By EDWARD KENSIK
kensik@montclairlocal.news

The COVID-19 shutdown for the Montclair High School girls basketball team put the kibosh on this past season.

The Mounties did not play their first game until Jan. 20, and they really never got their feet under them. The season was supposed to start on Dec. 17; nine games were not able to be rescheduled.

“The late start was tough,” Montclair head coach Ed Connell said.  “It is a delicate situation, because safety is our number one priority, but any interruption to a season can make it difficult to recover. 

“To our kids’ credit, their dedication and commitment never wavered. They wanted to play and wanted to win. As coaches, we had to adjust in ensuring that we were putting them in a position to do that, while also keeping them safe.”

The Mounties finished with a 5-9 record. “There is obvious disappointment in our overall record, as no one within our program believes that it truly reflects our best selves,” the coach said.

Connell credited the seniors for helping the team get through the season both on and off the court. The seniors were co-captains Ayanna Brantley and Phoebe Sullivan, along with Kiera Hesler and K-Ray Spencer.

Two of the biggest slots to fill next year will be the ones held by Brantley and Sullivan. Both averaged 5 points per game, while Sullivan grabbed 6 rebounds and Brantley added 3 assists per game. Sullivan and Spencer were two of the Mounties’ top 3-point shooters.

Brantley was chosen for the All-SEC Colonial Division honorable mention list.

For Connell, Brantley’s qualities went beyond points, especially since the opposition targeted her.

“Ayanna steadied us on the court and tended to be the focus of opposing teams defensively,” the coach said, adding that she led the team in assists and steals. “She carried a heavy load in handling the ball and initiating offense for us.”

The bright spots in the 2021-22 season included winning the final two games, 49-42 over Bloomfield and 34-31 over Livingston on Feb. 23 and 25 respectively. “When you look at how we ended our season, it really felt like we had hit our stride; unfortunately, it just happened a little late,” the coach said.

It also portends well for the future that junior center/forward Elsa Taylor-Lillquist averaged almost double digits and, like the team, played two of her best games at the end of the season, with 16 points and 5 rebounds against Bloomfield and 10 points and 4 rebounds against Livingston.

Connell has freshman center Savannah Seawell returning as well. Seawell had 16 points, 10 rebounds, 3 blocks and 3 steals against Bloomfield on Feb. 23. She was named to the All-SEC Colonial Division second team.

The freshman averaged about 8 boards per game and, like Taylor-Lillquist, turned it up at the end of the season. 

“Savannah brought incredible energy to our program all season,” Connell said. “She was a spark plug in games and practice.”

Along with the win over Bloomfield, the coach pointed to a 39-32 victory over Cedar Grove on Feb. 12 and a dominating performance over Belleville, 65-23, in the Essex County Tournament on Jan. 31 as three of the team’s best-played games this season.

“Those are three programs that have given us fits in previous years, so those wins felt great,” said Connell, whose team lost by 20 to Cedar Grove earlier in the season in the Essex County Tournament on Feb. 3.