BY ANDREW GARDA
There’s no such thing as an off-season for most high school athletes these days, and the Montclair High School girls basketball team is no exception, as its members are participating in the Mounties Summer Classic this summer.
Games run every Wednesday at Glenfield Park, played at 5, 6 and 7 p.m.
While the league is being run by MHS head coach Ed Connell in conjunction with Montclair Township and the township’s Department of Recreation and Cultural Affairs, and the Montclair team itself is run by assistant head coach Ciara Stewart, the team is actually made up of students from both MHS and Montclair Kimberley Academy High School.
They are facing off against girls teams from Bloomfield, West Essex, Orange, Mount St. Dominic, Verona and Glen Ridge.
“They’re all local teams,” Connell said. “They’re all coaches that, you know, I’ve either coached against or had a previous relationship with. I think they’re all pretty fiercely positive coaches, but also super successful coaches. All of those programs have seen success in recent years.”
MHS saw a lot of success itself this past winter, going 13-2 (11-0 SEC-Independence) and winning the division title. Connell hopes the opportunity to play this summer will help the Mounties continue to learn to work together and keep the momentum going.
To that end, having leaders such as rising seniors Ayanna Brantley and Phoebe Sullivan plus breakout rising sophomore Morgan Marshall playing this summer is a big help.
That said, Connell is clear that more than anything else, getting out and playing — allowing kids to socialize with both teammates and opposing players and coaches — is an even bigger aim of the league.
COVID-19 is still an issue, he said, and one the league is being incredibly careful with, but the league wants to make sure kids get an opportunity to socialize.
“You know, I think that the social thing is really, really powerful,” Connell said. “[It] is really at a premium and has been, due to COVID and social distancing or whatever. So, it’s great. And we’re taking it seriously, we’re outside, it feels very safe. Everybody’s pretty aware now, so we’re addressing all that and just trying to create as social [an] environment as possible.”
For Connell and the rec department, there is also the added bonus of getting significant girls basketball played during the summer in Montclair. The boys have the MCAP Summer League, and while girls do play in it, people around the MHS program and around town in general wanted to see the girls get their chance as well.
“So, we’re kind of mirroring that and we’re just kind of creating a girls option,” Connell said.
It also can provide coaches a chance to see some of their younger players go up against veteran players. While a lot of the Mountie starters are playing, Stewart is mixing in younger players as well.
Each of the teams is taking the league seriously, but by the same token they are trying to give new faces a shot.
“Just watching the three games last week, there’s no lack of talent on that court,” Connell said.
“Each team has a kid, or a couple of kids, who are not just varsity starters, but solid varsity starters. This is an opportunity where the games are important and we want to be competitive, but yeah, everybody should have an opportunity to play.”
Connell said that one thing that has really stood out to him so far is how hard the players work, even in the heat.
“It was hot last week. It was 90-something, even at 6 p.m. So the other thing I realized was just how tough all these kids are,” he said. “Whether it’s my program or another program, they’re out there playing, they’re working hard, they’re sweating, they’re grinding, it’s muggy. It’s, you know, it’s New Jersey in summer.”
So while getting the kids a chance to be active and interact with each other is the larger goal, keeping the players focused and working hard is important, and something that can pay dividends during the winter season.
“I know that all the work that every program puts in during the summer will come back and pay twofold, threefold when we get back to winter,” Connell said. “So I’m really excited for that.”