Some of South Jersey’s best amateur athletes have familiar last names — their fathers starred in Philadelphia as pro athletes. Is that a burden? Does it help or hinder their budding athletic careers?
During the waning minutes of the 10th annual South Jersey Invitational Basketball Tournament’s nightcap semifinal game, a free throw shot clanked off the rim and seemed to hang in the air for at least a half a beat too long.
As the players converged in the paint, your brain just assumed the ball would eventually land in the hands of one of the three tallest players on the floor, Cherokee High School sisters Ava and Alexa Therien or Moorestown Friends School’s Bella Runyan.
Not only are all three taller than the average high school basketball player but they’re athletic, too. It’s in the last name.
The ball finally followed the laws of gravity and toward the pack. It ricocheted off of a couple thumbs and fingers, not unlike the trajectory of a much smaller ball inside a pinball machine, and sophomore Ava Therien made a desperate, diving attempt to save it from going out of bounds, despite the fact that her team was up by more than a dozen points.
“They’re tough, tough kids,” Cherokee girls basketball coach Ron Powell said before the game. “When you have competitiveness, no matter what sport you play, it’s an intangible that some kids don’t have. They think they’re competing or playing hard, but these kids are really playing hard. I’m sure they get that from dad.”
The reality is the Therien girls get the basketball genes from their mom, Diana Dabrowksi Therien, a former varsity player at Highland Regional High School.
“(Dad) is awful, terrible,” sophomore Alexa Therien said with a devilish smile while sitting on the bleachers for her senior sister, Ava. “Can’t make a shot to save his life. He pretends he’s good.”
“We always say we get our basketball skills from our mom since our dad isn’t very good,” Ava adds, laughing along. “He thinks he’s good, but he’s not.”
The Therien girls (there’s a third, Isabella, who plays at Loyola (Md.) University) have a healthy perspective on life and basketball. It’s one of the advantages of having a former pro athlete for a father.
In South Jersey, where many Eagles and Flyers players in particular call home and often stick around after their playing days are over, it’s not uncommon to go to an event and see an athlete with a familiar last name. Barrett Brooks’ daughter plays basketball at Eastern Regional and Danny Briere’s son plays hockey for Paul VI, while Bishop Eustace has had Hextalls and Primeaus suit up for their hockey team within the last two decades.
Is it a burden to wear those names on your back if you’re a teenager? Or do the good genes and friendly fatherly advice outweigh the outside pressures?
The current crop of South Jersey kids who just so happen to be the sons and daughters of former Philadelphia pro athletes certainly don’t seem to be affected in a negative way. They’re all taking that name and making it their own with success on the hardwood and ice.
LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON?
Nineteen-year-old Cayden Primeau is the youngest of former Flyer Keith Primeau’s four kids.
Cayden, who grew up in Voorhees and graduated from Bishop Eustace two years ago, is two years younger than Chayse Primeau, who plays hockey at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. They both have an older brother, Corey, who helped start Neumann University’s club hockey team, and a sister, Kylie, who played lacrosse at Villanova.
Despite dad’s resume and having to follow in the footsteps of his siblings, too, Cayden Primeau, a goaltender drafted by the Montreal Canadiens two years ago, has done more than just OK for himself. The Northeastern University sophomore was named the Most Outstanding Player of the annual Beanpot Tournament after leading the Huskies to their second straight title earlier this month.
Primeau is one of three Northeastern players who have former NHL star fathers.
“I know a lot of people aren’t as fortunate to have that kind of dynamic,” the youngest Primeau said. “I try to get to get as much information from him as I can all the time. … It’s not even in the things he says. I remember growing up and seeing how he carried himself on and off the ice, so I try to take that from him and people he played with.”
Since he plays a different position than his dad (Keith was a forward), Cayden doesn’t have to worry too much about people comparing him to a five-time NHL All-Star. His father doesn’t believe any of his kids had to overcome their last name.
“They’re all uniquely different and independent,” Keith Primeau said. “I can’t speak for other players’ kids, I can only speak for mine, but I think it’s partly because we didn’t create that environment. We just wanted them to do whatever they were passionate about, whether it was dance, music, another sport, whatever.”
Jon Runyan Jr., a Moorestown native, has had a bit of a different experience, perhaps in part because, as a football player at the University of Michigan, he’s playing perhaps the second or third most popular sport in America and at a premier program, too.
“This name kind of carries a lot of weight,” the redshirt junior told Michigan Daily in November. “I’m proud to have it, and I don’t pay too much attention to what everybody says about me.”
Bella Runyan, former Eagles lineman Jon Runyan’s youngest kid, saw her older brother deal with and then overcome the comparisons — it’s difficult not to when you’re playing the same position in the same sport with the same name as a former Pro Bowler — and understands it can follow her at times, too.
“People are still saying to him, he’s only getting recognized because of his dad … so there’s that, too, the ‘You’re only there because of your dad,’” said Bella, a junior at Moorestown Friends. “But I think everyone in South Jersey knows that I work for everything I’ve got. I don’t mind the pressure. It’s cool having that as my last name. It’s not anything to live up to; the only thing I have to live up to is to be a hard worker like my dad.”
Like her dad, older brother, and older sister, Alyssa, Bella can play a little, too. She recently eclipsed 1,000 career points in her high school basketball career — and she’s only a junior.
“She’s the best athlete in the family,” Jon said of his youngest, who also stars in soccer and lacrosse.
“I know I have good genes because my siblings are also good at sports, but honestly it’s just the support to know I have someone so credible at home,” Bella Runyan said. “My dad is good about giving me advice, but the thing that’s really special about him is that he’s super low key about everything, he just stands there, quiet. And after a game, you might expect some parents to get on their kids about everything they’ve done. … (But) he knows what’s going on. It’s good to have someone to give me pointers.”
‘LET’S SEE HOW GOOD HE IS’
Maybe like Jon Runyan Jr., Christopher Therien, a sixth-grade hockey player, will have to wear the weight of his dad’s jersey when he’s a teenager.
“‘That’s Chris Therien’s son. Let’s go get him,’” Diana Dabrowski Therien said with a mocking voice, trying to imagine what her son might hear in a few years. “Or, ‘Let’s go see how good he is.’”
The Therien girls know how to ice skate, but basketball is their primary sport and, like Bella Runyan, they are among the best prep players in the state. Alexa Therien was recently named the MVP of the SJIBT after Cherokee won its third straight tournament. Fittingly, both of her sisters won MVP honors in the two previous years.
“I think Izzy has been a big inspiration on them,” the elder Chris Therien said of the oldest Therien girl. “She’s been so inspiring to them from a basketball standpoint. I’m just Dad.”
But the name is still there on the scorebooks and people hear it when starting lineups are announced before games.
“There’s definitely some pressure there because everyone always expects you to play great,” Ava Therien said. “Sometimes you don’t and everyone is putting you down, but you kind of have to play through it. … It should make you feel a little confident. It’s not that everyone is out to get you, but they want to beat you.”
Back home in Marlton, the Theriens feed off of each other. The sibling rivalries are healthy and bring out everyone’s best efforts.
“One of us always ends up coming in crying,” Ava said of family pick-up basketball games. “She likes to cheat.”
“I’m just big,” Alexa says with a grin. “I push them out.”
“The games are definitely fun but sometimes they get out of control,” Ava said. “We definitely have a lot of fun, though. It’s just making each other better, that’s what it’s all about.”
MAKING A NAME
Sharing the same name as a former, famous Philadelphia pro athlete isn’t something most teenagers think about. They’ve had it their whole life.
Whether it hinders or helps at times is just a part of the process as they find their own way and make a name for themselves.
“They all work hard, they’re dedicated, and they take pride in it, they each want to be the best at what they do,” Chris Therien said. “They’re also extremely good team players. If it’s a two-on-zero, my kid would give up the ball, it’s not even a thought to take the layup, they’d give it to the other kid.
Therien waited a beat.
“Unless it’s her sister.”