It took the Highland Regional High School girls’ basketball team until its 11th game of the 2011-12 season to pick up its fourth win.
This season, the Tartans needed only five games to pick up four victories.
What has been the difference?
Highland head coach John Senft spent the preseason implementing a new offensive system that has given his players increased flexibilities and allowed them to flourish. Then there is the growth of several returning players, highlighted by Ayanna Williams, who has become an all-around player. Throw in a kinder early-season schedule than in previous seasons and it's no wonder there are plenty of smiles in the Tartans' gymnasium these days.
“I’m impressed with how hard we have worked together to get the wins that we should be getting,” Williams said. “I’m happy with the way we have been playing as team.”
“We have improved a lot and we have had the opportunity to play a couple of teams we could compete against,” Senft said. “Starting off 4-1 is the most wins we had before January since we won the South Jersey title, so it has been a great start.”
Williams has been one of the central reasons the Tartans have started off so strong. Her athleticism was evident throughout her sophomore season, but she has become a much more polished scorer—with games of 18 and 19 points already this season—while also making smarter decisions on the court.
“She worked really hard on putting the ball in the basket,” Senft said. “She is a dynamic player in that she is hard to guard and she can get to the basket whenever she wants. Last year she was struggling finishing at the basket and she has done a lot better job with that this season. She is really trying to open up her game to be more than just a scorer.
"She is one of our best defenders, she is starting to distribute the ball better and she has really taken on a leadership role as well," Senft added. "As a player she is really starting to become a whole lot more balanced, which has helped her game a lot.”
Williams was quick to spread the credit around, noting that basketball is not a one-player sport.
“I’ve been working a lot out of practice and doing training by myself and with my parents,” Williams said. “Also, coach Senft has stayed after an extra hour to work on my shots. Mt teammates help me too, because without them I wouldn’t be able to put the shots up.”
Highland (4-2) still has plenty of areas where it can improve—as evidenced by its 35-25 setback to Kingsway, on Thursday, but there has been tangible evidence to show the team is heading in the right direction. Senft said the new offense remains a work in progress, but that the players seem to enjoy the freedom the system offers.
“We were very regimented before and now it is more of a read and react,” Senft said. “It’s what a lot of college-level teams have been doing. It’s kind of more like the way we all grew up playing at the playground where you figure out what your defender is good at and you try to go away from it. There is still some structure to it, but just getting them comfortable and getting them the game experience of being able to read different situations takes time.”
Senft said he made the switch after seeing the athleticism he had coming up in the program and after learning a lot more about the system from experienced coaches at various camps.
Count Williams in as a supporter of the read-and-react system. The numbers suggest she is flourishing and her words back it up.
“I think it’s really helping us at a team,” Williams said. “If we keep working hard at it, it will help us adjust. We need to keep improving to keep winning”