South Jersey Sports Report: Holy Spirit Senior Carving Out her Own Role
If you grew up in the 1970s or 80s, you’re probably quite familiar with the movie “Annie.” The musical comedy/drama captured the hearts of many families during that era, telling the story of Annie, an orphan in the early 1930s who is taken in by America’s richest billionaire, Oliver Warbucks. The character “Molly”, who served as Annie’s younger sister of sorts, was played by then-6-year-old Toni Ann Gisondi.
So how does all this tie into high school sports? Well, Toni Ann just happens to be the mother of Holy Spirit senior point guard Melody Pugliese. Toni Ann married Ted Pugliese, who is now a middle school principal, and the couple had two daughters, Molly — named after the character Toni Ann played in the movie — and Melody, presumably named after Toni Ann’s love of music. She’s not only an actress, but also a singer. Melody said she’s used to having a famous mom.
“My friends talk about that all the time. Whenever we’re out or if I bring a new friend over, my friends are like, ‘did you know this is her mom?’ It’s funny,” Melody said. “They all know and get a kick out of it. My mom is pretty humble about it and she doesn’t bring it up much unless somebody asks. People get a kick out of it.”
And Toni Ann wasn’t the only star the Gisondi family produced. Melody’s aunts, Kristen Schulman and Linda Gisondi, twins, were athletic stars during their days at Egg Harbor Township High School. They were the ones who took a young fourth-grade soccer star and turned her into a basketball player. It seems as though they did a pretty good job, too, since Melody has spent the past two seasons as the Spartans’ point guard and is one of just two seniors, along with Jules Lynch, leading the way for a young basketball team that is trying to recapture its reputation as one of the premier hoops programs in the Cape-Atlantic League.
“Soccer is my main sports but I started playing basketball in fourth grade and I love the game. I love how fast-paced it is, and my aunts have taught me a lot about the game. My dad was more into football and baseball, and my mom played softball as well as being into acting and singing. My aunts really taught me everything I know about the game,” Melody said. “I wouldn’t say there is pressure (having well known relatives), I like to think of it more as motivation.”
Pugliese has been carving out her own identity the past four years, not only as one of the stars of Holy Spirit’s soccer team, but also a key contributor in basketball and track. Each spring she runs the 100 and 200 meters and also competes in the sprint relay events.
“I was kind of afraid going into high school. You go from being an eighth-grader, the big dog on campus, to back down to the bottom. But immediately I became such good friends with all the girls on my soccer team in the summer (before freshman year) and then throughout the fall. We got super close, it was like a family. And then I was really excited to get into basketball season. A lot of the girls from soccer also played basketball, which was great,” Melody said, looking back at the start of her career in Absecon. “My coach, Alicia Downey, she really pushed me and she’s the reason why I wanted to focus on soccer. Growing up, I played soccer since I was 4 years old and started basketball in fourth grade. When I started basketball I thought that was going to be my main sport. But when I joined the Holy Spirit soccer team, she totally changed my outlook on that, and soccer was really my thing. She told me that she saw so much potential in me. She thought I was some sort of cross country girl because I ran the fastest two-mile of my life. She really pushed me and made me see the potential in myself, and I started having a greater appreciation for soccer.”
“Me and Melody, being the only seniors, we know (teammates) are looking up to us because we used to look up to the seniors. We knew we had to step up and be those leaders and fill the shoes of all the other seniors who came before us,” Lynch said. “She has stepped up a lot. Our sophomore year, our team was small and with our starting five, everybody on the floor was out there for nearly the entire time, and our junior year is when she became a starter and stepped up and played really well. As a senior and as a leader, she’s done an incredible job of being the one all the younger players want to talk to. She’s been a great leader and a great role model to the younger kids. You couldn’t really ask for anybody better to spend your senior year with.”
The Spartans struggled at the start of this season, losing their first four games and six of their first seven. But since then Spirit has played better than .500 basketball, going 9-7 to improve to 10-14 heading into the third state playoffs.
First-year head coach Tim Whitworth gave a lot of credit to both Pugliese and Lynch when it came to turning the Spartans’ season around after such a rough start. The turnaround was highlighted by a five-game winning streak from Jan. 15-25 that included wins over Oakcrest, Millville and Egg Harbor Township.
“What I said to (Lynch and Pugliese) is you have an opportunity here. It may not be a 20-win season, but they have a chance to set the tone for the program moving forward,” Whitworth said.
“They take so much pride in it, and they understand the value of what Year One can be when you’re trying to build a program back up — when you have your two oldest players as your hardest workers, everything else pretty much falls in line. Each and every one of those kids is giving me everything they’ve got, and as a coach you really can’t ask for more than that. And it’s a credit to those two, they’ve accepted the challenge and are really on board to get this thing right. They want to be the ones who get it moving in the right direction again.
“Mel is our point guard, she’s the one who sets the table and she’s starting to understand how to make good decisions with the basketball and the pace we want to play at. I can’t say enough good things about her.”
“I don’t think I could have done it without the coaching staff we have this year. They’ve really boosted my confidence. I never thought of myself as much of a basketball player, but they said, ‘no, Melody, you really are. You’re our point guard and you play such a big role on this team. You’re like an older sister and you don’t realize how important you are to this team.’ The reassurance they gave me really helped. I remember looking up to the seniors when I was a freshman, and they really helped me take on that (leadership) role,” Pugliese said. “In the beginning of the season it was hard because we only have two seniors on the team, so all of these girls lacked experience. And Jules and I really aren’t even that experienced, so we all had to learn how to work together. Those first few games were difficult, and we played some challenging teams, but as time went on we kind of molded together a little bit and started communicating better.”
Hearing high praise from coach Whitworth means a lot to Pugliese, she said.
“That’s the best feeling, and I wouldn’t want to have any other coach for my senior year. He’s really made me such a better player,” she said. “I have a lot of faith in us and I believe in what we do. We play at a fast pace, which shocks a lot of teams. We can run on them, and we play from the first whistle to the final buzzer. We may be young, but we’ve surprised some people.”
Pugliese only has a few more weeks left in her high school basketball career, and one more season of spring track, then she’s on to the next stage of her life. It won’t include any acting, however, although she did appear in some commercials as a child. She has a different calling in life, she said. She plans to enroll at Atlantic Cape Community College next fall as the first step in a nursing career.
“When I got to a certain age I went into sports because I had more of a passion for that than being on the screen. My sister is the other way around,” she said. “I’ve had a great time at Holy Spirit. I wouldn’t change anything about my experiences the last four years. It will be bittersweet when I graduate. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to play sports in college because I’ll have a lot on my plate with nursing, so it will be an emotional moment (when my career ends), but I’m so thankful for everything. My senior year has been great. I got first-team All-CAL for soccer, and in basketball the coaches are amazing and the girls are great. I know the program has a bright future with these girls.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays