior class) thru this entire journey has been awesome.”
Said Mercy coach Tim Kohs: “It’s been a great senior class. Sometimes you get a bunch of kids in the same class who are both quality players and quality kids. It was nice to go into game and teams not pressing us because we had Santoro. It will be tough losing her. She made so many things happen with the ball in her hands and she has been a great leader.“
Santoro, the starting point guard, averaged 17.6 points, 7.0 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.9 steals this past season. She is a two-time Register All-Area and All-State selection.
But it wasn’t always easy. Kophs tends to be tough on his players, demanding a lot. Sometimes it isn’’t easy being yelled at. She recalled one game against Career during her sophomore year where she cried after being yelled at.
“My dad was my coach. My entire life, he always told me when I didn’t play well or where I could have done this better or that better,” Santoro said. “Coach Kohs is a little different. … I finally realized that if he wouldn’t be yelling at you if he didn’t care. That helped me become a better player. He knew what I was capable of becoming. I needed to trust him and listen to whhat he had to say.”
Yes, Kohs knew what he had: a leader for what turned out to be a dominant class of seniors.
“Bella did a great job of rising to the challenge,” Kohs said. “The thing with Bella was she needed to believe she could be as good a player as she is now. When a kid has the ball in her hands all the time, you have to be able to do different things and make decisions on the fly, when it’s a good shot or a bad shot. She plays the hardest position. You have to put people in the right spots.”
Mercy won the SCC tournament championship and advanced to the Class LL state semifinals during Santoro’s junior year. This year, thhe Tigers won their first 17 games, all but one of them by double digits.
Then came the rematch against Career, a team Mercy had beaten by 19 points two months earlier. This time, Career sprung the upset on Mercy’s home floor.
“We didn’t play the way we were capable of playing,” Santoro said. “We took it upon ourselves that we wouldn’t lose again.”
Mercy didn’t, even conducting some morning practices to serve as motivation. The Tigers were ready this time, rolling through its postseason opposition to win the title.
And finally it was the younger Santoro sister’s turn to experience what winning a state championship was like – with a bracelet she wore proudly in the final.
“(Cassie) gave me bracelet she wore her senior year that said ‘unfinished business’ the day before our game at Mohegan,” Bella said. “It meant a lot. I still have it.”
Santoro, 18, had interest from American, NYIT, UMBC, Delaware, Manhattan and UMass-Lowell before deciding on continuing her career at Stonehill. She wants to pursue a career in sports broadcasting – so once her playing says are done, she can continue to have basketball as part of her life.
Thern one day, she can discuss in a professional forum the memories she had during her standout career at Mercy.
“Maybe the most important thing about this group was there was no animosity toward one another. That was a big part of our success,” Kohs said. “They weren’t concerned about who got the accolades.”