by Andrew Garda
If Tuesday night’s practice is any indication, grass won’t be growing under the feet of any members of the Immaculate Conception girls basketball team this year.
New head coach Joe Whalen runs a crisp session in the ICHS gym, moving his players from drill to drill efficiently and quickly, making sure the girls are pushing hard each time.
That’s not to say he or assistant coaches Chez Williams and Trinnette Carruthers are skimping on the coaching. Any time one of their players makes a mistake, one of the coaches will pause the drill and make sure the player knows what they did wrong and what they have to do differently.
The coaches do this to not only make sure their players are reaching their potential, but also so that they learn discipline.
Playing disciplined basketball is necessary if you want to win championships, and that’s what Whalen and his team are aiming for.
“Our goal is always win the division, win the county, win the states,” Whalen said as he watched his players go through a perimeter shooting drill. “That doesn’t waver, that doesn’t change. Those are always the goals we talk about.”
Whalen knows about winning, and his last coaching job at St. Rose saw him compile a 131-23 record, and a Shore Conference Tournament win.
After a brief hiatus from coaching, Whalen arrives at ICHS with the intention of helping the Lions match that success. He brings with him two seasons coaches in Williams and Carruthers, both of whom he said are invaluable to his efforts with the Lions.
“I’ve got two former head coaches as my assistants, which is great. Your assistants are what run the team, and these guys are great, they do a great job,” he said.
After the success at St. Rose in a very tough Shore Conference, it might seem strange for Whalen to land at a small school like Immaculate, but the size was one of the things he liked about the opportunity.
”I like the mission of a small Catholic school,” he said. “I think, with all the school closings — though hopefully that’s over now — I wanted to be part of keeping one open. The girls are great, the school is great, the administration’s great. The commute stinks, but other than that, it’s great.”
Whalen has plenty of time on his hour commute from Monmouth County to plan to on how to put ICHS on the right path.
He has to do it with just four holdovers from last season’s 17-6 team, which had success in the regular season and County tournaments, though they didn’t make the state tournament because they exceeded the NJSIAA’s limit for player disqualifications.
Toni Blanford, Jordan Hill, Nasira Williams and Jailyn Lucas are all that are left from last year’s squad.
“That’s it. It’s not a lot. We have two freshmen, a couple of transfers,” Whalen said. “The beauty of basketball is, you don’t need 40 players, like football. You need 10 players, you need 12. We have [a roster of] 13.”
Those 13 are going to play a wide-open, fast paced game. Whalen is looking to take a lot of three-point shots and to move quickly in transition, while playing tight-man defense. He feels it’s the sort of game that kids find fun, and also can execute at a high level.
One of the keys will be the play of Williams.
“[She] is a great leader and a captain right now as a junior,” he said. “She plays guard and is our best scoring option. [But] your point guard has got to bring the ball up, and we have to get it back to her so she can score. So that’s challenging. And you don’t want to fatigue her.”
That doesn’t mean the coaches won’t push her, or her teammates, hard.
They have to, because the Lions face a brutally hard schedule that includes Trenton Catholic, Long Island Lutheran (NY), Woodbridge (VA) and Archbishop Wood (PA).
“We just scrimmaged Secaucus and Pascack Valley; both are county champions,” Whalen said. “That and the division are going to help us prepare for the county and for the states.”