Eighth-grade students are ushered into the building to receive an up-close look at their future school. They first gather in the auditorium where Mandel is usually joined by 10 to 12 Ossining Peer Leaders, who address the group.
Mandel will readily admit that the students normally are not paying much attention to what is being said. However, one particular tour in February brought about an entirely different reaction. This time, UConn-bound senior Saniya Chong, a 5-foot-9 All-America guard, was among the Peer Leaders.
And as is turned out, the students already knew exactly who she was, because as soon as Mandel introduced her, they began clapping. Chong, humble as they come, has emerged as a celebrity in the small community through her gifted ability to play a game she loves.
"She's like a star with the kids," Mandel said. "But when she's in the building, she's just like one of the kids. It's really amazing to me that she's so high-profile for us and for the county that she could just be " you would never know it if you just went up and spoke to her. But I think that's just who she is, and I think UConn made a great decision."
Approximately 33,000 citizens call Ossining home, with 25,000 living in the village and 8,000 in the city. Suffice it to say, Chong is easily the most high-profile athlete in the history of the school. Ossining girl's basketball coach Dan Ricci, who just finished his 22nd season with the Pride, said he does not even think any comparison is close.
Michael Minter went to junior college before spending two years as the starting left guard on Georgia Tech's football team from 1995-96. Shannon Minter played women's basketball at Marist from 2003-07. Whitney McDonald played women's basketball at UMass from 2004-2008. And Jesse Drinks completed his career as an accomplished sprinter at UConn this spring.
None of them, however, carry the same type of cache as Chong, who will be a member of the leading women's basketball program in the country. She attended orientation at UConn on July 8 and will begin summer classes Monday.
"There is no athlete that ever came out of here at her level. No way," Ricci said. "We've had kids go to other D-I schools, but they weren't the best in that sport. UConn is like going to the Yankees as far as women's basketball."
`DOWN TO EARTH'
Chong was named the 2012-13 Parade All-America Team's Girls Basketball Player of the Year, the National High School Senior Athlete of the Year for girl's basketball by the National High School Coaches Association, and a WBCA All-American. She averaged 34.4 points, 5.6 rebounds, 9.1 assists, 4.8 steals and 2.0 blocks last season in leading Ossining to the first state championship in team history (Class AA).
Chong set a state Section 1 scoring record and is ranked fourth in state history with 2,988 career points. She likely set some type of record for number of autographs signed, too.
Opposing players, young children, adults, they all sought an opportunity to meet with Chong. She even found herself signing lacrosse balls after games during her short stint with the Ossining lacrosse team this spring.
"She's just an amazing young kid," said Marie Kretzschmar, Chong's guidance counselor at Ossining. "With her talent, you would think she'd be pretentious, but she's not. She's down to earth. All the kids love her. No one looks to her like she's a snob. She doesn't care really about the prestige. She's grateful. She's just a delight."
Chong has been recognized at a restaurant in Manhattan. She was approached during a stop in the Bronx on the way home from a tournament in Brooklyn. She said that when she and her mother, Leslie, are out together, they have overheard people saying, "Oh my God, that's Saniya," or people stop them just to say "hi."
"I'm always there for a fan," Saniya Chong said. "I like to be somebody's inspiration. So it's pretty fun. I'm always like that. It's something that I love doing. So just every game, giving my all and just knowing that there's actually people who look up to me, and it's a great feeling to have."
Kretzschmar met Chong when the player was a sophomore. She had been informed that Chong was going to be a Division I athlete, which she thought was "kind of cool." As Chong now moves on to the college level, Kretzschmar has watched her become much more than a Division I athlete.
In this day and age, there are many talented athletes who believe they are superior to others, that they can get away with things that others cannot. Kretzschmar relayed a story regarding Prom Weekend at Ossining June 7-9. It is a story that further exemplifies the depth of Chong's character.
"She didn't go away Prom Weekend because sometimes kids do stupid things Prom Weekend," Kretzschmar said. "So I'm really proud of her. She could've been with all of her friends hanging out, but she chose to stay home and not get caught up in that whole craziness. She's well-respected by her teachers here. She's well-respected by the administration. I think she's going to do great, great things.''
Chong, who will room with UConn volleyball player Jade Strawberry, the daughter of former baseball great Darryl Strawberry, seems to be the ideal "UConn kid'' as Hall of Fame coach Geno Auriemma likes to refer to his players. Talented. Humble. Personable. Respectful.
Chong said that despite her celebrity status, she considered herself this year as nothing more than a senior who works hard. And she believes that the attention she has already received will benefit her as she now makes the transition to the most high-profile women's basketball program in the nation.
"Once you walk into a gym with the team or do anything," she said, "they're going to be like 'Oh, my God, there they go.' I think it really does help."
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