Ed Kensik for Montclair Local
It might be a different division, but the Montclair Kimberley Academy girls basketball team will be aiming for another championship.
After winning the Super Essex Conference Freedom Division in 2019-20, the Lady Cougars moved to the Independence division.
MKA was 15-2 in the Freedom division and 16-6 overall, and this year it takes on the likes of Newark Central, which was the Independence division winner last season, as well as Cedar Grove, which was second in the Colonial division.
MKA head coach Ilirjana Lulgjuraj has a deep and versatile roster this season, with team members who can play either guard or forward.
“The great thing about our team is that we can fill anyone in any position and I can throw any starting five together and you won’t be able to tell a difference,” Lulgjuraj said. “I am so proud of the girls and how they have practiced in the last week since we have started practicing.”
The Lady Cougars have their three top players back from the 2019-20 season in senior Vanessa Amsinger and juniors Patricia Columbia-Walsh and Ayantu Flowers. Both Amsinger and Columbia-Walsh collected All-SEC Liberty first-team nods last season, while Flowers was part of the Liberty second team.
And with that trio back, MKA knows that if it takes care of things internally, it will add another trophy to the case.
“The goals this season are to stay healthy, show up every day with a great attitude, work as hard as we can, and communicate on and off of the court,” Lulgjuraj said. “The key to winning the division is focusing on our goals and ourselves, everything else takes care of itself. One day and one game at a time.”
Amsinger was the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, with 377 points and 229 rebounds.
“She really is an all-around player and has the mind-set and work ethic of a champion, and that is what I’d say I love most,” Lulgjuraj said about Amsinger, who is a top student-athlete.
“She knows how to get a bucket. She can do anything she puts her mind to, and I’m so proud of how she’s evolved and led the team through the years. Vanessa has improved every year and several times throughout the seasons. I don’t think this year will be any different. I see her overall game improving along with her confidence, and I’m anticipating a fantastic season for her and our girls.”
Columbia-Walsh was the second-leading scorer (248 points) and rebounder (161) last season.
“Patricia is an all-around success,” the MKA coach said. “She is a creative player and knows how to put the ball in the basket. She really knows how to put on a show both on offense and defense, and knows how to excite everyone watching.”
With the return of Flowers the Lady Cougars bring back their third-highest scorer (237 points) and rebounder (133). “Ayantu has the aggression and passion to perform both offensively and defensively,” Lulgjuraj said.
Along with Amsinger, the other MKA seniors are Isa Lucas and Ava Augustine.
“The strength of our team is our leadership,” the coach said. “We have great leaders in our upperclassmen.”
Also part of that group is junior Jessica Christian. “Our senior and junior class has strong leadership qualities, and all have a desire to be the best they can be,” Lulgjuraj said. “They set a great example for the underclassmen and program.”
Two other players are expected to see extensive minutes on the floor in 2021: sophomore Taylor Powell, who saw time in the rotation as a freshman, and freshman Salange Bell, who is expected to be one of the top newcomers.
The team gets a big back-to-back test early on when they travel to Newark Central today, Jan. 28 (4 p.m.), and host Cedar Grove on Saturday, Jan. 30 (11:30 a.m.).