MAPLEWOOD / SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — The Columbia High School girls basketball team got to play only half as many games this season as they would in a normal year because of COVD-19, hitting the court 13 times as opposed to last year’s 24. But they didn’t let that stop them from having a good year, ending their season 13-0. With no postseason tournaments, the team and head coach Chuck Keegan were just grateful to be playing.
“They’ve done a good job of living in the moment and enjoying playing and having fun,” Keegan said in a telephone interview with the News-Record on March 5. “We knew we had to stop and smell the roses and be thankful that we’re here.”
Basketball looked different this year. The South Orange–Maplewood School District has been virtual since last March, so the players would often see each other only at practices. They wore masks when they were together, sometimes even during practice. And the team moved their home base away from CHS to South Orange Middle School, to reduce the number of people circulating through the high school gym and locker rooms.
“They did a really good job of staying safe,” Keegan said. “It was on their families as well, to make sure they were keeping each other safe. We knew we were taking risks, but we were in it together.”
The Cougars finished the 2019-2020 season at 12-12, the first time in a few years they didn’t end the season with a losing record.
“We changed the style a bit,” Keegan said. “We didn’t play pickup basketball, there was still structure. It was a little faster, and they gravitated to that. Sometimes it’s just about me getting out of the way and not overcoaching. I wanted them to have fun.”
Freshman Zahra Alexander led the team in scoring, with 221 points, and assists, with 35. Keegan said the team is lucky to have her.
“She had an instinctive ability to know when we needed something,” he said. “She was on everybody’s radar. Opponents were trying to figure out how to stop her. No teams were that successful.”
Alexander was happy to be playing at all.
“It went pretty well for it being such a weird season,” she said in a phone interview with the News-Record on March 6. “It didn’t really matter that COVID was going on. We could still play basketball and have fun.”
Players were eventually allowed to have two people each in the crowd at games, but the season began with empty gym bleachers and no one cheering for the players on the court except for their teammates on the sidelines. The restrictions changed the atmosphere, according to Alexander.
“Having a crowd changes the environment,” she said. “It gets the team hyped up and excited. I’m looking forward to that next year.”
Kaijhe Hall, a senior who this year scored 103 points, said she wasn’t sure what to expect going into the shortened season. They were able to play outside and get to know one another over the summer, which helped because of the number of younger players on the team: five freshmen and six sophomores.
“There were a lot of new faces,” Hall said in a phone interview with the News-Record on March 7. “The freshmen came in and took on big roles. The seniors really stepped up.”
Keegan agreed. Hall, along with seniors Sophia Rounsavill, Annabel Callahan, Corteney Provilon-Louis and Reyniyah Rogers-Carter, led the younger Cougars through a strange season.
“They really got along with each other,” Keegan said. “The seniors did a great job of highlighting the younger players. That can be hard for a senior, to step back, but they were great.”
Sophomore Shana Desir was excited to play Caldwell, a team that was expected to be near the top of the standings this year; CHS beat the Chiefs 61-51. Alexander was surprised at how good Livingston was, but Columbia still won 44-22 the first time they played the Lancers and 69-40 the second time.
None of the Cougars were thinking too much about the winning streak they were on. They just focused on one game at a time.
“I try to keep the pressure off of them,” Keegan said. “But it was nice to see them work hard and be rewarded for it.”
This was Hall’s last year in a CHS basketball jersey, and she was happy to get to wear it at all.
“It was great to be out of the house with your friends, doing what you love,” she said.
The rest of the team includes freshmen Talia Baptiste, Madison Stevens, Jaime Levi and Summer Lonning, and sophomores Samiya Hill, Bella Galatt, Allie Harris, Ruby Aylward and Leah Connell. Many of them will return next year.
“I’m looking to continue next year,” Desir said. “I want to make sure I keep the team getting better and better.”
Photos Courtesy of Bruce Rounsavill