Before their 2019-20 season tipped off last week, the American Studies girls basketball team huddled together with head coach Ryan Hondorf to compile a list of goals for this year’s campaign.
Snatching the Bronx B-West Division title sat atop the wishlist, along with a long run through the Public School Athletic League’s postseason soiree come February. Noble goals for sure, but ones that will be pursued by an undermanned — make that under-womanned — team for the next month or so.
The Senators opened their season last week without the services of senior guard Jacqueline Harari, who is still recovering from last season’s knee injury, and junior guard Zoe Cho, who is dealing with a back injury. But for the first week, at least, the Senators overcame their absences and posted a pair of victories to open the season 2-0.
“Jackie tore her ACL last year at (Riverdale/Kingsbridge Academy) and she’s coming back after Christmas,” Hondorf said following American Studies’ 34-27 victory over Jane Addams. “She’s still doing physical therapy now. And Zoe has a hairline fracture in her back right now and is out for six weeks. Jackie is probably our second best player, and Zoe is our third. So we’re hoping to be back at full strength after Christmas.”
In the meantime, it will be the Senators’ best player, Emily Eljamal, who will need to do all the heavy lifting for American Studies. And that’s what the senior did in both games last week. In the season-opening 49-43 victory over Morrisania, Eljamal poured in 32 points and hauled in 14 rebounds to power the Senators. She then followed up that performance with a 16-point, 14-rebound effort in the win over Addams.
“We wrote our goals out in practice a couple of weeks ago, and it was a division championship and then reaching the Sweet 16 in the playoffs,” Hondorf said. “And I definitely think Emily can take this team to a division championship. We haven’t had one of those yet.”
The victory over Addams wasn’t exactly a work of art as both the Senators and the Lady Jaguars had a difficult time posting points. American Studies trailed 7-0 to open the game, pulled ahead 17-12 by halftime, and were clinging to a 24-22 advantage after three quarters.
But with the Senators leading 28-26 with 5 minutes to play in the fourth quarter, Eljamal converted a layup, Emma Bartolazo followed with a jumper, and Eljamal added a putback with 1:47 to play to open a 34-26 lead and they finally were able to put the game away.
“We started off a little slow, but I felt like we had some pretty good looks,” Hondorf said. “But the shots just weren’t falling.”
It was just a case of weathering the early storm, Eljamal said, and being resilient at game’s end that spelled victory for the Senators.
“We were a little frazzled in the beginning and we had to adjust to their defense,” Eljamal said. “And I think in the second half we were able to do that. Then when we got used to them, our shots started falling, we got the lead, and we got the win.“
The Senators have five games remaining before the Christmas break, with the first coming Dec. 11 when they host IN-Tech. So the plan is to try and tread water for those five games and then unleash a fully healthy team on the rest of the division come the new year.
“Right now we’re just going to take it one game at a time and go with the people that we have and get as much as we can out of them,” Hondorf said. “Then we’ll see what happens when Jackie and Zoe come back. Then we’ll be more at full strength and more balanced.”
In the meantime Hondorf says he’ll lean on players such as Bartolazo and Suzuki Lin to step in and hold the fort for the Senators.
“We’re working with the guards we have now to penetrate and finish,” Hondorf said. “We’re hoping they’ll develop because they need to step up while our starters are out. They’re a little inexperienced right now, but they’re going to get a lot of experience in the first half of the season.”
And when Harari and Lin do return, the hunt for that first division title can begin in earnest.
“The pieces are definitely here,” Eljamal said. “We play a lot of our tougher games in mid-to-late January, so with Jackie and Zoe back, I think we’ll really show that we are the team to beat in the division.”