Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
It was a night unlike any other, that started just like any other.
As Drexel and Saint Joseph’s centers approached each other for the opening tip of Friday night’s City 6 matchup, there was a wry smile on both faces, an exchange of ‘good luck,’ and a quick handshake before things got underway.
Tessa and Talya Brugler jump off to open Friday night's Drexel vs. St. Joe's matchup. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Then Drexel’s Tessa Brugler out-jumped her younger sister Tayla Brugler.
“I wouldn’t let her win that,” Tessa, a graduate student at Drexel, said afterwards.
“I think they threw it towards her side,” Talya, a freshman at St. Joe’s, quipped later on.
Oh yes, it was a family affair at the Daskalakis Athletic Center on Friday night, the Brugler’s parents wearing shirts that were half-red and half-blue, the numbers ‘0’ and ‘3’ on the back.
There were dozens of others in the stands wearing the blue of Nazareth High School, there not to support either Hawks or Dragons but the two sisters they trekked down the Northeast Extension to see play a game they never thought would happen, watch a matchup they never hoped to see.
Anytime either one of the 6-foot-1 forwards grabbed a rebound, anytime they put the ball in the hoop, the crowd at the DAC roared just a little louder.
“We’re the only winners tonight,” their father, Brent Brugler, said. “There is going to be a loser and a winner, but we won as far as both of our daughters are playing on the same court at the same time...it’s been a lot of fun this week in our house, and both our girls have been very good to each other, it’s been a good week.
“During the year, we’re going to have to split [up],” he added, referring to himself and his wife Tonya Brugler, “and this is the only time that we’ll ever be able to see them play together.”
Not just the only time in college — the only time, period. Not once in high school or on the AAU circuit were they teammates or opponents, four years and four grades separating the two; Talya still in the process of putting together a standout career of her own at Nazareth High School the entire time Tessa was doing her undergraduate time at Bucknell.
They had one game, four quarters, a couple hours to share something most unexpected.
St. Joe's freshman Talya Brugler (0) is guarded by her sister, Drexel's Tessa Brugler (3), during the second half of their game Friday night. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
“My mom probably didn’t sleep last night, she was more excited than we were,” Tessa Brugler said.
“I thought I was going to cry because I’m emotional like that,” Tonya Brugler said, “but it was just pure excitement. And everybody kept saying to me today, ‘are you nervous?’ I was like no, I’m so excited, just like a ball of energy.”
The Bruglers are certainly a hoops family. Tonya Brugler, who was the Morning Call’s Coach of the Year in 2000-01 after leading Pen Argyl to a big turnaround, won a D-III National Championship during her freshman year at Elizabethtown (1988-89). That was the same year she met Brent Brugler, a junior forward and standout on the E-town men’s team; they began dating a year later.
That their daughters were able to share a basketball court in an official capacity for the first time was the rare silver lining to come out of the COVID pandemic. When Tessa was a senior at Nazareth, Talya was an eighth grader; had it not been for the extra season of eligibility the NCAA afforded all student-athletes, Tessa would have wrapped up her career at Bucknell in the spring right as Tayla was getting ready to begin her own college career.
Instead, she was able to take advantage of the graduate transfer rule and come down to Philadelphia, where she’ll spend two years at Drexel, playing out this season before spending next as a graduate assistant on the Dragons’ staff. She knew even before committing to Drexel that a decision to go there would mean that family matchup.
“That was one of the things that [Drexel coach] Amy [Mallon] told me when [she was] recruiting me, that there’s a possibility that I’d play against my sister,” Tessa Brugler said, “and I think that was one thing I never would have thought. It’s really exciting and it’s awesome to share a court.”
Tessa (3) posts up on Talya (behind) in the second half. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
“No, I never thought that we would be playing on the same court together,” Talya Brugler said. “It was a blessing, especially for my family, it was great to play against her — but I’m glad it’s over.”
Tessa’s Dragons were the victors at the end, a 63-55 decision over the Hawks which evened both teams’ records at 1-1 on the young season.
The older Brugler sister used a 15-point second quarter to propel herself to a team-high 19 points with three rebounds, going 7-of-13 from the floor in 31 minutes of action, with an assist and two blocks. Talya Brugler played 30 minutes, finishing with six points and six rebounds, plus two assists and a block.
Though Tessa and the Dragons got the better of Talya and the Hawks, the two of them each had their moments going up against each other. A first-half post-up saw Tessa get the better of her youngster sister; Tayla got revenge in the second half by forcing her older sibling into a couple airballs. There were plenty of other times, especially in the second half, where the two found themselves guarding one another on the block or out on the perimeter.
Countless games of one-on-one in their driveway during the COVID break helped them learn all their tendencies, as if they didn’t know them already.
“She won’t admit to it, but in those 1-v-1 games I did get blocks, I did block her,” Talya said, but she was wrong.
“She’s a good defender, she’s lanky, she can get some good blocks,” Tessa had already admitted, “and using her height to her advantage on defense was something that helped me work on my game.”
The Brugler family (L to R): Tonya, Talya, Tessa, and Brent. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Call it payback, of the sisterly kind.
“Just watching her play, growing up and watching her at Bucknell, I watched her every move, because she was always the person I looked up to,” Talya said. “I knew what she was going to do and I just tried my best to contain it.”
“I call her an old soul because she handles things like a mature, experienced player,” Hawks coach Cindy Griffin said of her impressive rookie. “She went really hard tonight, a couple baskets here and there, and I thought she did the best job of anyone guarding (Tessa).”
Afterwards, they reunited on the court, parents and daughters, St. Joe’s and Drexel’s colors mingling amongst hugs and smiles.
“It’s definitely going to go down in the books as one of the coolest games I’ve ever played in my life,” Talya Brugler said. “Right now it doesn’t feel like that...but maybe tomorrow.”