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Alexa Charles Leading Sleepy Hollow to Resurgence on the Hardwood

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December 11, 2021

By Tom Pedulla—

Three years ago, Alexa Charles needed a change.

Her parents had gone through a divorce. Her first year in high school had not gone as well as she had hoped it would. She felt certain friends were not there for her when she most needed them.

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Charles transferred to Sleepy Hollow – and the fit has been outstanding. The dynamic guard emerged as the face of the school’s resurgent girls’ basketball program while also finding her best stride academically.

“It was like the perfect change of pace for me at the perfect time,” Charles said. “It all worked out well.”

It could not have worked out any better. She recently reached the 1,000-point plateau with three seconds left in a 36-30 victory against Westlake that allowed the Sleepy Hollow girls to win their own Howard Godwin Holiday Basketball Tournament for the first time in 12 years. The team had defeated Mamaroneck in the opening round.

Shea Bertolacci earned the assist on the milestone score with a nifty cross-court inbounds pass that perfectly positioned Charles for a driving layup. In a sense, third-year coach Tony Pignataro deserves an assist as well.

Pignataro, a veteran coach who had never worked with girls before, inherited a 4-16 team. His work ethic and contagious enthusiasm helped him to rebuild around Charles, whose game was much less advanced at that time.

“I wasn’t really the best shooter when I came to Sleepy Hollow. I was more of a go-to-the-basket kind of girl,” Charles said. “My coach told me all of the things that were wrong with my shot, and he fixed me mechanically.”

With better hand placement and release, outside shots began falling. That enhanced her ability to penetrate to the basket since defenders could no longer sit back in anticipation of that. Pignataro also outlined a regimen that allowed her to strengthen her body. The benefit of all the changes she made over time was on full display at the Godwin Tournament. She erupted for 62 points, leading her team to a trophy that had been so long in coming.

“She’s just one of those players who wants to win, and she finds a way to win,” Pignataro said. “She uses her athletic ability to do that.”

Elle Bertolacci, a senior co-captain with Charles, knows the program would not be nearly as advanced if Charlies had not transferred. “The coaching staff made a difference as well, but she definitely had a big impact on us,” Bertolacci said.

When Pignataro started, there was a sign on the gym door that read: “I am not telling you it is going to be easy. I am telling you it is going to be worth it.”

Charles, Bertolacci and others quickly bought in. Charles, at first uncertain in a new environment, gradually took on a leadership role.

“She’s actually a coach on the floor. She makes my job easier,” Pignataro said. “She knows the game really well. She coaches the girls, and she is respected by all the girls.”

Although Charles typically plays shooting guard or small forward, her versatility is extraordinary. “She’s probably the best at every position,” her coach said.

Guard Bella Smith, 6-2 center Talia Wagner and 5-11 sophomore Ava Bertiz join Charles and Bertolacci in completing the starting five. Bertiz possesses vast potential and is a major building block for the future. Not that anyone is looking ahead. The present is too exciting.

“The arrow is definitely pointing up,” Charles said. “We’ve accomplished a lot of things. Our team is better and stronger than it was. We have a really good chance of doing really well.”

Her focus on her studies is equally intense. “I take my academic life very seriously,” she said. “I freak out if I get a bad grade. I go to the teacher for extra help. My education always comes first.”

Charles is going through the college application process. Fordham is among those on her wish list. She would welcome the chance to play basketball at the next level while understanding how challenging that will be.

“That’s the ultimate goal. If that doesn’t work out, that’s perfectly fine,” she said. “I love the game and I’m proud of how far I’ve come.”

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