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Christ the King looks to Edwards in bid to regain crown

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HEMPSTEAD, L.I. — Ariel Edwards picked up the loose ball on the right wing and looked around. Nobody was in front of the lanky yet muscular 6−foot−2 forward, so she took off, the ball cradled in her large right hand.

She dribbled past one defender at half court, crossed over past another, her black pony tail whipping by them both. She leaped as she crossed the 3−point line, hanging in the air and gently releasing a high−arcing shot, the ball kissing high off the glass and softly dropping in.

It was just one basket, two of her five points Sunday in the fifth annual Metro Classic at Island Garden, a pre−season All−Star game pitting the best players from Long Island against their New York City counterparts.

The move, however, was a poignant example of what she will offer Christ the King. No wonder the Royals are excited for the upcoming season, even if their first official practice is five days way.

Smiles brimmed wide when CK players discussed Edwards. Just in their body language, one can tell, after its streak of 23 straight CHSAA Brooklyn⁄Queens titles was snapped last year, the expectations are clear: to win the state Federation Class AA championship and regain their perch atop girls’ basketball in the five boroughs.

“I’m gonna call this year The Road to Redemption,” said senior forward Tahira Johnson, who serves as the team’s mouthpiece.

The same can be said, in particular, of Edwards, a transfer from Elmont who sat out last season because of the league’s strict transfer rules.

Edwards started as a freshman on Elmont’s varsity, but transferred after her 38−year−old coach Gregg Petrocelli collapsed on the sideline and later died of a ruptured splenic artery. His fall was thought to be related to dehydration, Edwards said, and he was expected to be OK.

“It didn’t turn out that way,” she lamented. “It was really heartbreaking.”

The two had such a close bond, Edwards said, that she couldn’t remain at the school. She didn’t even want to play basketball anymore. Someone who believes everything happens for a reason, Edwards, after getting past the initial shock, eventually left Elmont.

Petrocelli imparted many lessons to her during their time spent together, including mental toughness, always being able to battle through tough times no matter the situation — on a basketball court or in life in general. When the Catholic league ruled her ineligible, Edwards drew upon Petrocelli’s advice.

“That was my motto for last year, basically,” Edwards said. “I turned a negative into a positive thing.”

She hired a personal trainer for daily workouts, and practiced with the junior varsity — Edwards wasn’t allowed to be included in any varsity activities. She still hung around the school to watch practice and offer advice. She also attended five games.

“She was part of the team,” Johnson said. “We thought of her as a hurt player who couldn’t play.”

Now that she is eligible, the Royals think the sky is the limit.

In addition to Johnson, CK returns sophomores Nia Oden and Bria Smith, the first freshmen to play varsity since Clare Droesch in 1998. Smith led the Royals in scoring and to the state Federation Class A title, putting together, coach Bob Mackey said, the best year of any freshman in the program’s storied history.

Johnson, the 6−foot−2 forward who scored seven points on Sunday, is healthy after a knee injury sidetracked her junior season, and Taylor Burner and Bianca Martinez add much−needed size in the paint. With the addition of Edwards, Mackey can potentially start five Division I−caliber players.

“We have a high level of talent,” Mackey said. “What this is remains to be seen.”

Recruiting analyst Vinny Cannizzaro, the architect of the Christ the King dynasty, said Edwards would be one of the top 25 players in the country by her senior year. At 6−foot−2, she is a force in the paint but also able to step out to the perimeter and knock down jumpers or get to the rim via dribble drive. She will be a mismatch, Mackey said, for most teams — too quick for post players and too much size for guards.

“She’s multidimensional,” the 11th−year coach said. “She has size and skills inside and out.”

Added Cannizzaro: “She’s going to be very dominant. Any time you add a player of her ability it helps your team … They should definitely be a team that has a great chance to win the Class AA championship.”

Everyone associated with the Royals raved about Edwards. The 97−average student has fit in nicely, on and off the court. She has played AAU with and against many of them. Most of all, she brings yet another talent, one major reason the aura of confidence and invincibility that was lost last year may return.

“We don’t just want to win,” Johnson said smiling, “we want to blow teams out.”

Edwards isn’t as glib; she is just looking to start playing high−school basketball again after a one−year hiatus, to move on from the tragedy of two years ago and the frustration of last winter. She picked CK, Edwards said, over Mary Louis and St. Mary’s of Manhasset, to join — and in some ways restore — a winning tradition.

“I have a chance to show everybody I can play and help the team,” she said. “I can’t wait for the season to start.”

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