Season preview: Hazen girls basketball

Jeff Bernhardt accomplished a lot in his first season as the girls basketball coach at Hazen. But it wasn’t enough for him.

As he sat at Hazen’s awards banquet after the team’s season concluded, he was dissatisfied – not with his team’s season or effort – because the first day of the state tournament was the same day.

“My goal is to be playing on that first Wednesday in March,” Bernhardt said. “Districts is nice and it’s a great goal, but you can’t be satisfied with that…. Our goal is to be playing that last weekend. Whether we get there or not, that’s our goal.”

Thanks partly to a rough non-league schedule, Hazen got off to a sluggish start last season with five wins in the first 13 games. Then the Highlanders got hot when it mattered. The team won three of the final four league games, two sub-district games and a district game before falling to Auburn in districts.

“It helped tremendously to see the kids finally got it,” Bernhardt said. “To pull together and get those wins was unbelievable.”

Bernhardt said the momentum from the finish last season has carried over into this season. Athleticism and youth should define the Hazen squad this season. The youth part is especially true in the backcourt, where Hazen starts a freshman and a sophomore.

Freshman Airashay Rogers will start at point guard. Rogers got things going in the right direction in Hazen’s season-opening win against Kentridge when she scored 19 points, grabbed six rebounds and collected three steals. Bernhardt said her basketball skill is “unbelievable for a freshman.”

Sophomore Michelle Wnek will start at the other guard spot. Wnek averaged 5.2 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.7 steals per game as a freshman last year without a huge amount of minutes.

“She’s a defensive terror,” Bernhardt said. “She’s one of the faster people on the court at all times and that girl has a motor that just won’t stop.”

Wnek is averaging 8.3 points and 4.0 steals per game this season. She led Hazen with 18 points in a Dec. 9 win over Evergreen.

Entering his second season at Hazen, Bernhardt is still getting the team used to his system. A system that relies on defense first to control the game’s pace, and then to open opportunities for the offense.

“We try to play good pressure defense first and create scoring in transition from that,” Bernhardt said. “We’re very athletic in our wings and guards, and with Darralita down low we think we can get most rebounds then get the ball out.”

When the Highlanders run a set offense it will include a heavy dose of pick and rolls, plus slashing cuts by the wings and guards.

Hazen’s post play centers around 5-foot-11 senior Darralita Taylor. Taylor averaged 6.2 points and 6.0 rebounds per game last season. She also led the team in blocks with 22.

In the early stages of this season Taylor has upped those averages to 8.0 points and 7.0 rebounds per game. She has nine blocks already this season.

Senior forward Gina Kirklin will be in the starting lineup this season. She is averaging 9.0 points and 5.0 rebounds per game so far this year.

Junior Chelsea Moorhead will start at the third post position. The 5-foot-10 forward won’t be a scoring threat most nights, but she does the little things to help the team win.

“She does the dirty work,” Bernhardt said. “She’s going to average 5-6 rebounds, play solid defense and set solid picks. And that’s what we want.”

Brittany Philio will be the first player off the bench most nights. The senior forward is contributing 8.7 points per game this season.

The team’s biggest challenge will be replacing Monica Nevi and Angie Wnek. The two combined to average 25.6 points per game last season, over half of the team’s total production. Bernhardt said it was a little scary to lose the two at first, but their graduations forced other players to take on more active offensive roles.

“Before, if the shot clock got down they just got to Monica and Angie and watched,” he said. “Now they’ve changed those roles…. We’ve got some untapped talent here that is looking to burst out.”

Hazen has increased its numbers by seven from last season to this season and is now just three players away from fielding three teams (varsity, JV, C team). Bernhardt said having three teams is vital to building and sustaining depth in a program.

“It’s a good time to be at Hazen basketball for the future,” he said. “But right now we’ve got some unfinished business in my opinion.”