by Andrew Garda
COVID-19 has thrown high school sports into disarray, as schools try to deal with player tests, athletes who decide not to play, and how to allow parents and fans to watch remotely, not to mention schoolwork.
None of that has phased the Montclair High School girls basketball team, which held a 3-0 record as it headed into a game Tuesday against 2-0 Cedar Grove (MHS ultimately lost in a close game, 44-42).
“They’re just excited to play, and happy to be able to be on the court,” said second-year head coach Ed Connell.
MHS has outscored its opponents 159 to 109 after three games, led by freshman phenom Morgan Marshall, who has accrued 58 points, 13 rebounds and 21 steals.
Ironically, the freshman burst onto the scene during Senior Night, which was the opening game, against Shabazz. While the team was saying thank you to seniors Karen Hankerson and Katrina Dutervil, Marshall was leading the team to a 59-29 win with 21 points, 7 rebounds and 7 steals.
Marshall certainly isn’t doing it alone. The Mounties returned a ton of talented players, like juniors Ayanna Brantley (28 points, 22 rebounds, 22 steals over the three games) and Phoebe Sullivan (26-35-5), and sophomore Elsa Taylor-Lillquist (29-21-4).
They make the Mounties exceptionally tough to stop. If you try to bottle up Marshall, Taylor-Lillquist or Sullivan will hurt defenses, and if you adjust to them, Brantley will find a way to make you pay.
If Marshall has had the most surprising season so far, it’s Brantley, the point guard, who has had the most interesting one.
Marshall’s hot start echoes Brantley’s career a little, as the junior was a factor from the moment she arrived at MHS, contributing immediately. While she didn’t lead the team in any one category, the Mounties looked to her a lot despite her youth. During Connell’s rough first season as head coach, Brantley led the team in scoring and helped the coaching staff keep everyone focused even as losses piled up.
Now she has shifted her role a little as Marshall emerges. Brantley will still score and still lead, but she no longer has to carry the majority of the load by herself.
“You can’t say enough about Ayanna,” Connell said. “From a leadership perspective, from a personal perspective, from a basketball perspective, she does so much for this team. She’s the type of player who, the person who is picking up the paper may not understand how important she is.”
Many people looking at a box score might focus on points, but while Brantley gets those, she also does many things which don’t show up in a box score. Point guard is a key position on the basketball, one which has to help break a press defense, needs to read what type of defense a team is playing and call inbound plays, to name just a few of the many things teams ask the position to do.
Those plays don’t make the stat sheet, and often don’t get written about in the paper, but it makes a huge difference for a team.
“Throughout the history of basketball, some of the greatest basketball players don’t always translate to scorebooks,” Connell said. “But if you have a keen eye or you spend 10 minutes at our practice, you’ll see how important she is.”
The coach said that Brantley’s role as team leader has had a massive impact on the Mounties, not just this year but throughout her career.
“Her maturity has really come along,” he said. “She’s a leader for our program, and I think one of the key things in being a leader is that you bring everybody else along for the ride. And she absolutely does that for us.”
Along with individual effort, major keys to MHS’ success have been steals and rebounds. Montclair has 117 rebounds and 65 steals in just three games, an effort that has both stamped out the offense of teams it played as well as generated quick offense.
“It’s huge,” Connell said. “We want to get out and run, [that’s] no secret. We’re an athletic team, we have a long team, we have a spunky team, so we want to run. Points are good and we do a lot of work to make sure our offense is good, but defensively, that’s where I think that pride takes over, and these kids really believe in the idea of playing prideful basketball defensively.”
Montclair wants to pressure the ball and play an energetic style of defense, and the result has been a lot of rebounds and steals, which translate to points.
The Mounties still have a lot of season to go, of course, including possibly rescheduling a pair of games that had to be postponed due to snow. However, as far as Connell is concerned, the best is still to come.
“We view our greatest challenge as ourselves and our ability to pull greatness out of ourselves,” he said. “And that’s translating to wins right now, which is awesome.”