by Andrew Garda

The 2017-18 Montclair Kimberley Academy girls basketball team is the smallest one head coach Jessica Bishop has had during her six-year tenure.

Bishop faces the season with a grand total of six players on her roster, which leaves her with just one substitute and no margin for injuries throughout the year.

It’s a challenge both she and her Cougars are embracing.

“They are working very hard to come together and get to know each other both on and off the court,” Bishop said just before a recent scrimmage against Verona High School. “They’re bringing great energy every day and we’re trying to make sure we’re establishing some roles on the team so that people can get in spots on the floor where they can score most effectively. They’ve really been a joy so far, both in energy and their approach.”

With so few players on the team, Bishop has had to adjust her strategy from past seasons.

“We’ve had some players in years past who have been able to get up and down the floor quickly,” Bishop said. “So we’ve had a lot of emphasis in the past on getting up the floor quickly, but this year it’s going to be a much slower tempo from the start.”

That means a lot of controlled ball possession. Bishop said this team’s intent was to take its time, find the best possible position for the clearest shot and take it. That spot will be found through ball movement or occasionally driving to the basket.

“We’re spreading everything out and having a lot of opportunities for people to drive to the basket and dish off to whoever is open,” she said.

Bishop said the team will depend on Ava Augustine and Vanessa Amsinger to handle the ball most of the time and start the set pieces and plays MKA runs.

When a shot misses, Bishop is looking to Lauren Muscarelle and Alina Smith to lead the charge on rebounding as they have the most height.

That said, Bishop is expecting an “all hands on deck” approach to rebounds.

“Everybody is a rebounder,” Bishop said. “We do a lot of drills in practice that focus not just on defensive rebounding but offensive rebounding too, in order to make sure that even if we do miss shots, we’re able to get those second chance opportunities. So focusing on everybody following their shot or people running opposite and getting to the spot where the ball is likely to land if those shots don’t, in fact, fall.”

More than anything else, the hardest thing the Cougars will have to manage is rest for the team. Limiting fast breaks — though Bishop has not outlawed them completely — will help the team avoid exhaustion late in games, as will the methodical passing the offense uses.

Another thing to help will be their defensive scheme.

“We’re going to play a lot of zone and matchup zone this year,” Bishop said. “We’re going to try and really slow the tempo of the game. Really value the possessions and take as much time as possible on offense to get the shots that we want. It’s going to be a lot of patience on [both ends] and making sure we’re controlling the tempo from the start.”

For Bishop, a successful season won’t just be about victories on the court, but also off it.

“We know it’s not going to be easy given the number of girls we have,” she said. “This year we have a lot of emphasis on commitment and character statements. The biggest goal for everybody is to make sure we’re making the [time] we spend together each day really important. Having a meaningful experience, having as much fun as we can and learning from each other.”