Columbia Girls Basketball Completes Transformational Season

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Entering the 2021-22 season, it was nearly impossible to predict how the Columbia girls basketball team would fare. On one hand, they Cougars were coming off a perfect 13-0 record and the Liberty Division championship. On the other, they lost two co-captains to graduation, and their leading scorer who transferred shortly before the start of the season. In addition, the team earned a promotion to the American Division, which consists of traditional powers at the top of the Essex County hierarchy. 

The results are in and the season was a resounding success. The team ended with a 14-8 overall record, finished second in the division, earned the #2 seed in the Essex County Tournament. The CHS girls claimed the most victories and won a state playoff game for the first time in over a decade.

Beyond the on-court results, the team re-established Columbia as a force to be reckoned with in northern New Jersey basketball, with the emergence of many younger players who are poised to build on their individual and team success in the years to come.

“There were some extenuating circumstances at the start of the season, and we all had to adjust to new roles,” said Coach Chuck Keegan. “The girls bought into this being a process, and we learned how to compete and close out games as the season went along.”

The start of the season was rocky, beginning with a tough 10-point home loss to East Orange, followed by an extended holiday break due to Covid-19, and then a lopsided loss at perennial state title contender Montclair Immaculate. The team recorded its first win with a tight 56-50 win over Roselle Catholic in the SFIC tournament, which Columbia entered at the last minute due to another team withdrawing. Despite missing starting guard Bella Galatt, the Cougars prevailed in a tough game. After they lost a late lead against West Essex in their next game to fall in a one-point heartbreaker, the team vowed to “never let that happen again,” according to Keegan. 

The team responded to the challenge and went on to reel of 6 consecutive wins, including a payback win over East Orange.  Their strong play continued as they won 3 of their next 5 games including a satisfying 17-point payback win over West Essex, and two strong showings against top 20 squads Montclair Immaculate and New Providence. 

“We faced a lot of tough competition, and I was proud of how we played against several top-20 teams, and how we earned solid wins against very good teams like Ridge, East Orange, and West Orange,” said Keegan.

The team got significant contributions from many players, improving both individually and as a team throughout the season.  After a promising rookie campaign, sophomore Talia Baptiste emerged as the team’s leading scorer, primary ballhandler, and earned first team all division honors. Joining her on the all-division team were junior tri-captains Shana Desir (second team), Bella Galatt and Allie Harris (honorable mention). Desir led the team in rebounding, was second in scoring, and energized play with her stifling defensive pressure and slashing drives to the hoop. Galatt provided tenacious on-ball defense, reliable outside shooting, ball handling and clutch free throw shooting. Harris helped to anchor the back line of the defense and emerged as a reliable shooter, passer and shot blocker. The fifth starter, junior Leah Connell, continued to show steady improvement, adding strong post moves and a deft touch around the basket to her ever-present defensive intensity and team-leading floor burn count. 

A strong bench is an essential ingredient for any good team, and the Cougars were no exception. Sophomores Summer Lonning and Jamie Levi, junior Samaya Hill and seniors Naya Glaude and Kathleen Wack provided plenty of options and versatility. Lonning emerged as a powerful force around the basket on both ends of the court and was one of the team’s leading rebounders. Levi provided critical ball handling, creative finishes, and plenty of rafter-scraping three pointers. Hill emerged as a fierce defender who consistently made things tough for opponents and added some needed scoring punch to the second unit. Wack and Glaude, the team’s only seniors, added strong defensive presence, leadership and team spirit to a young and developing squad. Junior Georgie Gassaro and freshmen Campbell Connell and Scarlett Levinson gained valuable experience and kept the attitude positive and fun on the bench no matter what the circumstances. Other important members of the Cougar squad were manager Valentina Ravix and videographer and practice player Zamya Pollard.  

After two competitive defeats to perennial Newark powers University and Newark Central late in the season, the team reeled off another impressive streak of 4 consecutive wins, culminating with a thrilling comeback 58-53 home victory over Kearny in the opening round of the New Jersey state tournament. “Leading up to the Kearny game we had a week off, and saw the difference in their energy level, we had some great practices,” said Keegan. “Collectively we had a certain calmness even when things weren’t going right. We held our own defensively, especially when we needed the bench to get us through the first half.  It was the first time in playoffs for many of these girls, and they answered the challenge.”

Despite falling behind by 5 points at halftime, the team remained positive and used its trademark defensive intensity, transition game, and clutch outside shooting to reclaim a lead in the third quarter which it never relinquished. The turning point came in the last minute of the third quarter when Levi hit a high-arching 23-footer. Then, after receiving an inbounds pass with 5 second remaining, Levi found Lonning near midcourt and the sophomore unleashed a 35-footer that just beat the buzzer and sent the large crowd (and the Cougar bench) into a joyous frenzy. The season ended with a competitive game at Union City, which defeated Columbia and went on to win North Region tournament and a berth in the state final four. 

Much of the credit for the team’s development goes to Keegan and his staff of Aaron Brightman, Alana “Coach La” Ferruggiaro and Willie Sumner. The staff spent countless hours helping the team to develop including a summer league, workout sessions, film study, shooting sessions, practices, and even mindfulness exercises (led by Coach La) and other team building events. It was common to see the coaches working with players to help them improve before and after practices and even games, and their dedication and hard work is certainly appreciated by the team and the CHS community.

Everyone associated with the program should be proud of the success and growth demonstrated this season. With almost the entire team returning, the future looks very bright for next season and beyond. 

Photos courtesy of Michelle and Ruby Aylward. 

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