Despite a shortened season due to COVID-19, the Columbia High School girls’ basketball team finished a victorious season, with the undefeated record of 13-0.
As a team, the Cougars averaged 60 points a game while only surrendering 36 points. Per game, freshman Zahra Alexander led by 17 points, three assists and two and a half steals. Senior and captain Kaijhe Hall led 10 rebounds and three blocks per game.
The season was supposed to start in December, but with the rise in COVID-19 cases in New Jersey near the end of November, the season began mid-January. There will be no postseason this year.
Coach William Keegan said he and the South Orange-Maplewood School District Athletic Director Ken Mullen had an open line of communication starting as far back as the summer in preparation for the season – a season that included some added safety protocols.
“There were some extra precautions we took such as bringing our own balls to away games to warm up with, wiping down seating areas, having hand sanitizer and wipes readily available for use before, during and after games,” Keegan said. “This year we didn’t use swing players: shared players between JV and Varsity.”
Hall mentioned the off-season work she and the team did to get ready for a potential season.
“During the off-season, I sat down while on vacation in the summer and set goals for myself. Once the season approached, I knew what needed to be accomplished as a team,” Hall said.
“We got together over the summer for several summer games. These games were outdoors instead of indoors at West Orange High School,” Hall said. “During this time period is when we got familiar with each other’s style of play. Whenever we talked about the season, we would always speak it into existence even though we didn’t know if we would have one.”
Over the summer, Hall had just come out of an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) girls basketball season and aspired to play in college. She realized that she would have to navigate the challenges in order to make that happen. Hall will be continuing to play at Assumption University and hopes to play overseas in the future.
Hall and Alexander shared the same highlight from the season.
“My highlight of the season was senior night because I got to experience one last home game with a crowd filled with family and friends/teammates on the court,” Hall said.
Alexander said, “one of the highlights of the season was senior night. I felt like in that game we were really in sync and in games afterward, I felt like we played even better together.”
Alexander spoke about the added pressure because of the pandemic before and during the season.
“All of us had to be really aware of being safe during this time because we didn’t want to jeopardize our season,” Alexander said. “Training that usually happened indoors was moved outdoors where possible, and running and practices were done in masks. That was definitely a challenge.”
“The season was shortened drastically, training was limited, and we really didn’t have an opportunity to hang out together outside of practices and games,” Alexander said. “At the beginning of the season, spectators weren’t allowed. This means that we really had to look to one another for encouragement and motivation.”
Alexander said what she is looking forward to for the next season.
“Next year, I’m looking forward to having a more traditional season. I’m also looking forward to my team moving into a higher division and having an opportunity to play some of the best teams in the conference,” Alexander said.
CHS, in the Liberty division, is only the second team in the Super Essex Conference (SEC) to have an undefeated season this year. Cedar Grove, in the Colonial division, finished 14-0.
Alexander credited senior Corteney Provilon-Louis as a mentor and the support of her coaches during the season.
“Corteney has been my biggest mentor on the team because she encouraged me to take more of a leadership role on the court in order to give my other teammates more direction on the floor,” she said. “All the coaches were super supportive as well. They always offered help and encouraging words and generally told me to believe in myself.”
Coach Keegan expressed his gratitude for his staff and team during a stressful time for everyone.
“My staff and I obviously wanted to work [the team] hard but we wanted to make sure it stayed fun,” Keegan said. “We wanted to ensure that the athletes enjoyed being there and enjoyed each other. I can’t thank my staff, Alana Ferruggiaro, Aaron Breitman and Willy Sumner, enough for the work they put into making that possible.”
“One thing that made this team a little extra special was they were all very motivated not only to do well but to help each other do well as well,” Keegan said.