by Andrew Garda
Montclair High School girls basketball coach Emily Hall stands in front of her team, which is spread along the baseline.
“Who understood what we were doing?” Hall asks her team.
Most of the girls, spread along the length of the baseline, raise their hands.
“Who didn’t understand?”
A few hands go up, hesitantly. Then a few more with the explanation that, they understood the basics, but the drill wasn’t quite clear to them.
Hall listens patiently, nods and tells the players — made up of varsity, junior varsity and freshmen girls — that the coaches will work harder to make sure they explain things clearly.
The second year of Hall’s tenure as coach is off and running, and a few things are different.
She’s working to individualize how she coaches different students. For example, one player might do better with a drawn-out diagram on a white board, while another learns mostly through repetition and physical work. Figuring out which player is which is one thing Hall is working on this season.
In order to do that, she’s looking for feedback from her assistants, and all her players, though especially from her seniors.
“Just like here, I ask what are we doing, how did you feel about this play. Because to me, they didn’t get that [drill] correctly. And I’m glad that they said what they said because I already had it in my mind.”
Getting high schoolers to be honest with an adult about what works and what doesn’t? That’s a tall order, but Hall said she is making headway. After practices, she asks her seniors to tell her what she, as a coach, can improve upon.
“There’s always room for improvement,” Hall said after he team moved on from the Q&A and on to the next drill. “Same way I want them to hold themselves accountable, I’m asking them to hold me accountable too.“
Accountability is big for Hall and the Mounties.
“I’m giving them a lot more choices, so if they make a mistake, it’s their mistake. I want them to learn from this, I don’t always want to parental them,” she explained. “Because if I do, they’re not going to learn. So, that is me trying to help them be more accountable for themselves. Not hold them accountable, but help them be accountable.”
There are some positive early returns to show Hall is making headway. In the two days prior to practice last Wednesday, Hall had two players come to her to see if they could stay after practice Saturday to work on skill-drills to improve their game. During practice, the coaches either need to install plays or teach the team in other ways. Ball-handling drills, shooting, those are things that don’t get a lot of time in practice.
If a player wants to get better, they have to put in the extra time.
Hall is happy to see some of her players begin to understand that.
“So hopefully I get a larger group of those girls who want to work on their game.”
If there are more players spending hours after practice shooting free throws and doing passing drills, it’s going to be a group led by the core of the team, the five main players Hall knows she will lean on this season.
Brianna Worthy, Nyasia Young, Birgitta Taylor-Lilliquist, Janiyah McGainey and Chynna Dunneman will be the starting five on varsity, with Amaya Glover rotating in.
Dunneman, Young and Taylor-Lilliquist are the seniors of the group, with McGainey a junior and Worthy a sophomore.
For Hall, Young is the biggest surprise of the group, as she has begun taking on a big leadership role off the court.
“Being a leader being a communicator. We have more girls this year who say they want to commit to play in college and she is one of them,” Hall said.
The Mounties coach wants more from her though.
“She’s surprising me off the court, I want her to surprise me more on the court,” she said.
Beyond the starting five, there isn’t a lot of clarity though, and Hall needs some of the bench players to dig deep and step up.
One place she might find such a player is among the freshmen team. Hall said that with more than 10 freshmen trying out, this is the largest turnout the Mounties have seen in a long time. Many of them played on Montclair’s soccer team this fall, which not only meant they walked into the gym in shape, but they came in with a tough mentality forged on the soccer field.
“I am really shocked at the freshmen’s excitement,” Hall said. “They might not know any terminology, or any rules but if you tell them to do something, they do it to a T. Asking questions, like ‘how can I make an adjustment, how can I be better?’”
The numbers might just be beginning to build too. Hall has spent some time with the middle school leagues like the Police Athletic League as well, and is finding that a lot of parents and kids are excited to play for the high school.
“You have a lot of charter, private schools pulling at them for academics or whatever, but these families I am talking to they’re like ‘Coach, we’re coming to [the high school],’” Hall said.
Hall and her staff will continue to work on giving the them a reason to come and cheer this year too, as they prepare to open their 2018-19 season against Millburn on Friday, Dec. 14 at 7 p.m.