Greatest Athlete #18: Alicia Conquest’s surname says it all

07/31/2011 7:57 AM |

COURTESY PHOTO | Today, Alicia Conquest is a teahcer at an inner-city school in West Philadelphia. Seventeen years ago, she was among the best girls basketball players in Suffolk County and a 6-foot rebounding machine.

Alicia Conquest played basketball Tuesday.

Now 35 years old and teaching in West Philadelphia, the former Longwood basketball great laced ‘em up for a friendly game with other members of the faculty at her school’s summer camp program.

When the game was over, another teacher walked up to her with a look of curiosity: “You played in college, didn’t you?”

It was that obvious.

More than a dozen years removed from her final season at Wagner College, where she finished her senior campaign among the nation’s top rebounders, Alicia Conquest can still play a little ball. And that’s no surprise to those who knew her way back when.

“She’s the best big I ever coached,” recalled former Longwood girls basketball coach Pierce Hayes, now the coach of the Lions boys team. “She played with an incredible intensity about her every single game.”

The 20 Greatest Athletes in area history is a Times/Review countdown series that will continue over the next 18 days. Each day, a different athlete will be unveiled leading up to the No. 1 athlete of all-time Aug. 17.

Standing 6-feet tall, with a naturally muscular and athletic physique, Conquest helped put the Longwood girls basketball team on the map in the early 1990s.

A rare four-year varsity player at a high school with more than 2,000 students, Conquest stood out even as a young player, averaging more than 11 points and 14 rebounds as a sophomore starter.

By the time she finished her junior campaign, she was an All-County and Newsday All-Long Island selection.

And the Longwood girls were seeing team success like never before. The Lions won their first-ever League I title that year, going 11-1 during the league season.

Players like co-captain Gladys Caro and sophomore Beth Raptis played a major role in getting Longwood to where it needed to be, but nobody denies it was Conquest who set the team apart from the rest of the pack.

“She dominated the boards and had an excellent drop step move down low, that was extremely hard to defend,” Caro remembered. “Her hard work down low made it easier for us guards, enabling us to quickly run out for the outlet pass, because we knew she would end up with the rebound.”

“Looking back, she had to have known that she was better than most, yet she never acted in that manner. She treated everyone, even people she didn’t know with respect.”

It was during that junior season that Conquest really began to build a reputation as someone who could put a team on her back.

The Lions were trailing by a bucket inside the final minute against Patchogue-Medford on Jan. 19, 1993 when Conquest scored off an offensive rebound to send the game into overtime. Later that season she’d hit the winning basket in the final moments of a victory over Floyd.

Longwood would go on to reach its first Class A County Final in ’92-93 after Conquest scored 19 points in a semifinal win over East Islip. She scored 17 of her points in the first half.

Conquest was simply a winner at everything she did athletically. While to this day basketball is still her favorite sport, she ultimately just loved to compete.

“I would have tried any sport,” she says.

She doesn’t even remember how one summer during her high school years she played goalie on an Olympic Festival handball team.

It was just one more way she could compete, another avenue to unleash some of that intensity.

In the fall, she’d play on the Longwood volleyball team. And after basketball season was over she’d throw shot put and discus on the track team.

She even won a gold medal in the discus at the Empire State Games after both her sophomore and junior years.

COURTESY PHOTO | Alicia Conquest was two-time all Long Island player and a USA Today All-USA honorable mention during her years at Longwood.

But it was basketball, the game her father John ­— a longtime administrator and assistant basketball coach at Bellport High School — taught her to play, that she always loved the most.

The Lions would fall to unbeaten Northport, 53-37, in the 1992-93 Class A title game. It was that heartbreaking loss that would set the stage for Conquest’s signature games of her high school career.

The Longwood center entered her senior campaign on a mission. After watching the Lions improve from 9-9 in her sophomore season to 16-5 as a junior, Conquest had revenge over Northport on her mind in her final season.

The Tigers were the premier girls basketball team in Suffolk County at the time. They had won the previous four Class A championships and six titles dating back to the 1985-86 season.

Having already dialed up her leadership role on the team with the implementation of “pride jogs,” runs Conquest came up with where the squad would do laps for 20 minutes after every single game, she took her senior captaincy particularly seriously, teammates remember.

“She always challenged herself to do more and be better,” remembers Erin Vilar, who played that season with Conquest. “On top of all of that, she always motivated and challenged us as teammates to do more. She was a captain in every sense of the word, a true leader.”

And it all paid off when Conquest got her chance to exact revenge on Northport in the second round of the Suffolk Shootout tournament.

The motivated senior scored 29 points and pulled down 18 rebounds in the game, which was hosted by Northport, and Longwood went on to win 67-53. It was the first time in almost five years the Tigers had lost to a Suffolk team and coach Hayes said at the time it was the school’s biggest win ever.

But Conquest saved her best for the last game of the tournament.

On Dec. 29, 1993, the Lions entered halftime of the Shootout final down by 12 points to Sachem. Not just satisfied with a win over Northport the night before, Conquest let her coach know she wouldn’t let this one get away.

“She came to me at halftime and said ‘Coach, don’t worry about it,’ ” Hayes would tell Newsday.

She wasn’t kidding.

Led by an unrelenting Conquest, the Lions held Sachem to just six points in the fourth quarter. When the final buzzer sounded, she had scored a school record 35 points and grabbed 22 rebounds, leading Longwood to a 63-56 win and tournament title.

“She just wasn’t going to let us lose that night,” Hayes recalled in an interview this week.

The Lions would go on to finish the league season with their second straight title and an 11-1 record. But Conquest’s high school career would be cut short of where she’d hoped it would end when the Lions were shocked by No. 7 Commack in the quarterfinals of the Class A playoffs.

Conquest led all Suffolk players with 22.5 points and 18 rebounds per game her senior season. She would finish her high school career as Longwood’s all-time leading scorer with 1,029 points, a record that stood five seasons until being broken by another four-year starter, Cheri Eleazer. Conquest was just the 42nd Long Island girls basketball player to ever score 1,000 points.

COURTESY PHOTO | Coaches and teammates of Alicia Conquest (top row, second from left) all described her as a special person who got the most out of her abilities and inspired others to do the same.

The fact that she scored so many points, despite always being the center of attention on the court, still amazes her teammates.

“We played against some tough teams and she would sometimes have double or even triple coverage,” Vilar recalled. “She never let that get to her. She always remained dignified and focused. A true athlete.”

Added Caro: “Average was never good enough. She practiced harder, and loved the game more than anyone else I knew. She was a true leader on the court, both in games and at practices.”

Conquest made her second All-Long Island team in 1994 and was a USA Today All-American honorable mention that year.

Not just a great performer in sports, she would graduate her senior class ranked No. 16 out of 600 students.

As she looked to take both her athletics and academics to the next level, Conquest turned down a Big East offer from Providence and instead enrolled at Wagner, a Division I program playing in the Northeast Conference.

Before heading to college, Conquest realized she needed to develop her game to revolve around her natural strengths. Never a great jump shooter, Conquest could still be an elite scorer in high school.

But at the college level, she knew her ability to rebound is where she could help her team most.

It was John Conquest who taught his daughter to go after it with everything she had for every moment on the court.

Rebounding was his game, and he made sure she played the game the same way.

“He would tell me that if the ball was there for me to grab, I better go get it,” Alicia recalled.

“She just loved to play defense,” Hayes said. “She loved to rebound. She realized that’s where her strengths were and she developed her game that way.”

It didn’t take long before former Wagner head coach Pam Roecker, who called Alicia “one of a kind” in an e-mail this week, noticed that her freshman forward could make a difference on her Seahawks team.

By the fourth game of the season, Roecker had already inserted Conquest into the starting lineup. By February she was already averaging more than 10 rebounds per game, tops in the NEC and 27th in the nation.

Asked to explain her phenom’s ability to rebound the basketball in a Newsday interview, Roecker said: “She makes up her mind that she wants the basketball more than anyone else.”

It was a pattern that would continue throughout Conquest’s career, even as knee injuries began to slow her down some by her junior season.

To this day, Conquest is fifth all-time in rebounding at Wagner and her 1,106 rebounds rank her higher than any Seahawks player in the past two decades. She averaged more than 10 rebounds a game in all four years there.

The Wagner teams Conquest played on in her junior and senior seasons won a total of 35 games, and both campaigns rank in the top 10 for winning percentage in Seahawks program history.

Conquest would finish her senior year as an All-NEC player and the nation’s sixth best rebounder.

Remarkably, Conquest continued to participate in track and field during her time at Wagner. Even though it was only considered her second sport, she won the 1996 NEC shot put and discus titles, and she briefly held the school’s shot put record.

Being a two-sport performer didn’t slow her down any in the classroom, as she was the valedictorian of the Wagner College Class of 1999.

Even today, Alicia Conquest-Bulgin is still receiving honors.

In 2008, she was inducted into the Suffolk County Sports Hall of Fame.

And just last February she was honored with a State Farm “Teacher as Hero” award, for her work teaching Spanish at West Philadelphia’s School of the Future — a collaborative educational project between the Philadelphia school system and Microsoft.

In nominating her, principal Rosalind Chivis called Conquest, who also runs the school’s Saturday detention program and serves as athletic director, “the best kind of educator you could have.”

Fittingly, she coaches the same three sports at School of the Future as she played in high school. In the Fall, she leads the girls volleyball team, in the winter she helps coach girls hoops, and in the spring she works with the track team’s shot putters.

And she’s enjoying some success in the coaching ranks. The school’s basketball team reached the playoffs for the first time this season, and her prized thrower hit one of the best marks for a sophomore in Pennsylvania state history.

Still, coaching has been a challenge for Conquest.

Leading a group of inner-city youths leaves her with a difficult task her coaches didn’t have to deal with as much. She says she spends as much time trying to get her kids to focus and stay positive than she does instructing.

“Their home life and the environment they’re growing up in is very different,” she said. “It’s been challenging. I can’t coach with the same intensity my coaches had. I have to water it down for my kids.”

Toning it down is something Conquest says she’s had to do a lot more of lately. She jokes that she can’t even be as competitive when playing games at home as she was on the basketball court.

“My husband doesn’t like to lose and I don’t like to hurt feelings,” she said with a laugh.

But that competitive fire still burns from time to time.

When asked if she dominated this week’s faculty game at School of the Future, she wasn’t shy.

“Ohhhh, yeahhh,” she said with a flair. “Not scoring, but rebounding.”

Some things just never change.

gparpan@northshoresun.com

 

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