Monticello Evinces Heart and Soul Versus Burke But Comes Up Short As Lady Monties Still Need Two Wins For Sectional Invite; Lady Eagles Set Sights On Class B Title Quest With Ayala Back From ACL Rehab; Episalla Sisters Play Against Each Other For First Time Ever
John S. Burke Catholic 48, Monticello 37
By RICHARD A. ROSS
Photos at: www.sportsinsights.smugmug.com
MONTICELLO, NY—Great basketball games are stories unto themselves and the February 3 non-league clash between the host Lady Panthers of Monticello and the victorious visiting Lady Eagles of John S. Burke Catholic was indeed a novella.
Replete with compelling chapters all of which will be recounted shortly, it is a tale that conveys far more than the final score of 48-37 would suggest.
But the subtext of plot lines running underneath this encounter is even more intriguing.
For Monticello, which began its season at a 15-year best mark of 4-0, the prospect of making it to sectionals after years of drought has been a goal vehemently sought after by a young team with only one senior in the fold.
Longstanding veteran Coach Karen Atack knew from the outset that the fast start would be no guarantee of reaching the pot of gold at the end of the regular season rainbow. A December 16 league loss to Cornwall was the first defeat
And with the New Year, tough losses would soon follow suit including a 37-36 loss to O’Neill and a close 52-46 defeat against Class AA Minisink Valley. Add in subsequent losses to Goshen, Washingtonville, Warwick and now Burke and the Lady Monties now find themselves at 7-7 needing to win two of the next four games to make it to the Big Dance.
Three of those games are rematches against league rivals in Goshen, Port Jervis and Cornwall. They must also face a non-league test against Valley Central.
Things will be infinitely harder now with the loss of outstanding junior guard Yadira Montes for the rest of the season and the fact that the Monties will also lose the powerful interior presence of Nyasia Blakney who is moving to Fallsburg this coming Monday for family reasons and will now play for the ascending Lady Comets.
Despite the turmoil, Atack who mentors her players not just on the court but oversees their academic progress as well as being pro-active in their lives anyway she can, had been feeling that many positives were surfacing including rising grades, greater stability etc. But this latest series of setbacks has really put the team to the test.
That said, they came out in this game and “Left their hearts and souls out there,” said Atack.
The game also featured another subplot which could be dubbed “Sister Act.” Burke senior Nicole Episalla and her young sister Lena, a freshman guard for Monticello, would be playing against each other for the first time ever. More too on this later in this narrative.
Burke’s story is compelling too.
With five of its top six players heading out the door via graduation, the remnants of the team which lost a heart-rending 32-29 game to Highland in last year’s Class B Sectional Final was in for a spate of new challenges, not the least of which was an injury to junior forward Jessica Ayala, a key veteran of last year’s campaign.
Ayala tore the ACL in her left knee last May and spent seven months assiduously rehabbing it. She missed the first six games of the season. After a season opening win over Ellenville, the Lady Eagles dropped six straight including the January 10 game against Kingston, the night of Ayala’s return.
Burke is undefeated in Division IV play with wins over O’Neill, Sullivan West and Liberty. Playing a daunting non-league schedule, Coach Matt McGinnis’ squad absorbed losses against the likes of Cornwall, Newburgh, Lourdes, Marian Regina, McNichols, Monroe-Woodbury and Pearl River.
Now at 5-8 (3-0 OCIAA) following this night’s 48-37 win over Monticello, the Lady Eagles look to run the table on their league opponents Liberty, O’Neill and Sullivan West to see how they’ll be seeded in the Class B Sectionals. Highland, which plays in the MHAL has a tougher league schedule and could be the number one seed if it remains unbeaten. Regardless of who is one and who is two, the stage may be set for the hoped-for redemptive final for the Lady Eagles.
But on this night, they’d first have to deal with a determined Monticello squad which came out and dominated them early on to amass a 13-5 first quarter lead.
Monticello controlled the opening tip but the Lady Monties missed a couple of shots in the paint. Turnovers were rife in the early going as were misses by both squads. The Lady Monties got out to the early 4-0 lead with buckets from Shamira Moore and Arianna DeCosta.
Burke was noticeably affected by Monticello’s press and went scoreless for nearly four minutes until Casey Undersinger nailed a three to bring the Lady Eagles within one. Monticello missed a couple of easy lay ups, something Atack would allude to later in her post-game assessment of her team’s positives and areas still needing work.
Ayala gave Burke its first lead at 2:02 but the Lady Monties would go on an 9-0 run to close the quarter as Blakney began things with a bucket to put the Monties back on top. Freshman Yami Reyes scored, then got a steal and dished it to Moore who scored. Moore hit on one free throw and Blakney put back the miss of the second.
McGinnis called time out and the fans in the Pit were feeling their oats. Monticello’s defensive verve was the story of that opening stanza.
Teams like Burke that play under pressure against much tougher rivals can quickly adjust. The Lady Eagles soon did that as they went on to outscore Monticello 19-8 in the second quarter to assume take a 24-21 lead into halftime.
The Monties had the better of it early on in the second quarter, leading 17-8 after a bucket from Blakney but Burke tore off a 16-4 run to close the quarter as they got 11 points in the stanza from Casey Undersinger, a trey from D.J. Presutti, four points from Elora Taphorn and a trio of free throws, two of which came from Lucia Presutti off a technical foul and one from Kelly McLaughlin which put Burke on top 20-19 with 1:30 to go in the period.
Monticello had cooled off as its shots weren’t falling and Burke had regained control of the flow. Four points from Moore and two points from Zequia Revell and Blakney were all they could manage as the Lady Monties committed fouls, turned the ball over and lost their shooting acumen. Burke’s Dominique Nutt tied the game at 19-all and. Moore had a steal and scored but Burke had the last word in the stanza for the 24-21 lead at the break.
Monticello regained its composure and hustle in the third quarter as it played Burke closer. Burke outscored Monticello 10-8 in the stanza to marshal a 34-29 lead but the Monties were in serious foul trouble which would soon lead to the exit of Moore, Blakney and Episalla.
Monticello got four of its eight points in the frame from the stripe. They’d end up 10-for-16 on the night for a respectable 62 percent. Moore scored her final three points in the third quarter. She ended up with 12.
Undersinger began the third quarter with a trey. Moore followed with a bucket and one as the Monties closed within two at 26-24. The score hovered there for what seemed like an eternity. Moore incurred an offensive foul as she edged closer to five which would come sooner rather than later.
Still, prior to that the Monties managed to tie the game at 28-all with 2:36 to go in the third quarter. Burke went on to outscore Monticello 5-1 for the 34-29 lead after three.
Without Moore, Episalla and Blakney, the fourth quarter resulted in a 14-8 Burke advantage. Burke enjoys far more depth and experience than Monticello and the frequent substitution allowed an unending supply of fresh legs against the Lady Monties who had fewer reserves to utilize. In addition, the skill level of Burke’s reserve players far exceeds that of the Montie subs, many of whom are inexperienced and young.
Undersinger led all scorers with 18 points. Ayala provided 10.
In addition to Moore’s 12, the Lady Monties got nine from Yami Reyes and six from Blakney. Zequia Revell had nine rebounds, three assists and four steals. Moore added seven rebounds and six steals while Blakney had eight rebounds.
Atack was extremely pleased with her team’s performance. “Obviously foul trouble was the turning point. But I told them that even though it’s a loss, I’m so proud of them. We left our heart and soul out there and that’s what’s important to me. We had freshmen running the point. We did a good job defensively.” Offensively Atack admitted her team’s shooting percentage was sub-par and that they missed a number of easy lay ups. “We were also out of position on some rebounds,” she added.
Atack holds high expectations for her players, not just in their on-the-court performance, but in their academics and overall deportment. A strong advocate of rewarding integrity and perseverance as well as reminding her players for the lack thereof by sitting them at times, Atack’s approach to coaching is unique and immensely commendable. She stands by her principles and is tough. Some people may criticize her approach this writer extols it.
Following the game the Episalla sisters talked about the rare encounter. Nicole said, “It was a lot of fun.” Asked if she was nervous about it she claimed she wasn’t but added, “I was a little wary about it because I didn’t want to stuff her but it worked out well,” she quipped. “It was a very competitive game,” she added.
Lena chimed in “It’s the first time I’ve ever played against her but it was fun and it was a good experience. I know the whole team and the junior varsity team too,” she added. Lena went to school with many of them before parting ways to head to Monticello to pursue her love of music. She’s been playing piano since she was about four and relishes the opportunity to study with Anne Trombley.
Of course playing basketball for the Lady Monties has been fun too and as a freshman, Lena has brought great energy and defensive verve to the team.
Nicole who is three years older overcame a torn ACL that kept her out of sports for a full year. She plays lacrosse and volleyball too, juggling all of that with an off-season AAU basketball schedule, an integral part of the Lady Eagles’ annual hoops contention.
Nicole’s dad, Charles Episalla is an orthopedic surgeon and she has expressed a desire to pursue a career in medicine as well. A top student, Nicole has applied to a bevy of excellent schools but has yet to decide where she is going. She has been offered admission to a pre-med honors program at Case Western University as well as a similar one at Pitt.
Other schools still in the picture include Cornell, Columbia, Boston College, Brown and Dartmouth and more.
Soon that will be resolved and in the fall she’ll head off to pursue her studies. But for now, basketball still looms large and the fiery elder sister, like her teammates, looks for a redemptive and successful outcome in this year’s Section Nine tournament.
Reminiscent of the opening lines of “The Naked City, the iconic detective series that aired on television from 1958-63, which used to decry, “There are eight million stories in the Naked City,” this saga between these two teams replete with their trials and tribulations, their sisters et-al, makes for a tapestry of tales with numerous chapters yet to be written.
More to come.
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