by Andrew Garda

The 2018-19 season was a rough one for the Montclair High School girls basketball team, as it found itself struggling in the tough Liberty Division and compiling a 3-20 (1-11 Liberty) record.

The offseason was equally rough as head coach Emily Hall was not rehired and the program went for some time without a coach.

As the Mounties head towards the 2019-20 season, they at least have that part of the struggle solved, with newly-minted head coach Edward Connell at the helm.

Connell has worked in the Montclair school district for the past five years and currently works as a special education and in class support teacher at the high school. 

For him, being in the building allows him to connect more deeply with his team.

“I think it adds a lot to the school experience, being able to see them as a teacher, work with them as students and also see them as athletes. I think that’s really important,” Connell said after Tuesday’s practice.

Connell, who is on staff as an assistant coach at Montclair Kimberley Academy for football and softball, said when the position opened up at MHS, it was a no-brainer.

“So, I was here four years ago with [former coach Paul Palek] as a varsity assistant and we had a really good team,” he said. “Last year I coached [girls basketball] at MKA, and I was the varsity assistant there. When I heard about the opening here, I was really excited to coach where I teach.”

Connell credits athletic director P.J. Scarpello with giving him a shot to come back to MHS and resume working with the girls team.

He won’t do it alone, as he’ll have a staff of three other coaches to help out. They will all have other roles in the program, which covers three levels at freshman, junior varsity and varsity, but because of the size of the roster, all the players will practice together, and all the coaches will take part in the planning and execution of it.

“My staff this year is excellent, all three coaches I think have more than the qualifications to be varsity coaches themselves,” he said.

Even though the group is a small one — Connell is planning for a little over 20 girls total — Connell and his staff work hard to keep them moving. 

A former three-sport athlete as well as multi-sport coach, Connell likes to grab ideas from various sports and coaches he has worked with. One thing he has instituted is a running clock to keep practice moving. Each period of practice, from individual work to team drills, is allotted a certain amount of time. 

Once it’s up, the team moves on. The idea, which any former football coach or player will recognize, is one which makes the practice stay crisp and keeps the team from losing focus.

It has the added bonus, Connell said, of making sure his players get time to work with all the different coaches on staff. 

“So that system keeps me in check, because I want [the other coaches] talking to these athletes as much or more than I do, because I think they have so much experience to share,” Connell said. “Football kind of offered that structure, which it has to have because of the size. But I think if you can utilize that structure with a smaller team, the kids are going to get even more time and attention with coaches and that’s going to make us better as a program.”

Along with attention from the coaches, Connell is looking to his seniors to help his young team. Last season, the Mounties were exceptionally young, and several freshmen were pulled up at times to play at the JV and varsity levels. 

This year will be much the same, and Connell expects kids to be ready to shift smoothly from playing a quarter in the JV game to five minutes at the varsity level. Just like last season, the freshmen will see some time at the higher levels too.

All that means Connell needs his seniors to be ready to help out with the younger kids as they adjust to the faster pace and higher intensity of the varsity level.

He’s not worried.

“We have three seniors and they’re all great,” he said. “Janyia (McGainey-Rodgers), Amaya Glover and Rahzier Kelly, all three great kids, all high character kids. I was here their freshman year, so I’ve known them for a long time. I’ve taught them in class, I’ve seen them around the building, I know exactly what they’re going to offer us in terms of character and leadership.”

While Connell and his staff work the team in terms of strategy and the nuts and bolts of basketball, McGainey-Rodgers, Glover and Kelly are expected to help carry the other players emotionally.

“They’re very inclusive of people, all three of them and I think that’s going to be a real strength for our team,” said Connell. “They really value the younger kids, they really communicate well with our younger athletes. I think that’s going to be a huge advantage in the fact that we don’t have this huge separation in our program.”

The Montclair Mounties run through a layup drill during a recent practice. New head coach Edward Connell and his staff have worked ard to keep the pace fast in practices this preseason.
The Montclair Mounties run through a layup drill during a recent practice. New head coach Edward Connell and his staff have worked ard to keep the pace fast in practices this preseason.

While they are going to be the emotional heart of the team overall, these three ladies can play basketball as well.

“We’ve got two post players and a wing as our seniors,” Connell said. ”I feel like that’s a huge advantage for us, that they can be down low and really work and do some dirty jobs. And I can trust them because I know they’ve been there before.”

Of course, Connell points out, you can’t play basketball with just three players. While most teams will have a core four or five players they lean on for 99 percent of a game, Montclair needs everyone to contribute.

That includes two of last year’s outstanding freshman class. Phoebe Sullivan and Ayanna Brantley are sophomores now, and the team will now look to them to take a big step forward.

Connell is  looking for great things from Brantley, comparing her to former Mountie Alissa Wiggins, currently playing ball at Kansas State.

“I tell her all the time, watching her practice is like watching [Wiggins] three years ago. Watching her play every day, it’s bizarre. They both play in this very athletic style but also this very cerebral style,” he said.

Connell mentioned Karen Hankerson as a junior who he is expecting to step up, and like last year, there is an expectation that some freshmen will be thrown into the mix at the junior varsity and potentially the varsity level, which MHS will need with such a short bench. Everyone needs to contribute. 

Some teams might worry that would be a negative, but Connell feels as though it will be a team strength.

“Just the fact that any given night, I can throw 12, 15 girls at a team and feel comfortable with 12, 15 girls getting in a game versus a team that might be resting on five girls,” said Connell. “I think that’s really going to pay off in the third and fourth quarter, if we can stagger them and learn to use them efficiently.”

MHS will have a few chances to learn that lesson before they open at home on Dec. 20 against Mount St. Dominic, with scrimmages at Irvington and Ridge, as well as a home scrimmage against Bernards High School. 

“We’re really trying to throw as much basketball as we can at them, and that’s asking a lot with this size of a group of kids,” Connell said. “But I think they’re ready. I can tell they’re really excited for the season and ready to take it on.”