What to do when you lose to graduation the number one scorer in MHAL history…and arguably the league’s best basketball player ever? Yes, I’m talking about Bri Rozzi, who has taken her brilliance down the coast to Loyola-Maryland, where, as a precocious freshman point guard, she is the first off the bench as sixth-man and is playing 20+ minutes per game for her 1-2 team in the early season.
“What can we do?” says fifth-year coach Jim Malak. “We go on, develop the players returning from last season’s team and hope we’ll be better at the end of the season than early on. We’re a work in progress.”
Malak has won two Section 9 Class B titles and one MHAL championship in his previous four years at Highland, coming in after the very successful Jim Delmar Era of six Section titles in 13 years. “Jim left me a good team and I’ve just tried to continue that success…I inherited Bri as a freshman, who made me look good,” laughs Malak.
Indeed, last year’s team, was 6-6, went on a nine-game winning streak led by Rozzi’s 30+ points-per-game, and finally fell to Marlboro (for the third time of the season) in the Section Class B quarterfinals. It was a season that Malak predicted would be .500. “We got hot, everything came together with Bri leading the way.”
So…to ask once again…what do you do when you lose maybe the MHAL’s best player ever?
Rebuild. And Malak is lucky to have eight returning players — all of them underclassmen (last season center-forward Paige Dauenheimer is not returning as a senior, nursing an injured ankle incurred during volleyball season). At the top of that list are sophomore off-guard/forward sharpshooter Brigette Carle and point guard heir-apparent, freshman Katie Dauenheimer, plus junior guard Adriana Scalo, forward Emma Beck and freshman forward Kayleigh Kaplan, all of whom got loads of playing time last season. Also returning are role-playing junior guards Icis Roman and Dehana Stevens, plus transfer from New Paltz Willamena Jackson, a sophomore forward. “I tell them that this is their time to shine,” says Malak. Also in the mix may be freshmen Emma Thompson, a forward, and Addie McDowell, a guard.
“If Lofaro (center Erin, who destroyed Highland last season) wasn’t there (at Marlboro) we would be battling for a Division (2) title. She’s the game-breaker for them. But even with that, we hope to challenge and make it to Sections again. Like I said, we’re a work in progress and have some very good players out there.”
The Highland girls open the season in the Onteora Tournament on Monday and Wednesday, December 2 and 4, with a 6 p.m. Final on Wednesday. The home-opener is against Pine Plains on Tuesday, December 10 at 5:45 p.m.