Hometown Hero Chong Takes Celebrity Status In Stride

Josh Mandel has conducted his share of tours at Ossining High School during his 15 years as principal. They do not seem to change much as time passes.

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-American 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 which she resides 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. I think it’s great for them, great for her. She’s a really good person.’’

There are approximately 33,000 citizens who call Ossining home, with 25,000 living in the village and 8,000 in the city. Suffice 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 the comparison is close.

Michael Minter went to junior college before spending two years as the starting left guard at Georgia Tech 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 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. “The schools that were here besides UConn … North Carolina, Ohio State. The biggest of all the big schools were here looking for this kid. 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.’’

Chong was named the 2012-13 Parade All-American 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 all-time 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’s just very laid back. She doesn’t care really about the prestige. You would never know she’s this amazing athlete by her conversation. She’s grateful. She’s just a delight. Nothing like, `Oh, do you now who I am?’ She was just like a regular kind of kid.’’

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 her and her mother, Leslie, are out together they have overheard people saying “Oh, my God, that’s Saniya’’ or stopping 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.’’

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