When Raquel Gutierrez sprained her ankle in the second round of the playoffs, she sat down on the bench and cried. She didn't want to miss out on the last leg of this wild ride by the Academy of American Studies girls' basketball team.
The junior went into the locker room at halftime and wiggled her left foot around. She ignored the pain.
"I think it was adrenaline," Gutierrez said.
The top-seeded Eagles' most versatile player came back in the second half of that eventual eight-point win against Queens HS of Teaching, but went to the doctor three days later and her leg was put into a splint. Coach Juan Faya held her out in the team's semifinal win against Environmental Studies as a precautionary measure, knowing that he would need Gutierrez healthy for the semifinals.
And did he ever. After Eagles star sophomore Crystal James went out with an injury in the third quarter, Springfield Gardens cut the American Studies lead to 11. In stepped Gutierrez. She made two tough shots in the paint to stop the Golden Eagles' run. American Studies went on to win, 57-33, on Wednesday night in the PSAL Class B semifinals at Lehman College in the Bronx.
"I wanted to make those shots and take away their momentum," said the 5-foot-10 Gutierrez, who finished with nine points.
The Eagles will play in their first-ever city championship game against No. 3 Richard Green on Saturday at St. Francis College at 11 a.m. Green beat second-seeded Lafayette in the other semifinal Wednesday night.
"This is very special," said James, who returned to the game later in the third quarter after hitting her head on the floor in a fall.
Indeed, Faya, in only his third season at the helm, has American Studies undefeated and poised to win the school's first city title in any sport. The coach knew he had a good team returning, one that went to the playoffs and lost in the second round last year. But then he found freshman Diani Mason out on the playground near the Long Island City school.
"She was out there schooling all the boys," Faya said.
Mason, who had 16 points against Springfield Gardens, is legitimate. The 5-foot-4 Woodside native initially intended to go to Bishop Loughlin. She plays AAU for the New York Elite and has stellar ballhandling and superb speed. And Mason is coming back next year, along with James, Gutierrez and all but three other players on the roster. Junior Kaitlin Fitzgerald added 10 points against the Golden Eagles.
"That is why this is a special group of young ladies," said Faya, whose team used a 2-3 zone defense to stifle Springfield, which didn't get a single player in double figures.
But before the Eagles start things about next year, they have to take care of business Saturday. A city championship is well within their grasp.
"This," Mason said, "is what we've been ready for."
Reach Associate Sports Editor Marc Raimondi by e-mail at mraimondi@
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