By ANDREW GARDA
For Montclair Local

In what has been an odd COVID-19 season for most high school girls basketball teams, Montclair High School’s has perhaps faced the most disruption. 

A season that should have kicked off Dec. 17 in a home game against Millburn was shut down by COVID concerns, an issue that was shared by the boys team as well as the wrestling team. 

The hope was, a short quarantine and then back on the floor, but the issues seemed to linger, through Christmas break and deep into January.

The team finally got on the court for that game against Millburn on Jan. 20, losing 35-29. 

Still, they were playing, and for head coach Ed Connell, that was the important part, and even though the delay was one the Mounties could have done without, it was a reminder of what is important.

“I think the one thing that COVID, again and again and again, reminds us is that kids love playing sports,” he said over the phone on Monday, Feb. 7. “So they just want to play. And I think that it kind of put it in perspective for all of us, you know, myself and coaches included. We like doing this, we just like playing sports. We like competing. We like the environment, we all have been saying [that]. I think the kids have really liked that, and it has felt great.”

As of Monday, the Mounties’ record stood at 2-5 (1-4 SEC Colonial), but Connell said the record is not a good reflection of a team that came out of the starting blocks late. He and his staff have been impressed with their dedication even when they were quarantined.

“There was never any question with them about whether they were ready to play or whether they wanted to play,” he said. “Their communication was always super-clear: ‘We want to play as soon as we can, we want to play as many games as we can, we just want to play.’ 

Montclair's Phoebe Sullivan (with the ball) battles Cedar Grove players to get a shot up. The Mounties were ousted 47-27 in the Essex County Tournament contest on Feb. 3. (EDWARD KENSIK/STAFF)
Montclair's Phoebe Sullivan (with the ball) battles Cedar Grove players to get a shot up. The Mounties were ousted 47-27 in the Essex County Tournament contest on Feb. 3. (EDWARD KENSIK/STAFF)
loading...

“So that made my job easy. Obviously to get through all the hurdles and get through all this, their interest hasn’t wavered and, you know, that’s the most important thing.”

Another thing that makes his job easier is the team leadership.

The seniors — Ayanna Brantley, Phoebe Sullivan, Kiera Hessler and K-Ray Spencer — have made sure the younger players know what is expected of them both on and off the court.

“It’s been great to have our seniors,” the coach said. “Phoebe and Ayanna are still our captains, and they’ve been with us for years. We have Kiera Hessler and K-Ray Spencer return. So we have four seniors, which has really helped through all of this because all four of them are leaders.”

Connell said he and the staff don’t always need to call something out or make an adjustment because the leadership has already done it.

“As a coach, that’s a dream scenario,” he said. “They’ve already communicated with the team and set goals and that sort of thing.  All four of them are excellent communicators. All four of them just love competing, and they’re all great kids.”

Each of the seniors brings something to the table. Connell said that Hessler brings great leadership skills from being a leader on a title-winning girls soccer team, Spencer is one of the best on-court communicators he’s seen, and Sullivan’s years with the team give her the ability to know what the coaches want.

Montclair girls basketball head coach Ed Connell gives instructions during a timeout in the Essex County Tournament game at Cedar Grove.(EDWARD KENSIK/STAFF)
Montclair girls basketball head coach Ed Connell gives instructions during a timeout in the Essex County Tournament game at Cedar Grove.(EDWARD KENSIK/STAFF)
loading...

Brantley does all that as well, but Connell said one of the biggest things she has shown the younger players this year is how to push through adversity.

“Ayanna kind of fought through an injury early in the year, just had a little setback, and she’s been battling that,” he said. “I think that she showed a lot of younger kids, it’s unfortunate, but [this is] how you take a situation when you’re injured. You continue to show up every day, and you continue to be involved, you continue to be supportive. Nobody wants to go through that, but she’s taken that, you know, and really done the best with it.”

Mounties girls basketball has been rebuilding the last few years, and the progress it has made is in large part due to the upperclassmen’s leadership. When you’re building a program, the coach said, having athletes who will take control and tell other players “This is what we expect '' is how you build a culture, something Connell has worked hard at and been successful in doing, in large part due to players like his seniors.

“It’s a credit to them, right?” he said. “[Because] I can say whatever I want to say, I can say it however I want to say it. But if it doesn’t start with one of them, it doesn’t really matter. And the props I would give all of them is that their work off the court has just been incredible. The character, the work in the classroom. I looked at it the other day, and I am so proud of what our team does, and that is because of [the seniors’] leadership.”

Connell said it’s not easy to get on a teammate at 8 p.m. after a game, but they do.

“It’s not only picking kids up at practice,” he said. “It’s also like, ‘Hey, you know, it’s eight o'clock. You just played a game. You’re in multiple AP classes or you have all this homework, what do you go do?’ And when your senior captain is like, ‘You just get it done,’ then you’re getting the work done for each other. That stuff is as important as the basketball.”

Aside from the four seniors, Connell said many others are stepping up as well. 

“Elsa [Taylor-Lillquist] is doing an awesome job. She’s played some big minutes,” he said. “And Savannah Seawell [has] had a couple of really good games for us. She’s a freshman, she’s a forward and center, and she’s really going to be great. Those are the two post players right now, and they’re killing it.”

Seawell leads the team in points and rebounds with 44 and 49, respectively, while junior Taylor-Lillquist has notched 41 points and 35 rebounds.  

Brantley, who missed three games, has 17 points, 11 assists and 21 steals, while Sullivan has 33 points, 37 rebounds and 16 steals. Sophomore Liz Giordano has 15 points and 21 steals, Hessler has 17 points and 15 boards, Spencer has 17 points and 13 rebounds, and sophomore Taylor Yi has 19 points and 15 rebounds. 

Montclair's Ayanna Brantley brings the ball down the court against Cedar Grove in the Essex County Tournament. The Mounties were ousted 47-27 on Feb. 3. (EDWARD KENSIK/STAFF)
Montclair's Ayanna Brantley brings the ball down the court against Cedar Grove in the Essex County Tournament. The Mounties were ousted 47-27 on Feb. 3. (EDWARD KENSIK/STAFF)
loading...

Now the team, which beat Belleville in the Essex County Tournament play-in round, 65-23, but fell to Cedar Grove in the first round, 47-27, waits for the NJSIAA seedings to come out. The NJSIAA has its seeding meeting on Feb. 16, and that means MHS has three games — home against Glen Ridge, Cedar Grove and Millburn — to make its case for entry into the tournament.

Here is where the shortened and delayed season can work against the team, but Connell said it’s not something they can control, so there’s not any value in wasting energy worrying about it. 

“It’s just, it’s a weird position for everybody,” he said. “Obviously, you know, we’ve lagged behind other programs just in total number of days played. So we’re really in kind of a tough spot with that, but just reading kind of what’s happening with other programs is also hard because there’ve been some outcomes across the state where you’re like, OK, what happened in this game? Were they missing a coach or they’re missing a player? You can’t project or predict anything in high school basketball anyway, but much less in this season.”

Montclair’s next regular season game is today, Feb. 10, at home against Glen Ridge.