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Sparks’ Sabala impresses on- and off-the-court

Photo by Jerry Sullivan

Nick Todaro says he had no idea at the time. In November of 2019, he was beginning his second season as the head girls basketball coach at South Park High School, still finding his way. But two things were immediately apparent about Learsi Sabala, a freshman from Puerto Rico.

One, Sabala had talent. She was someone who could help the Sparks win over the next four years. Equally evident was Learsi’s bright, infectious personality. She was a leader and communicator who in those early days served as a translator between Todaro and the other Spanish-speaking girls on the team.

What Nick didn’t realize until much later was that Sabala, who had only been playing basketball for one year, had arrived in Buffalo just months earlier with only a rudimentary understanding of English.

“Honestly, I didn’t know,” said Todaro. “She never told me. It was obvious she spoke Spanish fluently. When she first joined, we had a few Spanish-only speakers and she was my go-to. By that point, she was already translating, and I didn’t even realize that she was just learning English at the time.

“You couldn’t tell, because she was learning so fast.” Sabala was a swift and willing learner — on the basketball court, in the classroom, and in front of the TV set, which she watched at home to become remarkably fluent in the English language just two months into her high school career.

“When I first met her as a freshman, I knew right away she was a different kind of kid,” Todaro recalled, “one that was not only talented on the court, but cares about her academics, her attendance and doing the right things in and around the building.

“She stood out immediately and I got on the court and was like ‘Oh, my god, she’s a freshman! We’re going to be pretty good for the next few years’. “

As Todaro suspected, she was also a fast study in hoops, a versatile and athletic two-way player who became a starter as a freshman and one of the city girls league’s brightest stars as an upperclassman, a first-team Canisius Cup all-star who will likely be playing for SUNY Brockport in Division III next season.

Photo by Shawn Turri

Sabala, a 5-5 senior guard, led the way in scoring (16.6ppg), rebounding (10.5) and assists (6.7) this season for a South Park team that went 10-4 in the league. In

recent weeks, she played in a couple of all-star games that featured the top girls players in the area, including Gretchen Dolan and other top players in the improving community of Western New York girls basketball.

She’s a long way from the nervous kid who showed up in Buffalo four years ago with the basic rudiments of English and basketball, which she had begun playing only a year before in her native Mayaguez on the western coast of Puerto Rico

“I came here to the United States knowing about 10-20 percent of English,” said Sabala, the daughter of Francisco Sabala and Sucette Cancel.“Enough so I could survive, but not enough that I could have a conversation one-on-one with somebody.

“I was really, really, really, really scared,” she said, “because I didn’t know how my high school years would go without me knowing how to communicate with people. But thankfully, I overcame that obstacle and learned English pretty fast. I surrounded myself with people who spoke English, instead of staying with kids that spoke Spanish and staying in my comfort zone.

“I always tried to challenge myself with the language, because I knew if I took everything in Spanish I wouldn’t have gotten better at the language.”

In a melting pot like Buffalo, it’s common for immigrants and refugees to enter school without a facility in English. There are city schools in which up to 30 different native languages are represented among the student population. What’s less common is a kid with Sabala’s talent, work ethic and winning personality.

“The best part about Learsi is she’s just a great kid, a leader in the building,” said Michael Morris, the South Park principal. “We’re so fortunate to have her. She always has a smile on her face. For example, in the lunchroom as a senior, she’ll have other students around her playing Uno. She’s a connector.”

Sabala, who has a 95 grade-point average, is a reflection of her school’s academic resurgence. South Park has significantly raised its graduation rate and was recently removed from the city’s list of low-performing schools, a process that began under former principal (and current school board member) Terry Schuta and continued under Mike Morris.

Todaro said the school brass might have been more thrilled with the girls’ hoop team winning the city league’s sportsmanship award this season than its record on the floor. He credited Sabala’s positive, even-tempered competitive nature. Leadership was old hat for someone who grew up as the eldest of six girls.

“Yes, because growing up with five sisters, it’s like my teammates were my siblings,” Sabala said. “So, it was like more of a natural thing than ‘Oh, I’ve got to take this role’. It didn’t bother me at all to take the role.”

Those leadership qualities will serve Learsi well at the next level. As a player, she’s a bit raw for the college game, less polished than many of the suburban girls who are thriving in local hoops and have been playing the game since they were little girls. Her physical gifts were evident in the all-star games, but some of the moves that came easy in the city league didn’t work at a higher level.

“College basketball, no matter what level you play, it’s hard,” said Brockport head coach Corinne Jones. “If a student-athlete comes to us and has been through hard things and knows how to get through them and has the answers, or asks for the answers, I think they have a better success rate in college.

“So, the fact that Learsi has done that is impressive for us.”

Jones said she began recruiting Sabala relatively late in the process. She sees her as a project, but agrees with Todaro that Sabala has a high ceiling. She saw a similar upside in Juan Brown, a city girl who had an unremarkable career at Applied Tech and evolved into a reliable scorer and leader for the Brockport women by her junior year this past season.

“She is full of potential,” said Jones, who was a Division I assistant at Buffalo and Niagara before Brockport hired her as head coach eight years ago.

“Because she checked those other boxes with character and work ethic and determination and a high high school GPA, we think at Division III that a player like that can reach her potential. She can be coachable and a gym rat, like we like to have here at Brockport — those blue-collar gym rats, we love those players and we think she fits that mold.”

Todaro also referred to Sabala as a “gym rat” who is a ubiquitous presence at the Arlene Mychajliw Center on Harrison Street. She loves the game, loves to compete. She’s a sprinter on the track team and was a star on the South Park volleyball team. She played point guard and center for the Sparks and is a good shot-blocker for her size. But after competing with the best girls in Western New York in AAU and all-star showcases, she knows she has a lot to learn.

“Yes, yes, yes,” she said. “I’ve still got a lot to improve on. And once I improve to the level I know I’m capable of, I know I can get really far.” How far? “WNBA far,” she said.

The kid isn’t lacking for confidence. What would you expect from a girl who taught herself English just a couple of months after coming to the country, who took up basketball in eighth grade and was a starter the next year, who became one of the top students at South Park and its best girls hoop player in years?

Todaro knows a thing about kids blossoming soon after taking up a sport. He’s the head football coach at Maryvale, where Kevin Jobity Jr. (son of the former Niagara basketball center) joined the team as a junior. A year later, Jobity signed with Syracuse. He sees similar possibilities with Sabala.

“When I met her, I would have thought she’d been playing since she was, like, 4,” said Todaro, who also coaches track at South Park. “She’s skilled, not just the skills of playing the game, but the understanding — where to be, where to go, when to cut, how to play defense. Spatial awareness, all of that stuff was there right away, as a freshman.

“She made me look really smart!” he said, “Yeah, we’re going to miss her.”

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