When she steps onto the court for the women’s basketball team at Newbury College, Catherine O’Connell is inspired by the memory of her brother, John, and the presence of her sister, Elyse, a new teammate this season.
“It’s been a tough season emotionally for me because I’m the same age, 21, and in the same year of school as my brother when he died,’’ said O’Connell, a senior captain from North Quincy. “It makes you realize that life can be short and you have to make the most of it.”
The 6-foot-1 center, a perennial New England Collegiate Conference all-star who led all NCAA divisions last season in rebounding (15.0 per game), has made the most of her time at the Brookline school.
A four-year starter, she is the program’s career leader in points, rebounds, field goal percentage, and blocked shots.
Her sister, a 24-year-old freshman, was senior captain at North Quincy High when Catherine was on the junior varsity as a freshman.
Elyse, who worked at Fratelli’s Pastry Shop in Quincy for several years after graduation, is enrolled in Newbury’s Culinary Management program.
Last Tuesday, in a 71-57 loss to Elms College, Catherine set the school record for career points (1,122) while recording 20 points and 14 rebounds. Elyse, starting at forward, had a career-high 16 points and added six boards. The pair combined for 21 of Newbury’s 30 first-half points.
“We’re like best friends, we commute to school together and it’s great to be teammates, if only for one season,” said Catherine.
The O’Connells lost their brother in October 2005, when he died from a head injury suffered while breaking up a fight involving a Westfield State College friend.
John O’Connell was a baseball/basketball standout at North Quincy High where his number 33 — chosen because of his admiration for Celtics legend Larry Bird — has been retired. Catherine wears the same number at Newbury.
“Catherine is unstoppable on the offensive glass,” said Newbury coach Katie Greene. “She has a knack of regaining her own rebound and scoring even if it takes three or four tries. She’s also been our assist leader in a number of games, which is almost unheard of from a center.”
The year before O’Connell arrived, Newbury finished 5-21. Last season, the Nighthawks were 16-11, the program’s best overall record since 2003, and 13-5 in the NECC.
“It’s not a coincidence. She’s changed the face of our program,” said Greene, whose team was 6-7 overall (4-2 NECC) prior to last Thursday’s game at Daniel Webster.
Catherine O’Connell is fifth all-time in the NCAA Division 3 women’s ranks with 59 career double-doubles (at least 10 points and 10 rebounds in one game) and is the only active player among the top 28 names on that list.
“Every time you step on the court it’s a new challenge,” she said. “For me it all starts on the boards, although it still hasn’t sunk in that I led the country in rebounding last year. It’s pretty amazing.”
The NCAA mailed two plaques to Greene in recognition of the feat. She placed one in the school’s trophy case and presented the other to O’Connell, who reached 1,000 career points in the season’s opening game in improbable fashion.
Three points away from the milestone, O’Connell, from well beyond the arc, sank the only 3-point attempt of her college career at the buzzer. Newbury lost to Gordon College, but she produced a typical stat line: 19 points, 14 rebounds, four assists.
The leader of an 11-player roster featuring four freshmen and two sophomores, O’Connell said she wants to set an example that will last beyond the season.
“I had to learn to create space around the basket and improve my defense when I got here, so I realize how important it is to help our younger players,’’ said O’Connell, who has worked as an intern for Jim Rendle, athletic director for the Quincy public schools, and envisions a teaching and coaching career.
Elyse O’Connell, a 6-footer, said she had not run a mile in nearly a decade until she tried out for the Nighthawks.
“It was tough,” she said. “My knees hurt and I was out of breath but I’m getting the feel for the game back. When I was playing at North Quincy, Catherine came to my games and during her first three seasons at Newbury, I went to her games with our family.”
Their father, Matthew, played basketball at Archbishop Walsh High in Olean, N.Y., and their mother, Mary, was on the girls’ varsity at Gate of Heaven High in South Boston.
In honor of their son, who is enshrined in the North Quincy High Athletic Hall of Fame, Westfield State established a student-athlete award in his name.
A summer college basketball tournament in memory of John O’Connell and his close friend, Dennis Thomson, is held annually in Quincy. The O’Connell sisters have played for the Newbury entry in that tournament.
A website, www.okie33.com, describes other fund-raising efforts in John’s honor — including an annual golf tournament — that promote antiviolence awareness and provide scholarships for North Quincy High students.
The O’Connells pay loving tribute to him on the site.
“From sharing a cup of coffee with a lonely stranger to quietly helping elderly neighbors without recognition to befriending and supporting those less fortunate than he,” they wrote, “John ‘Okie’ O’Connell was the kind of young man anyone would be proud to call a son, brother and friend.”