by Andrew Garda
First year Mounties girls basketball coach Emily Hall may be new to head coaching, but she’s been a Mountie for a long time.
While she spent the last year in Australia, attending Bond University to study sports management and playing pro basketball along the Gold Coast, Hall played for the Mounties in high school as a stand-out guard. She also assisted Bianca Brown for two years during Brown’s tenure as coach.
She’s got Mountie credentials for sure.
So when a friend reached out to her and told her former Mounties coach Paul Palek had moved on to coach boys basketball at Manchester Regional after two seasons, and the Montclair position was open, she didn’t hesitate.
The next thing she knew, Hall was on the floor with a group of girls, most of whom she didn’t know from her time working with Brown.
That said, being a head coach has brought new challenges despite her resume.
“I can’t be a shoulder to cry on for the girls, like I was” with Coach Brown, Hall said in a recent practice. “I have to be a bit harder because I’m the one in charge.”
That doesn’t mean she can’t share a laugh with her team, or be there for them when they truly need someone. As the person in charge, though, Hall has to make the hard decisions now and sometimes those decisions won’t be ones her team likes.
It’s all aimed at not only continuing to build back to what she knew as a Mountie previously, but to encourage her players to be the best they can be on and off the court.
Hall has hit the ground running this year, both figuratively and literally.
She had to return from overseas and get settled while building both a coaching staff and a plan for the program. There have been a lot of adjustments on the fly as she works to both mold her program around who she has on her team while also molding the players around her program.
That is taking some adjustments on the players’ parts as Hall wants them to run an up-tempo, fast-break game. That means lots of conditioning and attention to detail. While rebounding and accelerating down the court seems instinctual, a good player has to be able to read the floor and decide if that fast-break is there for the taking or if a more measured attack is warranted. That has to happen instantaneously, something that can be hard for young players to get used to and feel confident doing.
And make no mistake, this team is young, if not in years, in experience.
Alisa Wiggins is playing ball at Kansas State, and the team will certainly miss her 18.5 points per game. The squad also graduated the athletic Jill Jennings — now at Boston College playing soccer — and saw Bianca Fede transfer to West Orange.
That means Hall will be depending on some veterans stepping up into more prominent roles and new faces in new places.
Syncere Lambert will be one of the veterans Hall needs to see embrace more responsibility. The senior guard will have to improve on her 38 points from last year, and her ball skills will be in high demand as the Mounties move swiftly up and down the court. Sophomore forward Birgitta Taylor-Lillquist is another key player for the Mounties, and at 5-11 one of the taller players on the team, which should help when grabbing rebounds.
While there are a lot of players Hall is excited about, she is most enthusiastic about Katerina Svobodova.
Svobodova is an international student from Slovakia, and while she doesn’t have the experience some of the other players have, Hall says she has huge potential.
“I wish I had her for more than one year,” Hall said of the senior forward. “But she is going to be great for us for the time we have her.”
Along with Svobodova, less experienced players, like freshman guard Brianna Worthy and sophomore forward/guards Jourdan Pridgen and Rahzier Kelly, will have to find ways to contribute as well. They’ll fill in around veterans like Maya Basile, Amaya Barnes, Lea Antoine, Chynna Dunneman and Nyasia Young.
Beyond this season — which starts on Friday on the road against University High in Newark at 4 p.m. — Hall wants to build a culture for the Mounties program.
That includes things like their Pay4TheCure fundraiser for cancer research (found here online), which runs through Jan. 25, as well as reaching out to the middle school programs and teams. One of Hall’s areas of study at Bond University involved a decline in female participation and while that was specific to Australia, it’s an issue facing programs in the United States as well. Hall wants that to change locally, and is hoping her presence — and the cred which comes to the program when a former Mountie comes back — helps turn that around.
“I want girls at the different schools to be excited to join our basketball program when they get to high school,” she said. “I want them to believe they can, and that they can even play at a level beyond high school. It’s going to be a process, but we’re excited.”