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Reading High girls make baskets that really count

Charity free throws help Reading bond

Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff

Olivia Healy practices her free throws during the Reading Memorial High School Shoot-A-Thon.

Like unwrapping gifts and baking cookies, the Reading Memorial High School Shoot-A-Thon is a holiday tradition for the boys’ and girls’ basketball teams. On the morning after Christmas Day, players cluster around the hoops to shoot free throws and raise money for cancer research.

In support of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and in conjunction with Diane’s Pen Pals, the players raise money by shooting 100 free throws each.

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Sponsors pledge an amount for each shot made or can make a straight donation to the cause.

“We love doing this because it’s giving back,’’ said girls’ basketball coach Kim Penney. “It’s a win-win. They are taking free throws, something that’s important to the game anyway, and they understand that you are very lucky that you can run and jump.’’

Penney began the tradition 12 years ago through the V Foundation for Cancer Research. When Paul Morrissey took the boys’ head coaching job three years later, he immediately put his team on the charity train.

“You would be hard-pressed to find any kid in here that hasn’t been affected by this,’’ said Morrissey. “We lost my mother to breast cancer 10 years ago. This is something that we’ve all been affected by.’’

“Our senior captain last year, Carlene Kluge, who is at Bentley now, her mother died of cancer when she was in the eighth grade,’’ said Penney. “It’s a personal thing.’’

This is Reading High’s fourth Shoot-A-Thon with Diane’s Pen Pals, a local nonprofit with a personal connection to the team and that gives the proceeds directly to Dana-Farber. The day also included an alumni game.

Laura Pica, an aunt of former Reading player Jaclyn Lyons, founded Diane’s Pen Pals in 2008 after her mother, Diane FitzGerald, died of breast cancer. FitzGerald was 69 and, while battling the illness since 1993, she always took the time to reach out to others.

“I wanted to do something to make a difference,’’ said Pica, a 1985 Reading High graduate. “And Jac’s a great artist, so she designed this really cool logo for us of a pen that we sell and the note card to go with it.’’

The idea for selling pens and the slogan “Write Off Cancer’’ was inspired by FitzGerald, who wrote notes to friends and family throughout her rehabilitation.

The free-throw contests provide another way for the organization to raise money. Penney and Morrissey estimate that, on average, the teams donate $5,000 to cancer research every year.

“It’s brings us closer together doing an event like this,’’ said senior captain Melissa Dal Pozzo. “Obviously, community service is good, but when you do it as a team it makes you stronger.’’

In addition to benefiting the community, the fund-raiser also provides an opportunity for the Reading girls to bond. It’s a long road to the postseason tournament at the TD Garden, and a shared mindset among all 11 girls may get them there.

“We’ve been knocking at the door a few years, going to the North final and not winning it,’’ said Penney. “It takes a lot of work but a lot of luck along the way.’’

This year the Rockets are primed for a championship run. Middlesex League MVP Olivia Healy heads an experienced starting five that features Dal Pozzo, seniors Katherine Callahan and Katie Clements, and junior Morgan O’Brien.

“Olivia is one of the strongest physical players I’ve seen at the high school level ever,’’ said Penney. “She’s really fun to watch; she’s very athletic, and she can play any position.’’

Last week against Wilmington, the 5-foot-10-inch Healy played the point and had 11 assists. She also leads the way in rebounding, averaging 11 per game last year.

“She just knows the game and understands that in order for her to be great, she needs to make the other players around her great,’’ said Penney.

Although she is highlighted in every scouting report, Healy said she is confident in her teammates’ abilities to share the load.

“I don’t feel pressure because my teammates are so good. I think we can go 11 people deep,’’ she said. “We have Morgan, who I hope gets some credibility this year because of all the work she’s done in the offseason.’’

O’Brien, a 5-9 guard, is a skillful outside shooter who will make Reading an offensive threat from the arc.

“Her specialty is shooting the three,’’ said Penney. “She’s so consistent. She probably follows her shot better than anyone I’ve ever coached.’’

The Rockets have won their first three games, and a deep bench will help keep the wins coming.

“Everybody on the team has something to contribute,’’ Penney said. “I love looking down the bench, seeing who do I want to put in.’’

On her way out of the locker room, Dal Pozzo read one of the many quotes covering the walls: “Let no one outwork you today.’’

“That’s one of my favorites, because we come out on the floor and we give everything we have for the entire game,’’ she said. “We don’t want anyone to get in our way this year.’’

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