Connecting fans with athletes PennPals helps basketball players forge a bond with youths who love the game.

Posted: December 21, 2002

When former Penn women's basketball coach Julie Soriero helped launch a program in the late 1990s to attract young fans, it wasn't difficult to come up with a nickname for the project.

PennPals.

Soriero has since departed, but PennPals continues to thrive under coach Kelly Greenberg, reaching out to youngsters such as Caitlin Bonfig, 11, a sixth grader at Haverford Middle School.

Caitlin remembers getting her first letter from the Penn team several years ago. "I felt like someone famous was talking to me," she said.

And the Quakers get to make friends with their fans.

"It's like a big sister thing," senior Jenn Jones said.

PennPals is one of several programs that local colleges are using to attract young fans.

Temple coach Dawn Staley schedules events that involve her team and her Dawn Staley Foundation, which aids urban children.

Drexel and St. Joseph's have special game dates set aside to fill their arenas with youngsters from area schools.

Many participants in summer-camp programs at Villanova and La Salle attend Wildcats and Explorers games in the winter.

PennPals targets 5- to 14-year-olds, but there have been older members.

"One year, I actually had my 20-year-old nephew sign up," said Greenberg, now in her fourth year as Penn's coach.

Greenberg, a La Salle point guard in the late 1980s and the sister of former Explorers player Chip Greenberg, comes from a large family. Not surprisingly, the Penn fan base has been the beneficiary, its ranks augmented by Greenberg cousins and other relatives.

The PennPals program charges $10 for a season membership that offers a special T-shirt, a schedule card and media guide, free admission to 11 home games, a member certificate, a Penn player to correspond with, an opportunity to be a ball girl or ball boy, and a pizza party.

"I think they enjoy sweeping the lanes during our time-outs more than being a ball boy or girl," Greenberg said.

Each Penn home game has a theme, including an autograph night.

"That night is really amazing," said Penn senior forward Sunny Pitrof. "It takes two hours to do the autographs, and the line goes all the way around the Palestra."

Then, of course, there are the e-mails and the letters between players and fans. Caitlin Bonfig uses both ways to communicate with the Penn players.

"Well, I write the letter on the computer, and then I mail it," she explained Thursday night while taking a brief break from watching Survivor on TV.

"I talk to them about their games, their wins and losses, and how hard it is to get through school while playing ball," said Caitlin, whose 5-year-old sister, Julie, is also a PennPal.

Caitlin, a forward on her team at Haverford Middle School, said she was trying to raise her grades to be eligible to go to Penn.

Penn assistant coach Erin Ladley, who was involved with PennPals as a player until her graduation in 2001, is now the administrator of the activity.

"There's a lot that goes into it. We contact all the local schools, primarily at the elementary and junior high levels. We send them brochures," Ladley said.

"We also talk to people we know and friends of people we know. Word gets around. We have this one group - Christians in Action, a local community church - who heard about us.

"We also take out an ad in the paper and then we schedule events at all our home games," Ladley said. "We also assign each player a PennPal to correspond with during the season."

(Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.'s News in Education program, an adjunct of The Inquirer and Daily News, is a sponsor of the project.)

Greenberg said she and her coaching staff actually get a little laugh over the PennPal parents.

"They're more excited than the kids," Greenberg grinned. "We get letters three months ahead of time: 'When's the pizza party? When's this or that?' "

Ladley remembers communicating with Caitlin Bonfig during her senior year.

"She must have done good in her grades because her dad took her on a road trip when we won the Ivy title at Harvard," Ladley said.

The players are enthusiastic about communicating with the young fans.

"People tell me their names are Katie, too, and they think it's cool," sophomore center Katie Kilker said. "Or that they also wear No. 51 [her uniform number]."

Junior guard Mikaelyn Austin said her PennPal has asked to go to the Penn campus and just shoot baskets together when worrying on the eve of a school test.

Austin also talked about the perspective she and her teammates derive.

"You don't realize how you felt when you were that age," Austin said. "You never realized you looked up to athletes and thought, 'Wow. that's something else.'

"You were once looking up. And now you're looking down seeing yourself looking back up at you. It's kind of nice."

Contact staff writer Mel Greenberg at 215-854-5725 or mgreenberg@phillynews.com.

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