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Open Mike Column: Hamburg girls hoops building into program that just keeps on rolling

Hamburg girls basketball head coach Kelly Owens speaks with her team during last year’s sectional final run. This year, the team is on the same path despite big hits to graduation. (Photo courtesy of Ron Larson)
It would have never been an issue last season on Hamburg’s senior-laden team, but this preseason, head coach Kelly Owens brought up three sophomores and sold to them the idea of playing up on varsity.

She couldn’t promise Ally Salerno, Jordan Smith or Ashley Kabza starting spots, but could offer opportunities to learn and be challenged at a higher level and have a role with the varsity, which could increase.

Hamburg lost four starters from a team that won a regular season ECIC Division II title and played for a Class A sectional championship in a game that went down to the final seconds.

Yet, even with three 10th graders playing up with the varsity and others expected to step into roles they weren’t used to at the beginning of the season, the Bulldogs have not lost a step. In fact, at 13-1 coming into this week, Hamburg is better record-wise than it was at this time last year during a stellar 17-4 season.

Coaches are often careful not to use the dreaded “rebuilding” word, instead opting to use such terms as reload or retool. Only sometimes are they being totally forthcoming. There is a difference — for instance powerhouses like Hamburg lacrosse seem to reload every season with so many of the locals eating, sleeping and breathing the sport.

A program not nearly on the same level may enjoy a solid class of athletes coming up to lead the team to some success but similar accomplishments usually aren’t matched from year-to-year.

Hamburg’s girls basketball could be legitimately approaching that “reload” standard. If any, this would be the season the Bulldogs looked as is if they’d take a step back, but someone must have forgotten to tell that to this year’s players.

Hamburg’s only loss is by one point, and that’s with just four seniors on the team — among them, only Taylor Wolf is a starter, and a group made up mostly of players who awaited their opportunity either sitting the bench last year or while playing junior varsity.

“A lot of people have stepped up and we’ve been working hard everyday to build up and to continue where we were last year and we haven’t lost a step at all,” said the team’s junior leading scorer Kendra Quinn-Moultrie, who was a role player on last year’s team. “(In the offseason) we played summer basketball together and since we’re all friends, we keep in touch so it keeps that togetherness going.”

Owens gives the credit to her players staying active in the game over the offseason, a must in this day of sports specialization, and being attentive during practices and games.

“They’re so coach-able,” Owens said. “You ask them to do anything and they do it. There have been some great additions to our program and great fill-ins for girls who have left. It’s coming together nicely.”

Also, you can’t help but notice the correlation between the basketball program and what Owens has done with field hockey at the school. Besides bringing some of the key players from field hockey to the hardwood — most namely Jill Ford, Leah Jones, Kaley Reardon and Wolf, Owens seems to be bringing the same standard set in the fall to her winter sport.

Since I’ve been here, the past five to six years, each season Hamburg field hockey is fighting for one of Section V’s top spots, regardless of who it lost to graduation the year prior. In an even tougher sport to do the same, because of the sheer number of teams and participation, the same can now be said for basketball at the school.

“Kelly does a great job with her girls,” said a complimentary Andrea Drabik, who herself has done a fine job maintaining the competitiveness and growth of Immaculata’s basketball program, after the two teams played a close game won by Hamburg on Jan. 18. “She’s been building up her program for a while.”

Hamburg also went 13-6 and shared a division title at 11-1 in 2010-11 with another young team that was thought to be simply priming for what turned out to be last year’s big season. This year’s underclassmen-laden team should have challenges ahead but it’s nothing that seems too overwhelming for a well-adjusted group.

“I knew it would take some time, but again, are we playing our absolute best basketball, ‘no,’ but if we’re there by playoff time, that’s our goal,” said Owens, whose team will soon host a first-place division battle with Iroquois on Monday, Feb. 11. “I think we’re on a nice road to doing that.”

There’s something to be said for what’s going on with the Hamburg girls basketball program and the players are doing that talking with their performances, now year after year.

E-mail Mike Petro at mpetro@thesunnews.net and follow him on Twitter @MikePetroTheSun.
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