Sports Columnist
John Knebels

It’s amazing how much can be accomplished when pragmatic, unselfish minds combine their resources and figure out how to make the proverbial square fit into a circle.

In this case, John W. Hallahan High School’s Laura Antinucci was the square and Roman Catholic’s cross country team was the circle.

When Antinucci, now a junior, enrolled at Hallahan as a freshman, she wasn’t able to experience competitive running because Hallahan didn’t have a cross-country team. It appeared as though she would have to accept the inevitable.

Enter Roman Catholic cross-country coach Kevin Verbrugghe, who just happens to be a member of Antinucci’s parish, St. John the Baptist in Manayunk. Aware that Antinucci had been a runner at SJB since fourth grade and clearly possessed a bundle of talent, Verbrugghe approached Antinucci with an idea that wouldn’t take flight unless it was approved by both the Roman Catholic and Hallahan administrations.

Why not allow Antinucci to practice with Roman’s team and compete in meets as an inspanidual from Hallahan?

“I thought it could work, but first of all, Laura had to want to do it, and then I had to have support,” said Verbrugghe, a 1980 Roman Catholic graduate. “I can’t say enough with how Roman Catholic helped with everything. When you do something like this, it starts from the top down, and right from the start, they were great about it and still are great about it. Same thing with the folks at Hallahan. Everyone has been 150 percent cooperative and really turned this into something very positive.”

Next up was asking the members of Roman Catholic’s cross-country team if they would feel comfortable with a female from their sister school practicing with them every afternoon.

Pete Dudek, now a senior, recalls feeling “a little bit uneasy” in the beginning, but he and his teammates quickly adjusted to the anomaly and have not had a single problem ever since.

“She’s one of our teammates,” said Dudek. “It helped out a lot that she was a very good runner.”

Antinucci, whose gentle, shy personality betrays being a pioneer of sorts, said although she was tentative at first, she never felt significantly awkward despite the gender barrier.

While she admitted that it would be “easier” if she had other female teammates, Antinucci said that Roman’s athletes immediately embraced her as one of their own.

“It was good to get it out of the way as a freshman, because by the time I was a sophomore, I started the season as just one of the kids on the team,” she said. “I trained with them and I never received any special treatment. I was just one of the guys.”

Antinucci expressed extreme appreciation for Verbrugghe’s genuine care and hard work to help allow her to compete in high school cross country.

“He saved me,” she said. “I don’t know where I would be without him. I’m so lucky someone like him was involved. He has always been so supportive.”

Antinucci has taken full advantage of her situation. She was a first-team All-Catholic as a sophomore, and then this past week qualified for being a first-teamer again because her best time was among the top 15 in the entire Catholic League.

A “huge” reason for her success, said Antinucci, has been running against “faster and stronger” athletes every day in practice. The benefit is apparently two-fold; asked if being outrun by a female would be difficult for Roman’s runners, Dudek said it has actually provided motivation for the Cahillites to train that much harder.

Although she knew that she had made first-team All-Catholic for a second time, Antinucci downplayed her own agenda during a recent Roman Catholic meet against Cardinal O’Hara by initially keeping the good news to herself.

“She was standing right next to me rooting for the boys, and it was like she had put her own award in her back pocket,” said Verbrugghe, who made special mention of how much assistant coach Jim Brennan has helped Antinucci improve. “That says everything right there.”

Just one of the guys being one of the guys.

Or something like that.

John Knebels can be reached at