By Steve Tober
MONTCLAIR- They may not be quite ready to say they’ll be challenging the likes of Newark Tech or University come Essex County Tournament time, but if there is a girls basketball team to watch in the Super Essex Conference’s fifth division, the Freedom, then it is Immaculate Conception of Montclair, which is off to a fine 7-1 start including recently capturing the Dr. Rose Battaglia Holiday Tournament at Benedictine Academy in Elizabeth.
The Lady Lions finished last winter’s campaign on the right track with four victories in the season’s final five games to conclude a 10-14 campaign, and nearly the entire lineup has returned in 2016-2017 plus a number of impact freshmen have arrived on the scene; but perhaps not even veteran coach Anne Lauterhahn could have envisioned such a fast start out of the gates so far this winter hoops campaign.
“I couldn’t be happier with my team’s start to the season and winning the Rose Battaglia tourney for the first time,” said the Lady Lions head mentor. “I am so proud of how hard this young team is playing right now.
“They continue to get better each game and complete fearlessly!
“I am very hopeful for a successful year. Our goal is definitely to first have a winning season. Second, we would love to win our conference title, and third, I believe we can start to make a name for ourselves in the county and state tournaments this season.”
It is a youthful IC team with two veteran juniors returning to lead the way spearheaded by last season’s leading scorer and first-team All-SEC Freedom selection, 5-foot-9 junior forward Imani Burroughs, who had a nice ‘double-double’ with 10 points and 12 rebounds in IC’s 47-43 Battaglia tourney championship victory over North 13th Street Tech.
Burroughs averaged a team-leading 17 points and 9 rebounds per game last winter and is one of the few true veterans on the current squad along with hustling 5-7 junior swing Angela Mangual (7 ppg, 3 steals per game last season).
“We are looking for big contributions again from Imani,” said Lauterhahn, whose team began this season with a 46-42 victory vs. Newark Central at home back on Dec. 16th, then won 60-28 at Newark East Side on Tuesday, Dec. 20, and 57-29 at Christ The King in Newark on Thursday, Dec. 22 before knocking off the host team, Benedictine (43-34, Dec. 27), Palisades Park (50-41, Dec. 29) and then North 13th Street Tech in the Battaglia tourney. “She was our leading scorer and rebounder last season and continues to be a force for us.”
The Lady Lions suffered their first loss of the season after seven straight wins when they were edged by undefeated Veritas Christian (8-0), 44-42, on Tuesday afternoon (Jan. 3) in Sparta.
Along with the now seasoned Burroughs and Mangual to help led the way there are exciting freshmen who are already impacting greatly on the team’s successful start this season.
“We are a very young team,” said Lauterhahn, who is a 1999 graduate of IC and a former standout guard for the Montclair parochial school. “I start three freshmen and we have no seniors on this team
“I feel that being so young only helps us. The freshmen we have are fearless competitors and are very coachable as well. Knowing that we are a very young team only motivates the girls to work harder and get better every day.
“The girls know they have to stick together and trust one another on and off the court. As our team chemistry increases so will our success.”
In the backcourt for the Lady Lions are a pair of those very talented freshmen in Nasira Williams and Jailyn Lucas, who have great chemistry having played together since they were 12.
Williams garnered tournament MVP honors at the Battaglia tourney after her 18-point, 6-assists, 4-steal effort in the championship victory over North 13th Street Tech.
“Nasira is a point guard and has amazing ball handling skills, court vision and the ability to get to the rim,” said Lauterhahn. “She directs the offense and does a splendid job at it.
“Jailyn is the shooting guard and is a consistent shooter, but also has the ability to get to the basket extremely well. Both are tenacious defenders and will be leading our defense.”
Lucas, who keeps getting better with each game, scoring 14 points in her varsity debut vs. Central, 22 more points along recording with three steals in the win at East Side and then a career-high 27 points and three steals vs. CTK.
In the Battaglia tourney final she chipped in with 10 points, four steals and two blocks.
Williams had 12 points, six rebounds and six steals vs. Central, 19 points, six assists and five steals at East Side, and 15 points, seven rebounds, five assists and six steals vs. CTK.
Completing the Lady Lions starting lineup in the season’s first month has been another top freshman prospect, 5-8 forward Alyssa Hunter.
“Alyssa has been starting and doing a fabulous job,” continued Lauterhahn. “(5-7 sophomore swing) Daija George has been out with an ankle injury, but should be back this week and will add more depth to our rotation when she is ready to go.
“Daija is one of the hardest workers on the team and loves to play defense and rebound. Alyssa is a very fundamentally sound post player who can hit the free throw jumper and finish down low. She will provide a lot of toughness for us on the inside.
“(5-11 sophomore) Cyan Cyrus and freshman Imani Thompson have also stepped up to give us solid minutes.”
Another backcourt performer who can add depth is 5-5 sophomore guard Uneque Holly.
The SEC-Freedom will be a challenging division for the Lady Lions, but the hopes are there to figure in the regular season title chase.
“Bigger schools like Central and Belleville have moved back down to the Freedom Division, but with our new talent combined with our returning players I feel we have a very good chance at winning the division,” asserted Lauterhahn.
LION RUMBLINGS- Burroughs also had a ‘double-double’ vs. Central in the season opener with 13 points and 10 rebounds and then had a solid six point, six rebound, four steal effort at East Side before yet another strong effort with 13 points, eight rebounds and four steals vs. CTK. Mangual contributed five points, four rebounds and three steals vs. Central....Lauterhahn played her high school basketball at IC under then head coach Lee Clowers for three seasons and then Mary Kiernan for her senior year. Clowers has gone on to become a statewide coach of the year in girls volleyball at Mount Olive which won a Morris County Tournament title this past fall season. Anne's brother Jim preceded her as the head girls hoops coach at IC. Their uncle is longtime top boys basketball referee Bob Lauterhahn.