by Andrew Garda

Last season was a tough one for the Montclair Kimberley Academy girls basketball team. With just a handful of girls on the team and barely enough to have a starting five, the Cougars struggled to stay in games, and at times had to forfeit or cancel.

For many coaches, having 16 kids in an entire program might be a concern.

Head coach Ilirjana Lulgjuraj, who spent the last couple of years coaching MKA’s middle school team, it’s a great first step for the first year.

“They’re all great girls. The ones who came in from the middle school, I coached the last two years, so I already have a connection with them and there’s mutual respect, and hard work,” she said as she watched the team go through drills during Monday’s practice. “And then the girls who came from the outside, they actually came in this summer, so it’s not like they’re really new because they already put in some work in the summertime. So, we have a great group of girls all around and I’m very excited to see how they perform this year.”

The Cougars will be competing in the Super Essex Conference-Independence Division, beginning with their Dec. 14 opener against Belleville, and Lulgjuraj feels it will be a good spot to be in.

“I think it’s a good fit for us this year, just mentally,” she said. “Because I think physically and skill-wise, we definitely should be in a higher division, but it’s good for this year, to build some confidence.”

Lulgjuraj is pleased that most of the roster from last season will be returning.

“We have Lauren [Muscarelle], Vanessa Amsinger, Ava Augustine, Christina Carbo and Jenna DeSalvo [who has] played the last four years so we’re looking to her for some leadership off the court.said. “Jena is a senior, but is not cleared to play.”

DeSalvo may not be cleared — and may not play at all this year — but she will still be a big part of the Cougars’ efforts. Lulgjuraj is hoping she can provide leadership off the court and help the younger players stay focused.

With a wide variety of experiences and abilities on the team, she should help Lulgjuraj manage the various skill levels throughout the season.

“Some people are great with skill work, but struggle with basketball concepts. Some people are great with the basketball terminology, but they struggle with the skill work, so it’s just improving in different areas so we can have a full team.”

Along with DeSalvo, Lauren Muscarelle, Vanessa Amsinger, Ava Augustine and Christina Carbo returned. Alena Smith is the only player who did not come back this year, but she still stops by to cheer her former teammates on as she focuses on volleyball.

The team has two other seniors besides DeSalvo, and both are good examples of the wide range of experiences on the team.

MKA has a lot of players returning to the fold after some time away, such as three-sport star Amanda Mack.
MKA has a lot of players returning to the fold after some time away, such as three-sport star Amanda Mack.

“Mia Bohi-Green  played her freshman year I think at MKA, and she’s back,” Lulgjuraj said.  “And Sarah Abukwiak, she’s never played a day of basketball in her life, but she plays volleyball, has a great attitude and she works really hard. She’s already started picking up [the game], and pretty quickly.”

Along with the three seniors, the team has three juniors (Muscarelle, Amanda Mack and Maria Sanchez), three sophomores (Augustine, Amsinger and Carbo), with the final seven spots filled out by freshmen.

That roster of 16 is three times the size of last season’s, and it is already showing improvement.

“Today it’s officially one week of practice and on Saturday, one of the girls mentioned how it was a huge difference to come in first day and after just a couple of days they’ve noticed a big improvement,” Lulgjuraj said. “And I told them, if you’ve noticed that in one week, just imagine two, three [weeks], a month or at the end of the year. I get excited to see their growth and their growth in themselves and their confidence.”

The team had its first scrimmage on Tuesday, on the road against Becton Regional High School and then took on Glen Ridge at home on Wednesday.

“I don’t really have any expectations going in,” she said.  “It’s kind of my place to see what happens, and then from there I can tackle a few things. But I talk to them a lot about their posture and their demeanor and how they carry themselves as student athletes. So that’s something I am definitely going to be looking for. And their attitudes. That’s definitely the biggest thing for me”