When somebody in athletics says “It’s bigger than the game,” you might nod your head in agreement. But that’s often a subjective statement.
Rarely are real-world examples so objectively obvious in proving that absolute truth.
Those examples exist, as the Camp Hill girls basketball program, both collectively and through its individual star power, demonstrates with precision.
Ask the parents of sisters Diamond and Passion Bragg about the depth of their team-first mentality.
Or ask the Four Diamonds foundation fighting childhood cancer how some competitively learned ingenuity from members of the Lions’ team helped turn into a $70,890.28 THON-raised slam dunk.
Basketball might be the sun around which junior point guard Diamond Bragg orbits, but it’s also the vehicle these state playoff-bound girls drive to make their worlds better.
A perfect fit in an imperfect world
When initially hearing about the Bragg sisters, their purposefully unique and creative first names immediately draw attention.
Their mother, Jaime Novinger-Toigo, said Diamond “was an influential name that made a statement,” while, with Passion, she “loved the emotion behind the word” and that we are all “relentlessly pursuing passion and the love passion symbolizes.”
“The girls’ personalities are both direct, kind, loving and truthful,” Novinger-Toigo said. “Fitting for their names.”
The girls, now 17 and 15, have fully embraced the symbolism.
“Once you start doing something good, they don’t forget your name,” Diamond said. “When I was younger, I was like, ‘OK, I can work with this.’ But now it sticks. It’s hard for people to forget.”
The parents are both former athletes, Ben Bragg in basketball and as a youth quarterback in Harrisburg playing alongside star athletes like Kenny Watson and Hank Poteat before moving to CD East for high school. That’s where he met Jaime Novinger, a standout swimmer.
They started dating and eventually welcomed two daughters into the world, the family living in Camp Hill but in the West Shore School District portion.
The relationship, though, didn’t last. And this is where we first see the real-world “teamwork” from the girls.
Though the two were still quite young, Diamond remembers nothing traumatic about the experience of their parents’ separation. (They were never married.)
“I can’t even tell you what age I was, but maybe 4 or 5,” she said. “I’m just glad everything is positive. Both are in my life, and everything worked out how it’s supposed to be.”
That was no accident, Ben says.
“Of course every separation and breakup is hard,” he said, “but those girls, Diamond and Passion, made both of our families so much stronger. We’ve had tough times, but those girls have united us.
“When I tell them it’s so much bigger than basketball, that is how it’s so much bigger than basketball. Basketball is temporary, but who they are is forever.”
While the girls live primarily with Jaime and their stepfather, Mark, in Camp Hill – they moved into Camp Hill School District when the girls were in middle school – Jaime says there’s a near-equal split and the girls spend a good amount of time with Ben in Harrisburg.
Collectively, between the blended families and close friends, Jaime said it’s not unusual for upwards of 50 Bragg/Toigo/Novinger crew to attend Camp Hill basketball games in regular support of the sisters.
“We are all so proud of Diamond and Passion for their character on and off the court,” Jaime said. “They love and respect each other and their team and love the camaraderie they are able to create and be part of.”
When the Bragg sisters first moved into the Camp Hill School District ahead of Diamond’s seventh-grade year, word quickly spread to Lions head coach Mark Clarke, now in his 15th season.
A neighbor excitedly told him about Diamond’s prowess, suggesting she played “like the boys” and that Clarke would eventually be coaching somebody with incredible talent.
“Pretty soon after that, she came to an open gym, and it was pretty clear right away she was special on the court,” Clarke said from Tuesday's practice, where the Lions (21-5) were preparing for Friday’s PIAA Class 2A opener against Blairsville (5 p.m. at Hershey High School.)
“Even as a freshman, you could just tell. We had a strong senior group that year, but those kids even gravitated towards her. You could see that right off the bat.”
When Diamond first started playing basketball as a 4-year-old, most of the kids, boys or girls, couldn’t even throw the ball hard enough or far enough to hit the rim, Ben Bragg said.
“But she was one of them (who could),” he continued. “A year later, Passion picked things up the same way. You could tell Diamond had something natural at an early age, not only in basketball but in anything she played.”
That “anything,” in fact, turned out to include competitive flag football.
Diamond teamed with other local star athletes, including former Middletown star Ja’lynn Burton-Jones (now playing basketball at Robert Morris), Cedar Cliff’s Jannelle “Honey” Robinson and Harrisburg’s Jasmine Wright, on a nationally recognized flag football outfit. That team participated in tournaments in New Orleans and Dallas (at the Cowboys’ stadium), among other national venues.
Though she stopped playing several years ago, Diamond truly believes — and those who’ve seen her average 21.7 points, 11.7 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 2.7 steals and 1.6 blocks per game this season might agree — she could have easily hung with the boys on the gridiron if that was to be her path.
Alas, Ben talked her out of it.
“He said he wouldn’t have been able to stand seeing me getting tackled by a boy,” Diamond said. “He said he’d want to walk out onto the field (if that happened).”
While Diamond is also a track and field standout at Camp Hill, basketball maintains her focus throughout the year, including a tryout with the USA Women’s U17 team last spring in Colorado Springs and a spot on the nationally ranked Philadelphia Belles in AAU.
As of now, the 5-foot-9 point guard has scholarship offers from 10 NCAA Division I basketball programs, plus heightened interested from many others, including Wisconsin, South Florida, DePaul and Michigan. Recruiting is expected to increase dramatically during her upcoming final AAU season.
This high school campaign, she’s notched three triple-doubles for the Mid-Penn Capital and District 3 Class 2A champion Lions, including a line of 20 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists in the district title victory over Columbia last week.
Passion, a 5-foot-10 sophomore forward, participated in cheerleading growing up and now also plays field hockey for Camp Hill. She’s averaging 10 points and 8.3 rebounds for the Lions and has three double-doubles, including 11 points and 13 boards against Columbia.
“I look up to (Diamond) a lot,” Passion said, “and I think everyone talking about her just pushes me to do my best and to be up there where she is.”
Said classmate and one of Passion’s best friends, Sheridan Reid, who averages 12.8 points as the Lions’ shooting guard: “Not saying Passion doesn’t do this, but Diamond’s life revolves around basketball. She’s really dedicated and motivated. Passion and I started doing training together, so we’re kind of getting up to Diamond’s level.”
Therein lies the beauty of this team.
With her otherworldly talent, some might expect frustration from Diamond Bragg when she’s used to playing top-level AAU basketball alongside countless Division I recruits and making cuts at USA Basketball tryouts.
Yet there doesn’t seem to be a hint of that from the star point guard, and the positivity has paid incredible dividends for Mark Clarke’s crew, which just won its second straight district championship in its third straight title-game trip.
“Like special players at every level, she makes everybody around her better,” Clarke said. “That’s not easy to do. Not only with the way she plays on the court but also the way she kind of drives them to be better individually, too. That combination is very, very rare.”
Reid, who played a reserve role as a freshman last year, explains it beautifully and succinctly: “She’s so motivated, I wanted to bring something to the table for her this year because I wasn’t a starter last year and didn’t play as much. I really needed to prove to her I could help her out.”
You see the same from the team’s other starters in junior forwards Anne Johnson (5.7 points per game) and Katy Collingsworth (3.1), as well as freshman top reserve Ashley Chrencik (3.0).
“She continually works to make herself better,” Collingsworth said, “and I think when the team sees and notices that, we all work harder. Diamond is always coming up with new ideas on how to better execute plays. She’s never given up on the team, which I think has an incredible impact on the team’s outcome. We lost some really key players over the years, but Diamond never seems to lose hope, and her dreams only get bigger.”
Collingsworth, by the way, helped spearhead Camp Hill’s THON project that went far beyond its goal of raising $40,000 for Four Diamonds and instead delivered that gaudy number mentioned earlier in this story. The entire team gladly played a key role in that success, showing that the spirit which leads to on-court triumph also translates into meaningful charity off the court.
And, lest anyone see an intense Ben Bragg in the stands — he’s the one with the GoPro camera attached to his forehead so he can record and edit team highlights to post to YouTube — and think he’s a potentially overbearing force behind his daughters’ on-court success, well, that’s a big no.
He’s simply a proud papa.
“What I told both of my girls at a young age is, ‘This is your life. This isn’t mine,’” he said. “I motivate them, but they motivate me just as much. When I see Diamond getting up at 5 in the morning to go to yoga, then to training, then to basketball practice, while Passion is doing her field hockey, then folding that over into another sport, it makes me feel like I gotta step my game up.
“It’s not just one-sided, that I’m the adult and I’m supposed to know everything, because I learn stuff from both of them every single day. They’ll tell you, they’re the ones that keep me in line.”
And, as Jaime Novinger-Toigo says of her daughters, it’s pure joy that they play so well together.
“The last thing I ever wanted was for the girls to avoid playing a sport with each other because one gets the spotlight,” she said. “(But) they support (and) bring excitement and competitiveness to each other. They learn every day through the game that this is an opportunity to lift each other up.”
That’s a role Diamond Bragg has fully embraced and will continue to do so next year as well, when the Lions return each key cog from this year’s machine.
“I try to develop connections with all of my teammates; it’s part of my job as a leader,” she said. “But Passion, that’s my blood, my sister, and I’ll have her back regardless.
“I have fun playing with her. I really do. There are times I have to get on her — and I get on her a little harder than everybody else — but it’s all out of love, if she knows it or not.
“Because we’re the Bragg sisters. So we have to make a name for ourselves.”