Montclair High School girls hoops preview: Veteran squad poised to take on new division
It was a tough 2021-22 season for the Montclair High School girls basketball team, which was beset with COVID issues at the beginning of the season that put them behind the eight ball the rest of the way.
Montclair head coach Ed Connell is looking for a better start this year and has several returning players who logged varsity minutes last season.
Montclair moves from the Super Essex Conference Colonial Division into SEC Independence, where it will face the likes of Irvington, which won the SEC Freedom Division last season, and North Star Academy, which was second in the division.
The Mounties finished 5-9 last year.
"The key to winning the division is simple: Defend our home floor and compete on the road," Connell said. "We want to have excellent effort on defense, while being decisive in our offensive execution."
Going into the season opener on Thursday, Dec. 15, at North Star, the Mounties have a core of six in seniors Elsa Taylor-Lillquist and Rece Anton, juniors Taylor Yi, Liz Giordano and Lexi Katz and sophomore Savannah Seawell.
"All of these players have already proven themselves effective in a varsity setting, and I think we have great flexibility in our lineups," the coach said. "I anticipate that we will deploy different looks, based on what we see from our opponents.
"Our strength lies in our ability to be a balanced, hardworking team with a ton of varsity minutes under our belt. We have the luxury of hitting the ground running in our communication and building on the strong finish to last season."
The Mounties will especially benefit from the inside strength of Taylor-Lillquist, Yi and Seawell.
"We have the great luxury this year of having three post players that I think could start for most of our opponents," Connell said. "For all three of these players, the like column starts the same way: effort. We prioritize rebounding and finishing post moves every day in practice."
The top player returning this season is Seawell, who was named to the All SEC Colonial Division second team last year as a freshman and led the squad in rebounds with 108.
"Seawell has quickly become a cornerstone for our team," the coach said. "Her height, ability and athleticism allow us the flexibility to incorporate more into our schemes than in previous years.
“Savannah has already made a jump from her freshman year in terms of finishing, which is impressive given that she went head-to-head with some of the best centers in the conference last year."
Taylor-Lillquist led Montclair in scoring with about eight points per game in 2021-22.
"Elsa has been playing meaningful varsity minutes since her sophomore year, often taking on tougher assignments in facing the older/biggest players on the opposing team," Connell said.
"We are confident that those assignments will pay dividends this year as she gets to impose her will this year. Elsa’s combination of height, speed and communication is a potent one."
In Yi Montclair has a distributor, a player with an inside game and someone with leadership qualities. "She is our best communicator and teammate, and an overall winning player," the coach said. "Taylor is willing to do all of the work in things like inbounding and entry passes that make a good team go. We are fortunate to have her."
One of the biggest holes to fill is at point guard with the graduation of Ayanna Brantley, who was named to the All Colonial honorable mention list last season and was a three-year starter. For this season the point guard duties will be shared by Anton and Giordano.
"Our backcourt is very solid defensively, as both players can compete at the point of attack for an entire game," Connell said. "Both of these athletes bring with them an understanding and confidence from their work on the soccer pitch and lacrosse field which has translated very well in pacing our team on the court."
What the coach likes about Anton is her athleticism.
"In four years of coaching Rece, I have yet to see her tired or beat up," he said. "She has made a huge jump this year in becoming a downhill player, and I am excited to see what she does with the ball in her hands. As her understanding of the offense grows, she is going to fine-tune her entry passes and ball movement."
Connell calls Giordano a “gamer.”
"Liz can compete all day," he said. "Liz has continued her progress in shooting the basketball and attacking downhill. We are excited to shape our team to Liz’s strengths when she has the ball in her hands."
From beyond the three-point arc, the Mounties will be looking at Katz.
"Lexi has always had a solid ability to shoot the basketball," Connell said. "As she continues to understand her opportunities in our offense, I think she can flourish into being a legitimate threat from the corners for us."
Montclair Girls Basketball Schedule
(Games at 4 p.m. unless noted)
Dec. 15 at North Star
Dec. 17 West Side, 10:30 a.m.
Dec. 20 at Shabazz
Dec. 22 Newark Collegiate
Dec. 28 Holiday Tournament, Union, at Scotch Plains, 10 a.m.
Dec. 30 Holiday Tournament at Scotch Plains, TBD
Jan. 3 Science Park
Jan. 5 at Barringer
Jan. 6 at St. Vincent
Jan. 10 Irvington
Jan. 12 North Star
Jan. 14 Millburn, Noon
Jan. 16 at Glen Ridge
Jan. 17 at West Side
Jan. 19 Shabazz
Jan. 21 Essex County Tournament, TBD
Jan. 24 at Newark Collegiate
Jan. 26 Essex County Tournament, TBD
Jan. 28 Bloomfield, Noon
Jan. 31 at Science Park
Feb. 2 Barringer, 7 p.m., Senior Night
Feb. 7 at Irvington
Feb. 9 at Verona
Feb. 11 at Bergen Tech, 10 a.m.