String Theory seniors leave big shoes to fill

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String Theory junior Jajuan Nelson dunks in a game against Strawberry Mansion earlier this season at the Guerin Recreation Center in South Philly. String Theory completed its best season in school history. Photo/Mark Zimmaro 

They’re building a basketball history in harmony.

The Philadelphia Performing Arts: String Theory Charter School isn’t usually first mentioned when it comes to the city’s high school basketball powerhouses. But it’s getting there.

Less than a decade into existence as a high school, and just a half-dozen years as a basketball program, the Knights have built a prominent contending team at its high school based at 1600 Vine St. 

Most of the players have South Philly roots as the school originated on South Broad Street, where it still serves students in second through fifth grade. High school basketball home games are played under the dimly-lit lights at the Guerin Recreation Center at 16th and Jackson streets. And their head coach is a proud South Philly guy who was an All-Public League catcher on the Girard Academic Music Program’s baseball team before graduating in 2007.

Coach Eric Funaro loves seeing the flourishing athletic programs at String Theory, most specifically the boys basketball team, which just completed its best season in school history.

“I’m hoping that our success is making people not only want to play here, but also more of our eighth-graders want to stay here,” said Funaro, who coaches boys basketball, baseball and is the school’s athletic director. “Hopefully they are starting to see that we are building a program that is starting to have success. It’s always been seen inside here but now it’s starting to be seen outside of here.”

The Knights matched a school record with 14 wins this year but captured their first Philadelphia Public League playoff victories by advancing two rounds into the final eight before bowing out in the quarterfinal round to eventual Public League champion Imhotep Institute Charter High School. The Knights also qualified for the PIAA state tournament for the second time in school history.

“When we lost in states the other night, and when the reality of it hit that it was going to be our last moment in the season with those seniors, it started to sink in,” Funaro said. “Now that the season has finished and we’re able to wind down, I think (the seniors) are going to be able to look back and realize what we’ve done here.”

The Knights finished first in the PPL’s ‘C” Division and the team was battle tested as Funaro stacked the non-league schedule with plenty of talented tests, which included Philadelphia Catholic league opponents Bonner-Prendergast, St. Joe’s Prep and Cardinal O’Hara. 

“This was the most difficult non-league schedule I could put together,” Funaro said. “We were able to get some Catholic League schools, Friends League and even (New) Jersey. We were able to expand our non-league schedule to a level that put us on the map a little more.”

The Knights shined under the spotlight, led by seniors Michael Varallo, Carlos Astacio, Riyaad Oliver and Timmy Gravelle.

South Philly natives Varallo and Astacio served as co-captains. They were both former players under Funaro for St. Monica Roman Catholic School on 16th Street.

“I thought they not only had the respect of their fellow seniors but also from the underclassmen,” Funaro said. “I trusted them in the fact that they would get practice up and running. They were responsible. I saw those qualities in them as they were coming up as freshmen and sophomores.”

The Class of 2022 left big shoes to fill. The Class of 2023 is eager to fill them. Junior brothers Jajuan and Javon Nelson, along with classmate Chris Valerio, were integral parts of the record-breaking team. Like those who came before them, most of the players on String Theory have been there for the long haul. 

“What I really always like about our team is that most of our team came from our middle school in South Philly,” Funaro said. “There really weren’t any transfers or anybody else added to our team. We pride ourselves on that. We built it in-house. That’s an honor to do that nowadays in high school sports.”

Now that the wheels are in motion, and the team will move up to the PPL’s B Division next winter, String Theory fully expects to gain even more recognition.

“The alumni come back and they enjoy that they were the start of the program, and I think this group will see what they built and how our younger students have something to follow up with,” Funaro said. “We shouldn’t just be happy that we had the success we did this year, we should now start to expect it.”