Now, that wasn’t just an empty statement by a coach trying to rally his overachieving troops against the most powerful Class B team in the State, a team that last year beat Highland by 50 points and in the first quarter of last season’s game so astounded the Huskies that they had a difficult time of even putting the ball in play. At the time Delmar -- who has coached and played against a few great teams over his decade-long tenure at the helm -- said they were the best team he had ever seen. And that Highland team had 6’ 1” All-MHAL center Monasia Bolduc, gritty swingman Jessie Dutka, point-guard-to-be Stephanie Byrne and four of this season’s starting five. So, with Bolduc transferred out to North Carolina, Dutka graduated and Byrne out for the season with a knee injury incurred at the end of soccer season, Delmar’s hand was depleted of high cards and left with so many “wild” ones as to make this season a near complete unknown.
So, after snaking their way to a low-scoring, tough-defense 15-6 season and their third straight Section 9 Class B title, the Huskies found themselves once again in the unenviable position of playing Irvington, the class of Section 1.
But unlike last season, this year’s team handled Irvington’s first quarter full-court (and then some) press, with the Porter Sisters (senior twins Jen and Steph) getting help from swingman Alex Garcia and freshman forward Shannon Ward in bringing the ball upcourt. And what did Highland find when they got into the front court? Why a wide-open middle of the Irvington defense. “We scouted them and saw that if we got by their press, that we could get to the rim. And we did just that.”
Indeed Highland did. “We set the pace in the first quarter, breaking their press so that they had to play halfcourt defense, which for them started man-to-man, which we exploited by extending them out to the perimeter and having us cut to the basket or drive down the lane,” said Delmar. “We attacked the rim throughout the first-half, but we didn’t finish or make our free throws, if we had made some of those easy baskets or hit our free throws, we would have been down just a few points instead of the 20 at halftime.”
Irvington went out to an 8-1 lead in the opening minutes on the strength of six-of-six from the free throw line, as Highland missed open layups and easy shots in the lane and got but one-of-two free throws from Garcia. Then Garcia hit an outside jumper and Kelly Murphy putback a Ward miss underneath. And it was 8-5. Those two baskets seemed to energize the Huskies even more, as the Porter’s were all over the place defensively, getting their hands on every loose ball and causing havoc in Irvington’s backcourt. Underneath, Murphy, Ward and Garcia were holding their own against star-center Alexis Martins and power-forward Marley Giddens. But Irvington has many ways to score...and relatively easily. So sub Ryan McMahon came on and hit a three from the corner and Giddens followed with a jumper from the line. When Murphy put in a layup off a sweet feed from Garcia it was 13-7 at the quarter buzzer and Highland was most definitely not only “playing with” Irvington, but was in the game and controlling the pace.
With Highland missing a few easy shots to open the second quarter, Irvington took immediate advantage, as Martins and point-guard Brittni Lai split eight straight points. Garcia then missed a couple free throws and Martins putback her own miss from the lane, then a pair of free throws by Kelly O’Donnell and PRESTO...it was 25-7. Victoria Pratts hit a layup off a nice feed by Jen Porter, but Giddens hit a drive down the lane and Martins another putback. Garcia hit one-of-two free throws, but McMahon nailed a jumper from the side and it was 31-10 at the half. Irvington opened the third quarter with a 9-0 run and any hopes that Highland had of challenging was over.
“Our biggest problem this year in trying to score has been that every shot attempt has to be big, especially against a team like that, and for some reason our third quarters have been flat all season long,” said Delmar. “When they went 3-2 (zone) in the third quarter we became an outside shooting team, and we seemed to have lost patience with finding the best shot. So everyone tried to crash the boards after a miss and that led to numerous fast-breaks for them in the quarter. We got away from our game of slowing it down and running our offense. There was no way we could run with them.”
Despite the loss Delmar and the girls had a great season. “I got the max out of these kids this year. We have nothing to be ashamed of. The girls played hard every game, so that, and with our winning Sections again despite our personnel losses, have made this a plus from day one.”
And next year?
“We should be good next year. We lose the Porters, but return everybody else. In Alex (Garcia) we found a go-to player who should be able to up her scoring to 15-18 points a game consistently next season. She still needs some work to refine her offensive game, to create more offense off our half-court offense. Kelly (Murphy) made great strides this season, a solid inside player with a nice touch from 15-feet facing the basket, she just needs some work on her footwork. Shannon Ward developed much more quickly than I thought as a scorer, ballhandler, rebounder and defender underneath, she has a tremendous upside. Everybody around the Section asks about her. Victoria Pratts really picked up her game this year, especially defensively and on the boards, she just needs to get stronger; offensively she has a nice touch from outside and quick baseline moves. She could be a scorer for us next season. Courtney Pinero played hard and shot well for us in spots. Holly Cordero came in and played well at backup center, her game improved dramatically the last couple weeks of the season. The same for Alexa Decatur, who gave us some more size underneath. Itsas Castellanos and Jayna Parker didn’t see much action, but they’re improving all the time, especially defensively, which is their strong suit. We brought Sam Valentino up at the end of the season from JV’s and she has just so much athleticism that she just needs to play more ball to make an impact.”
That leaves the Porters. “They’ve been with us five years and those years have been full of hustle, determination, great defensive play, fearlessness, and they’re just great teammates, so easy to coach, role models for the younger girls. I’m going miss them.”
And the two most intriguing players who weren’t on the roster this past season.
“I hope (Stephanie) Byrne can come back to what she was showing at the end of last season. I know she’s going to dedicate herself to that, so I just hope that she’s physically able to do that.”
And Bolduc (there are rumors that she is returning to Highland for her senior season)? “We became a different kind of team without her, so if she does return to us then we would become a different kind of team again. Of course I look forward to it.”