This winter has been not so much a tale of two seasons as it's been the story of a single slow burn for the East Rockaway girls' basketball team, whose long-game payout has begun to ramp up as the regular season winds down.
A deliberately rough non-league schedule was the somewhat risky remedy chosen by head coach Cheri Poland to address the Rocks’ loss of seven seniors – four of whom started – to graduation this offseason. Early returns were uninspiring, if predictable, as the Rocks slogged to a midseason record of 1-9 overall, 0-1 in Nassau Conference B2.
But as the sought-after seasoning set in, players like freshman point guard Maya Motherway began to coalesce around East Rockaway’s lone returning starter, 6-foot junior Honorable Mention All-County forward Emma Poland, B2’s third-ranked scorer at 13.9 points per game.
Over an ongoing stretch that began Dec. 30, the Rocks have been 4-2, falling only to reigning Long Island Class B champion Locust Valley Jan. 6 and at second-place Malverne in overtime Jan. 13, in a push that has seen East Rockaway (5-11, 3-4 B2) squeeze up late into the playoff picture.
“We’ve turned it up the last couple weeks and we’re definitely in the hunt now,” said coach Poland, whose club over the past six games has boasted B2’s best defense, allowing 33.1 points per game, while outpacing opponents offensively by double digits. “Scheduling all those A and double-A schools early in the season, the plan was to challenge [the Rocks]. I think that’s helping us now. Players are feeling confident and playing higher caliber basketball.”
Emma Poland’s season-high 23 points and game-leading 17 rebounds almost swung the balance for the Rocks against Malverne, which held on to win 47-44 in OT. Her game-high 20 points Jan. 11, along with Motherway’s 13, helped East Rockaway win by its second-largest margin, 51-32, at Wheatley. Motherway’s game-high 27 points Dec. 30 sparked the Rocks in a 55-20 nonleague victory at Valley Stream South, kicking off East Rockaway’s run.
“Emma’s our top scorer, but also her defense is helpful because she’s changing people’s shots,” Poland said of East Rockaway’s leader in rebounds (15 per game) and blocked shots (8). “She works hard and so does Maya, and that’s showing. With 16 games starting under her belt, [Motherway] is communicating, organizing, directing.”
Poland’s capacity to draw double defenders has led to open looks for first-year Rocks guard Sofia Tizio, tops on the team with 20 3-ponters, while 6-foot fellow sophomore Sophia Pappas, new to the sport, poses a growing scoring threat at forward for East Rockaway. In the Rocks’ 47-36 home win against Seaford Jan. 20, Pappas had a season-high 10 points as East Rockaway avenged an early league loss to keep its roll intact entering the winter break.
“Against Seaford, we said we’re at the point now where we have to start finishing, and it was great to see us do that,” said Poland, whose team, with four regular-season games remaining, must finish .500 or better in Class B or in the top two in B2 to earn a playoff berth. “The team’s working really nicely together. That’ll be important moving into the playoffs.”