It’s not a particularly difficult transition going from AAU hoops to high school basketball. The game is pretty much the same, and kids are kids.
Perhaps the most difficult part of the equation is getting to know players, and having kids become comfortable with a new coach. But that piece is best accomplished in-person, face-to-face, not virtually through a screen.
It’s just another way that the Coronavirus has – and will continue to – impact the 2020-21 scholastic basketball season. And it’s the situation that the Palmyra girls’ basketball program currently finds itself in.
Over the summer, 55-year-old John Polly took over the Cougars’ program when former head coach Mary Manlove departed. Polly, the director of AAU operations for Team Pennsylvania, has been coaching high school-aged players for the last 12 years, but has never formally coached on the scholastic level.
So while Polly has the experience, nothing he’s ever encountered before could’ve prepared him to coach during a pandemic.
“I’ve told the girls, ‘If I can get through this year, I can get through any year,'” said Polly. “My first high school coaching job is during a pandemic. My staff and I have been able to get to know the players, but some of them had known who I was. I’ve been sending workouts (virtually) to the girls to do. We’re trying to keep them as active as we can. We think we have a group of dedicated girls, but it’s hard to simulate running up and down a basketball court.
“I’d actually been actively looking (for a scholastic coaching position),” added Polly. “It’s always kind of been a goal of mine to coach high school basketball. I just like being around the game. I enjoy being around the kids. The plan is to continue to stay with AAU basketball, and I don’t see a conflict. I’ve watched a lot of high school basketball over the last ten or 12 years. I know the game well enough.”
Palmyra started its preseason practices on time in late November, and the Cougars got nine work-out sessions in before the current three-week pause was mandated. Palmyra is hoping to hit the floor running when practices resume during the first full week of the new year.
“I had really good attendance in the open gyms leading up to the first practice,” said Polly. “I think those first practices went well, and it helped because the attendance at open gyms were so high. I don’t know if that had to do with dedication, or the girls just wanted to see the shiny new object (coach) in the room.
“Everything we wanted to put in place is in place,” Polly added. “The biggest challenge was getting the girls used to playing with masks on. A lot of these girls are multi-sport athletes, so at least they were coming in in somewhat decent shape.”
Last season, the Cougars struggled at times, on their way a disappointing 8-14 overall mark. The previous year, Palmyra had pieced together an inspiring late-season and playoff push that resulted in a District Three Class AAAAA championship.
“They lost some games that were win-able,” said Polly, who will be assisted by former Palmyra stars Chelsea Ebersole and Kristen Smoluk. “They had a lot of turnover from the year before. I think as the year progressed, Katelyn Becker and Zoe Smith embraced their roles more.
“I don’t micro-manage,” Polly continued. “I let the girls play, within a structure. Hopefully that creates more of a team atmosphere.”
Both talented playmakers, Becker, a senior, and Smith, a junior, will serve as an extension of Polly on the court. They will be supported in a variety of ways by senior guard Genieva Martin, 5-11 sophomore Maddie Henry, senior guard Kaleiyhea ‘K.K.’ Hamilton and senior shooter Elena Cota.
“We have great leadership,” said Polly. “Genieva, Zoe and Katelyn were voted on as captains by the team. I wanted the captains to be picked by the girls, and those are the players they’re looking to. They know what it takes. We plan on playing with a lot more pace than most teams do. Defensively, we think we’ll be one of the better teams in the Keystone (Division of the Mid-Penn Conference).
“If you had a magic pill that could make girls grow a little, that would be great,” continued Polly. “My girls don’t have a lot of size. We’re going to have to rebound, and hopefully pace will alleviate some of that. I’ve seen plenty of teams be successful without height. We have to rebound as a group. We have to box out as a team. If everyone buys into that, we’ll be OK.”
Competition in practice for roles and playing time will only make Palmyra better overall. Senior Alyssa Marrero, junior Mallory Margut and senior Alexa Gulliver make the Cougars nine deep.
“I think we need to stay steadfast with the goals we put forth,” said Polly. “Competing for and possibly winning a Keystone title will be our first goal. I don’t see us not competing. Every game is going to matter so much more than they have in the past. You’re going to have to win as many games as you can.
“With COVID-19, we’d like to complete an 18-game schedule,” added Polly. “Another goal is getting back to districts. Those are the goals we have set right now. But once we get there, we’ll set some new goals.”
The Cougars are hoping to begin their 2020-21 season on or around January 8, four days following the resumption of practice. There also exists the chance that Palmyra’s shortened season could be lengthened with the addition of contests throughout.
“We’re playing on January 8th or 9th, until we’re told otherwise,” said Polly. “The girls are chomping at the bit. We haven’t even had a scrimmage yet. But they just want to get on the court.”