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By: Garrett Rasko-Martinis | The Jersey Journal
Every coach wants to believe their team will win all their games and finish a season undefeated. Marist girls basketball coach Reggie Quinn knew he had talented players in the preseason, but with a mostly-sophomore lineup, he understood that mark was even more unlikely.
“We’re so young, I knew we had the talent, but didn’t know how they’d respond when the games sped up,” he said. “You always want to say we’re going to win every game, but where we are now, definitely a surprise.”
Against the odds, the Lady Knights have exceeded expectations and shocked the local girls hoops scene by starting off the season a perfect 13-0, including a 10-0 mark in the Hudson County Interscholastic Athletic League.
Led by a pair of backcourt stars in senior Emely Rosario and sophomore Breyanna Frazier, Marist is one of just a few girls basketball teams in New Jersey still with an unblemished record.
“We put the ball in their hands and let them make decisions, we trust them,” Quinn said. “The rest is just team defense, playing fast and pressuring the other teams. As long as they feel us on defense, we push it and believe in the conditioning of our program, we have a chance.”
The Knights are not just a young team, they’re also undersized as they start five guards, the tallest standing at 5-foot-8. But according to Quinn, the team more than makes up for it with an up-tempo pace on offense and a swarming team defense on the other end.
As one of only two seniors returning to the team this year, the coaching staff told Rosario she had to take on a greater scoring role. She has more than doubled her scoring pace from last season, pouring in 17.6 points per game (8.3 in 2015-16), and is also averaging 5.2 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 3.9 steals per game.
“Emely keeps it calm out there for everyone else, even-keeled. When the game is close, I want the ball in her hands,” Quinn said. “She makes great decisions and she’s unselfish – everyone knows when she has the ball it could be coming their way."
After a breakout freshman season, Frazier has thrived splitting ball-handling duties with Rosario this season, averaging 15.3 points, 7 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.5 steals per game.
“She’s so athletic, so explosive, we were always telling her last year that she needs to stop playing checkers and start playing chess,” Quinn said. “This year, her decision-making is way up and she’s not getting into foul trouble guarding the other team’s best player. She’s playing much smarter, much more explosive and is always in that attack mode, attacking the rim.”
Despite a hot start to the season, it wasn’t until a tough matchup with then-undefeated St. Joseph Hill of Staten Island at the Marist Holiday Challenge in late December that Quinn thought his team really started clicking. Facing unfamiliar circumstances - playing with a shot clock - forced his team to play with greater urgency on offense, and the players haven’t slowed down since.
“We had to play fast. The kids didn’t overthink it and responded very well,” he said. “Seeing how we defended the ball as a group and were still able to push it on offense and run was eye-opening for me. It’s the recipe for our success.”
Surrounding Marist’s two stars is a roster of hard-working, unselfish team players, with starting guard Alyssa Gomez chief among them. The team’s only other senior is putting up solid numbers (8.8 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 1.4 apg, 1.5 spg), but according to Quinn, she truly shines doing the little things that don’t show up on the stat sheet.
Sophomore guard Zanai Venable is also having a huge season (10.8 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 1.6 spg), particularly on defense, where the de facto center is guarding the opposing team’s biggest player every night. Sophomore Camila Valencia, the fifth starter, has also shown steady improvement with her shooting and defense as the season has gone on.
And with other young, promising players like sophomore Ciara Castello and freshmen Atavia Palms and Dieynaba Tiare on the roster, the program’s future is as bright as it’s ever been.
Marist is now preparing for a season-defining stretch of games that includes matchups with top county teams like St. Anthony, Kearny, North Bergen and defending county champion Bayonne.
“We’ll take it one game at a time, it’s a tough stretch,” Quinn said. “Watching those teams play, they win by out-hustling their opponents. That was our motto coming into this year, not to be out-hustled. If we get those 50-50 balls and fight for those loose balls, we’re going to have a very good chance at winning those games.”