Growing up, Carlene Hightower never hesitated to challenge her three older brothers to a pick-up basketball game.
Now a junior center for Archbishop Prendergast, Hightower credits those contests for helping her develop into a confident First Team All-Catholic player.
"We always had a thing going," said the athlete, of 33rd and Reed streets. "It would be game of 2-on-2 with my three brothers and just me. They pretty much raised me in the game."
The aptly named 6-foot player is the youngest of seven siblings. Hightower already has made her family proud by bringing home a CYO championship and honors for her athletic skills, but now she has a higher goal.
She wants to play Division I basketball.
If spunk and self-assuredness were the only qualifications, Hightower would be a shoo-in.
"I am always confident in myself, and not just on the basketball court," said Hightower, 16, who earns second honors at Prendergast. "I am just following my dreams. Being the youngest, I am carrying on everyone else’s dreams."
So far, the player is doing a good job of that. Before Monday’s game, Hightower was leading the Pandas’ offense with 17.5 points per game, ranking her among the city’s top scorers. She also is averaging double digits in rebounding. In addition, Hightower earned First Team all-tournament squad honors in last month’s 32-team Surf ‘n’ Slam Tournament.
Though she is a South Philly resident, Hightower ended up attending Archbishop Prendergast in Drexel Hill because her mom works in the school’s cafeteria. A few faces were familiar when she started at the school, but it took some time to adjust to attending school in a new neighborhood.
"It was pretty hard," Hightower recalled. "I had no idea what those people were like."
The student was coming off a stellar season of basketball at Our Lady of Angels. Hightower’s team captured a CYO Region Six title — a unifying event for the consolidated school’s first year. The new institution was comprised of students from the former King of Peace, St. Gabriel and St. Aloysius schools.
Hightower still speaks with pride about the big win.
"It was the simple fact that we all came from three different schools," she said. "We all came together as one, played as a team and did what we were expected to do."
Hightower’s previous success, however, was not an automatic ticket to Prendie’s starting lineup. She spent her freshman year on the bench and, much to her chagrin, that’s where she was when the Pandas won the Catholic League title that season.
Despite the frustration of sitting out during the crucial game, Hightower valued the experience.
"By me watching, I learned so much that I didn’t do," she said. "When you watch, you learn better."
Also helping in the adjustment process was former teammate Christen Scalon, who now plays at St. Joseph’s.
"Christen took Carlene under her wing and they became the best of friends," said Prendie coach Tom Stewart. "She was a positive influence."
"She was the best thing that ever happened to me," added Hightower, who still practices with Scalon.
By averaging 14 points and nine rebounds a game last season, Hightower earned a First Team All-Catholic nod. Scalon was a Second Team selection. The Pandas made it to the championship game again, but this time lost to nationally ranked Cardinal O’Hara.
Prendie graduated three seniors from that team, which means Hightower is carrying even more of the weight this season.
"This year she is a leader and our go-to player," the coach said. "She scores, rebounds and steals."
Hightower has sharpened those skills by playing basketball year-round, including summers with the Philadelphia Belles of the Amateur Athletic Union. She’ll switch this year to the Philly Rebels, who play at a higher level of competition. Hightower hopes to get her game impressive enough to draw offers from local Division I programs. Stewart said his star athlete just needs to develop her outside shot, and she’ll be ready for college play.
"She has that quickness, but [on the Division I level] you have to be able to put the ball in the basket from the outside," he said.
Hightower is considering St. Joseph’s, where she would join her friend Scalon. She occasionally attends the team’s practices, and said she has noticed the greater intensity in college games.
First, though, Hightower wants to help her team reclaim the Catholic League title. Heading into this week, the Pandas were trailing O’Hara and Carroll in the Southern Division title race.
As always, Hightower is ready for the challenge.
"There is a lot of talent out there as far as Carroll and O’Hara go," she said. "It’s going to be really hard, but we’ve just got to stay focused."