It’s a testament to the Tigers’ talent and promise that a Jan. 2 New York State Sportswriters Association list had the team ranked as the 24th best Class AA program in the state. They were just 3-3 when the list was compiled, with only one Section IX school — Monroe-Woodbury — ranked higher. Though it wasn’t necessarily in the game plan, some struggles after the departure of last season’s stellar senior class are not surprising. But thanks to Garner’s direction and the team’s drive, they’re realizing their potential with a number of key regular season games and the postseason still to come.
“So far so good,” said Garner. “We are still trying to develop some consistency in our practices and games. Young teams and new teams struggle with that. We have had moments — beating Warwick, the first half against Pine Bush, the first quarter against Newburgh — but they’re few and far between. We need to be consistent with the energy we bring to games and practice.”
The Tigers are coming off a tough 65-43 loss to Jackson Memorial in the New York-New Jersey Challenge, held last weekend at St. John Villa in Staten Island. Kingston clamped down on the Jaguars’ star center, Christa Evans, but did so at their own peril, leaving other shooters with too many opportunities. Heavenly Rayford led the Tigers with 17 points in the loss, while Lauren Kwasnowski (7 points), Sarah Longto (5 points), Shamari Brodhead (4 points) and Lauren Badalato (4 points) also pitched in.
A shot at redemption will come quickly. The Tigers host Valley Central on Friday, Jan. 14, then travel to Holmdel, N.J. the following afternoon to play another round of the New York-New Jersey Challenge. Five days later, they hit the road again to play Minisink Valley. Those games, as well as a few other key contests on the horizon, are crucial for the Tigers.
“Monroe-Woodbury and Cornwall will be good barometers,” said Garner. “But for an inexperienced team, every game is a good barometer.”
To win those games, both coach and players know improvements will have to be made.
“Our goal is to win another sectional title,” said Kwasnowski, a 16-year old junior guard. “This team has such potential to go far. What’s going to determine that is how much heart and hard work we put into practice and right now we are on the right track. I think the main thing we have to work on is our movement as a team on defense.”
Garner said the team will also have to put in a much more consistent effort from tip to buzzer.
“We need to improve in our basketball decisions on the court and our consistency with the energy we bring,” he said. “We have got to raise our basketball IQ.”
While the Tigers haven’t won as many games as they feel they should have, the season has not been without its high points, including a 55-35 blowout over Newburgh in star sophomore Rayford’s first game against the Goldbacks since transferring to Kingston last summer and a 61-22 victory over Port Jervis that gave Garner his 300th career win.
“Our game at Newburgh made me believe that this season would be a success because it was a homecoming for (Rayford) and we were able to be there for her as a team and help her pull off one of her best games,” said Brodhead.
Kwasnowski spoke about what it meant to be there for Garner’s 300th win.
“I’m so glad to be part of this accomplishment for him,” she said. “He began coaching teams that would score 10 points a game and built the pedestal Kingston girls’ basketball now stands on. I’ve watched such talent on past teams that he has coached and I’m happy to help with his success.”
Garner put the 300th win into a coaches’ perspective.
“It meant a lot,” he said. “It meant I’m an old fart; it meant that I have had a lot of great players in those 24 years, that we have a consistency within our program, and that makes a big difference.”
Asked what it means to succeed in basketball at Kingston High, players responded with a combined sense of pride, history and feeling that there are even more important things in their lives.
“Kingston girls’ basketball has been the pride of KHS for years,” said Kwasnowski. “Kingston is known for great players such as Lynsey Timbrouck and Rachel Coffey. I watched the team in awe last year as Rachel and Kelly (Kell) had an incredible handle with the ball; they were so comfortable.”
Brodhead said she feels her success as a basketball player is only one part of a complex puzzle.
“To succeed as a basketball player means nothing if you’re not succeeding as a person outside of basketball,” she said. “I love the sport and the respect I’ve received for it, but I know it’s much more important to be successful as a student and overall person to get the respect that I would be more proud of.”