Girls Basketball Team Becomes Stuff of Legends

  • Yes, they had a once-in-a-generation talent, but the Rush-Henrietta Lady Comets also benefited from an outstanding team effort during their remarkable varsity basketball three-peat. That title run took place between 2006 and 2008. And, boy, did those girls win! 

    During that historic stretch, Rush-Henrietta raised banners celebrating three consecutive state championships. In doing so, the team cemented a permanent place in the record books as one of the state’s all-time high school sports juggernauts. “To have been a part of, arguably one of the best large school basketball program runs in Upstate New York was truly an honor,” says Steve Shepanski, who coached the team from 2005 to 2015.

    In 2007, the Lady Comets squad rose as high as 27th in USA Today’s national rankings. “Girls basketball was at its highest level in that decade,” Shepanski says. “You could not take a night off, as your opponents had gifted players and were led by great coaches. My assistant coach, Thomas Dulmage, kept us grounded and moving forward. Everyone was invested. Fun, exhausting, and intense - simply an awesome time to coach.” 

    The following year, in 2008, Rush-Henrietta finished with a 24-3 record and its fifth consecutive Section V title. That was a huge accomplishment, because the team returned only one starter – Shenise Johnson. Of course, Johnson was good. Really good. That year, she was named Miss New York Basketball by the Basketball Coaches Association of New York. The award honors the student-athlete believed to be the state’s player of the year. Johnson also was named a McDonald’s All-American. 

    As a Rush-Henrietta senior, Johnson ranked among the top 20 girls basketball recruits in the nation. She averaged 27.4 points, 18.1 rebounds, 7.3 assists, and 3.8 steals per game. Johnson became the first person to be named All-Greater Rochester Player of the Year three times. She scored 2,224 career points, fifth in Section V history. 

    During her senior year, Johnson committed to the University of Miami, where she spent four years. She became only the second player in NCAA Division I history to score 2,000 points, grab 1,000 rebounds, compile 500 assists, and make 400 steals. Now 32, Johnson enjoyed a successful career in the top women’s professional basketball league the WNBA, from 2012 to 2020. She is now an assistant coach at the University of Miami.

    It was sheer magic for each of the three title-winning teams, but perhaps the final championship was the sweetest. Rush-Henrietta entered local sectional play ranked behind rival Fairport. Fortunately, the team consisted of more than just one great athlete. Other key contributors on that championship squad included LaDonya Rolle, Bernadette Davis, Angelica Simmons and Heather Ziccarrelli. Despite being the underdog, R-H beat Fairport 62-59 to win the Section V title and then ran the table statewide.

    Shepanski, who still teaches social studies at Rush-Henrietta Senior High School, was named All-Greater Rochester Co-Coach of the Year in 2008. During his first four seasons leading the team, he had a remarkable record of 92-13. “I remember those times like they were yesterday,” Shepanski says. 

    “As gifted as Shenise was, her magic came in making other players on her team better,” he recalls. “Getting the ball to them at times when they could be successful ushered in a new level of confidence for each of them. That confidence showed up multiple times enroute to that third state championship. Players accepted their role on the team. It was all for the greater good of the squad - no individualism.”

    During Shephanski’s final season, the Lady Comets went 23-1, setting a team record for highest winning percentage. Its only loss that year came in the state finals. “It was almost the perfect way to go out,” Shepanski says. “Second in the state!”

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