Spend an hour with one of Roosevelt Island’s most decorated athletes, and you will be reminded that the world is brimming with possibilities.
Rivercross resident Emily Engstler is currently the 11th-ranked high school girls’ basketball player in the country according to ESPN. She is ranked second nationally in her position and first in New York state. Later this month, she’ll represent New York at the McDonalds All-American game in Atlanta, which will be televised on ESPN2. Earlier this week, she was named the Gatorade New York Girls Basketball Player of the year, the first from her high school, St. Francis Prep.
On a cold March day, sitting at a table at Nisi, she orders the grilled chicken club and shares the enthusiasm of a young woman poised to take on the world. Her speech is peppered with superlatives. Her sister? Crazy smart, so hard working. Her brother? Super smart; he does physics and is an incredible artist. Her first high school basketball team? So much fun to play with. Behind her high school vernacular is a driven athlete who understands that she’s been given a gift.
Colleges have been calling since she started high school. Although recruiters can’t contact high school players directly before their junior year, she says, “if colleges like you, they talk to your coach first, and ask your coach to call you.”
After September 1 of junior year though, it’s a different story.
“You’re always on the phone and you have to keep up your grades at school,” she says. “It is overwhelming, but you have all of this attention and you’re doing what you love.”
Athletes are allowed to accept up to five official college visits, which are paid for by the recruiting college. Engstler took three: Miami University, Ohio State, and Syracuse.
In the fall, she will attend Syracuse University with a full athletic scholarship.
At six foot one inch, she describes her game as “a versatile big” and sees similarities between her game and that of her favorite player, New York Knick Kristaps Porzingis. “He’s great! He can do anything,” she says.
In addition to her top ESPN rankings, Engstler is a Women’s Basketball Coaches Association First Team All-American and is a finalist for Miss New York Basketball. She’s been chosen to play in the Jordan Brand Classic, a game that will be played at the Barclay’s Center in April. She’s also the only basketball athlete in the history of her school – male or female – to have a quadruple double.
When she has time, she practices on the Island by Blackwell playground in a mixed age group and gender game.
“When I was younger it used to be my friends, then it was the 20 or 25 year olds,” she says. “On Sundays, the older guys come out and they’re good, they know how to play. They teach me sometimes. A lot of them shoot 3 pointers. Some of them have kids or grandchildren, but they’re great. As I got older and got bigger, it got easier to stay with the guys physically.”
A true student-athlete, Engstler also boasts a 96 grade average and is on the Principal’s List at St. Francis Prep high school – all while practicing basketball six days a week, commuting to and from Fresh Meadows in Queens, playing in games and tournaments on evenings and weekends, and never suggesting that it’s too much for her.
“It sounds more crazy than it is,” she insists. “It’s fun. It motivates you to do it because you’re not going to that on your own.”
But the enthusiasm doesn’t make her naive. The high school senior has already digested what many girls her age don’t face until they’re much older: female and male colleagues are treated differently.
“For girls’ basketball, people think this might be sexist, but your grades matter a lot,” says Engstler. “You have to have the grades to get into [college]. With boys, you can be horrible in high school. If you’re that good an athlete, they’re still going to take you.” But she sees the discrepancy as a matter of practicality. “Colleges know that when you get older you’re not getting paid the same amount of money; you’ll need a job and a good education.”
In comparison to the NBA, she says, “the WNBA just doesn’t get the views so you’re never going to get the money. You’ll see girls who don’t like basketball go to an NBA game but you only see girls who like basketball at WNBA games. It’s really sad.”
In her view, women’s basketball is just as watchable.
“When it comes to college basketball, if you’re watching a good game, it doesn’t matter whether it’s men or women – but that might be because I play.” She acknowledges that college basketball tends to be less flashy than professional men’s as well. “It’s not like a ‘showcase your move’ kind of game,” she explains. “It’s a ‘I want to win the tournament so let’s play smart basketball’ kind of game – even the boys. Typically when you think of men’s basketball you think of the flashy stuff.”
As for her goals off the court, she’s got those too. One of the reasons she chose Syracuse was it’s communications program. She wants to do broadcasting, specifically play-by-play at games. She points out that it’s still novel for women to anchor men’s games. “I watch women do play-by-play for men’s sports now, and I would love to do that. What, because you’re a woman you can’t? It’s coming along more now. There’s a woman who does men’s football. There’s a woman who does basketball, too.”
“I am very grateful for my life; I’ve had a good life,” Engstler says.