by Andrew Garda

There are an endless array of challenges any team faces in a season. It doesn’t matter the sport — unforeseen challenges are the name of any game. So any coach has to be prepared for things to go sideways at any point and in the most unexpected ways.

Even though that’s the case, most coaches don’t face what Montclair Kimberley Academy girls basketball coach Jess Bishop and her team have faced this season.

The MKA girls team has quite possibly its smallest roster ever — certainly the smallest Bishop has fielded — numbering just six players.

Vanessa Amsinger, Christina Carbo, Alina Smith, Lauren Muscarelle, Jena DeSalvo and Ava Augustine round out the team this year, There’s no margin for error, and all it takes is one case of flu plus a sprained ankle and games have to be canceled.

That has happened more than once this season.

But basketball is a game of runs and momentum, so Bishop has to make sure that even when the players can’t play, they practice like they are about to.

“We’ve been just as focused for the games that we have had to cancel,” she said after a recent practice. “You know, we warmed up like it was a game day. We went through our whole warm-up, with music and everything. Kind of keeping it light and keeping it fun in that regard.”

The Cougars are looking toward the state and county tournaments and rescheduling games within their conference. They won’t be scheduling any more out of division games — there’s no point in risking injury for those.

“We’re just really focusing on making sure that we can be as successful and as prepared to compete in our conference schedule as possible,” Bishop said.

Bishop said her team’s attitude has been outstanding, especially given the situation. It’s frustrating for any athlete to lose, but it’s worse to be unable to get on the court.

While Bishop can’t really control illness — she said the team was very careful about getting enough rest and taking care of their bodies — she does everything she can to avoid injuries in practice while still allowing the girls to practice hard.

“It’s been a little bit of a struggle, because ideally you want your practices to be harder than the game, to prepare for them for the actual game,” Bishop said. “Certainly we’re going hard in practice every day, but we’re trying to be mindful of certain drills that could lend themselves to injuries. Like certain block-out drills and hustle drills, things like that. They’ve been doing as well as they can each day with hustling hard and making contact. Making sure that they’re, you know, staying on top of things in that regard.”

Bishop also makes sure she is mindful of how her team is wearing down in games.

“I’ve been trying to make sure I’m calling at least one timeout per quarter,” Bishop said. “Maybe more toward the end of the game... when the girls are going to need a little bit more rest.”

One positive in Bishop’s mind has been the support of the parents, as well as the support the team members have shown each other.

“They’ve been very good with just taking good care of each other,” Bishop said. “And making sure that they’re being supportive of one another both in school and outside of school. And I know a lot of our parents have really stepped up. We’ve been committed to a lot of team outings and team experiences.”

The Cougars have avoided focusing on the negatives by improving as both individuals and as a team.

“We are committed to precision, attention to detail and growth,” Bishop said. “Every single day. We talk about making sure that we’re approaching every day with a strong approach, making sure that we’re being as encouraging and as supportive of one another as possible and that our energy level stays at a very high intensity as well as an enthusiastic one. I know with our record, it might not always be visible to the outside world but we’re being exceedingly intentional about making sure that we’re acknowledging the different areas of growth every day.”