Coaches are always looking for leaders on the basketball court, players who can elevate the performance of their teammates and help the team win.
The 2012-13 Gazette All-Area Girls’ Basketball Team reflects that.
The five first-team members have a combined total of seven sectional championships and 12 championship game appearances.
Seniors Emia Willingham-Hurst of Albany, Sydnie Rosales of Colonie and Madison Rowland of Shaker all had the experience of raising a Class AA championship plaque, and their teams never failed to reach at least the semifinal round of the sectionals.
Bethlehem sophomore Gabby Giacone seems destined to join that group of champions before she graduates, as the Lady Eagles return four starters from this year’s Class AA runner-up.
Watervliet senior Ailayia Demand nearly enjoyed a clean sweep during her five-year career, leading the Lady Cannoneers to four Class B titles.
“Leadership is so important,” said Shaker coach Emily Caschera-Blowers. “When the other kids see your captain, your most talented player, working as hard as they are, it means a lot.”
Numbers don’t begin to convey the impact Willingham-Hurst had on the Albany High program.
“She’s meant so much to what we’ve accomplished,” said Lady Falcons coach Decky Lawson of the senior leader of the Class AA champions who has given Siena College a verbal commitment. “She’s a complete player.”
By necessity or design, the two-time Class AA MVP and repeat Gazette All-Area selection had her finest all-around season, leading her team in scoring, rebounding and steals, and igniting the Falcons’ pressure defense.
“She picked up a lot of the slack,” said Lawson, referring to the transfer of standout forward Breahandra Stratton to a prep school this season. “And she did it while we made it more into a team concept. Emia really trusted her teammates, and that helped everyone.”
While the scoring (19-plus points per game) was expected, the 5-foot-9 senior displayed an uncanny knack for coming up with rebounds that resulted in more chances for her team.
Lawson cited Willingham-Hurst’s timing as a big part of her being able to come away with a rebound while surrounded by taller players.
“She has great ball awareness,” he said. “She can read how it’s coming off the rim. And she wants to be first to it. Her work ethic is great.”
Lawson also credits Willingham-Hurst’s year-round work with her development of talent that earned her a spot among the Miss New York Basketball finalists.
“She plays in the offseason, and she’s gotten better by playing with and against boys,” said Lawson. “And before and during the season, she had what we call our community trainers working with her on different things, like strength, her shooting and ballhandling.”
Willingham-Hurst showed from the first game that she was among the premier players in Section II, averaging well over 20 points per game heading into an ambitious holiday break schedule. She suffered an ankle injury during a start against Montclair, N.J. that cost her 31⁄2 games.
While her numbers weren’t as gaudy during the second half of her fifth varsity season, Willingham-Hurst still was the biggest reason the Lady Falcons finished 20-2, beating Bethlehem in the Class AA title game before seeing their season end in the regional final against Cicero-North Syracuse.
Not bad for a player that didn’t have much of an outside game when Lawson began coaching her.
“When she was sent to me in sixth grade, I saw her quickness, but she didn’t have a jumpshot,” Lawson said of the 1,000-point scorer and honors student.
“She was just beating people with quickness, taking the ball from them and getting layups. By the time she was in 10th grade, she started developing a jumpshot, and that really opened up her game.”
Williamham-Hurst’s line in the Class AA final win over Bethlehem was typical of her output all season — game highs in points (15), rebounds (13) and steals (five).
“She’s a hard worker, a lock-down defender that just gives 100 percent when she’s out there,” Lawson said.
Colonie coach Heather Fiore recalled when she first saw the player who would take a place among the school’s best.
“I remember back when she was in second or third grade, watching this young kid shoot and dribble, and it just came naturally,” said Fiore, herself a Division I college player. “Kids that age and that size aren’t supposed to be able to do that. Most kids that age have trouble reaching the basket when they shoot.”
Rosales never lost that touch, developing into one of the most dangerous long-range threats in Section II, hitting 52 three-pointers this season as the Lady Raiders reached the Class AA semifinals.
“She’s probably one of the most natural basketball players I’ve ever seen,” said Fiore. “That’s not to say she doesn’t work hard at it; she certainly does. But she just had such skills at such a young age.
“And she’s always had that great range.”
Rosales proved during her five-year varsity career that she is much more than a shooter.
“All of the coaches and players knew she was a good three-point shooter, and they were going out to defend that,” said Fiore of the honors student. “She worked on going to the basket, scoring or getting to the line.”
Fouling Rosales wasn’t a particularly good option for opponents, as Rosales’ natural shooting stroke translated into an 82 percent efficiency from the foul line.
Rosales also finished with more free throws made (62) than two-point baskets (53).
The 5-10 senior was a consistent playmaker and rebounder for Colonie.
“When we needed points, she scored. When we needed something else, she did that,” said Fiore. “She really did a great job of understanding what the team needed, who should be getting ball and where.”
Rosales withdrew her commitment to Siena College after the school let longtime coach Gina Castelli go following the 2011-12 season, and signed to play at Marist between her junior and senior seasons.
“I think she was a lot more relaxed going into the season,” said Fiore, who could relate to the recruiting process. “She had made her decision, and she didn’t have that stress. She could just enjoy the season. She didn’t need to be seen [by colleges].
“She wanted to have a good senior year, and wanted the team to be successful. And she showed that with her leadership this year.
“Even with the other teams focusing on her, and her other responsibilities on the court, she still got her shots,” said Fiore. “She’s one of those players that could score 30 a game, but that wasn’t what we needed, though when we needed her [scoring], it was there.”
Rowland was a victim of her team’s success this season.
“She had a great season, as far as numbers go,” said Shaker coach Emily Caschera-Blowers. “But she didn’t play more than half the game a lot of times, because we had a comfortable lead. She understood. That’s not the way we want to play.
“She could have had a lot more points if the circumstances had been different.”
Despite her ability to take over a game, Rowland made sure to get her teammates involved, as she led the Lady Bison in assists, as well as scoring (18.3 ppg), rebounding (seven rpg) and steals (six per game).
“Madison really stepped up and became our leader,” said Caschera-Blowers. “There were always older players on the team, but this year she took that leadership role on herself.
“We’ve always known she was a very good player. This year, she showed that she’s one of the best in Section II.”
Rowland was in double figures in all but two games this season, getting a season-high 33 in a game against Shenendehowa on Feb. 9. She had 17 in a 51-30 Class AA quarterfinal win over Bishop Maginn and 25 in a 47-41 loss to Albany in the semis.
“She had high goals going into the season,” said Caschera-Blowers, whose team lost just two games this season. “She wanted to help the team win as many games as possible, and she worked hard getting ready for the season.”
Rowland, the MVP of Shaker’s volleyball team, also improved her free-throw shooting and three-point shooting, hitting 32 percent from behind the arc and 65 percent from the foul line.
“I think being the captain this year really was good for her,” said Caschera-Blowers. “The other girls looked up to her for leadership, and she was a great leader for us.”
Like all elite players, Rowland had to deal with defensive schemes designed to stop her.
“She saw double teams, but she always made the correct reads,” said Caschera-Blowers, who brought Rowland up to the varsity midway through her freshman season.
Rowland was a big contributor the next season, as Shaker won its first sectional title since 1982.
“To finish with the numbers she had [957 career points] in that amount of time, and then with limited time in games this year, that says a lot,” said Caschera-Blowers. “Shaker’s only had two 1,000-point scorers,”
Rowland is planning to attend Division II Kings College, where she’ll be reunited with her older sister, MacKenzie.
From the moment Watervliet coach Gordie Johnson got his first good look at Demand, he knew he was going to have a special player.
“When she came to tryouts as a seventh-grader, she stole the ball from our senior point guard, who was a very good player,” said Johnson. “I knew she was going to be a good one. You could see it in her right from the beginning.”
Demand did nothing but continue to impress Johnson during her standout five-year varsity career, which included four Section II Class B championships.
“She’s not just a great player, she’s a true leader in every sense of the word,” Johnson said of Demand, who finished her career with a school-record 1,458 points.
Demand saved her best effort for her final game in a Watervliet uniform, scoring 39 points and getting 11 steals in a regional final loss that ended the Lady Cannoneers’ season one game shy of the state final four.
In the postseason, Demand scored 142 points.
“She was at her best when things were the worst for us,” said Johnson of Demand’s play in the postseason, a six-game stretch that Watervliet endured without suspended forward Lashona Tolliver. In addition, senior forward Mikayla Deguire was hampered by a knee injury. “That last game was the proof of that. No one had anything going on for us except Ailayia.
“She so wanted to get back to HVCC.”
To that end, the left-handed point guard worked on her game every offseason, adding another element each year.
“She had a chance to be the best point guard we’ve ever had, and she wanted to be that,” Johnson said. “Every year, something got better in her game. This year, she worked on her outside shot and finished with 41 threes.
“She’s undefensible. She goes hard to the basket. Looking through some DVDs, I hadn’t appreciated how good a passer she is. He turnover-to-assist ration was 7:2.
“It seemed like she never missed an open teammate.”
Demand finished with 459 points this season, the fifth straight in which she played in every game. She was a captain her last three varsity seasons.
“She started every game for the last five years,” Johnson said. “She’s an intelligent, competitive kid. She wants to do the right thing all the time, and nine times out of 10, she does.”
It’s not often a 10th-grader is even in the conversation when the Suburban Council coaches select a Player of the Year.
But Giacone doesn’t play like the average 10th-grader.
Giacone opened the eyes of the league’s coaches by averaging a double-double in scoring and rebounding, helping a Bethlehem team that started three sophomores and a freshman in a 20-1 season
“She had a fantastic season. She had the ability to dominate, especially in terms of scoring,” said Lady Eagles coach Matt Bixby of the 6-footer who helped the precocious Lady Eagles go 16-0 in the league season and take an unbeaten record into the Class AA championship game. “She has natural ability. She knows how to put the ball in the basket.”
Giacone got out of the blocks quickly, dropping 31 points on defending Class A champion Averill Park in the season opener. Though she never matched that, her comfort in playing underneath or shooting from the outside allowed her teammates to find openings in opposing defenses.
“She often was going up against players bigger than her, and she still had great numbers rebounding,” said Bixby. “She averaged almost 18 points and 11 rebounds a game.
“Some coaches tried to put a quicker girl on her. Some coaches tried to use a bigger girl and play more physical against her, and she’d take them outside. She handled it all very well.
“She’s so diverse. She has such a great outside shot. She’s a tough matchup. I’m glad I didn’t have to defend against her.”
Bixby knew what he was getting on the first day of practice.
“She came up to the varsity at the end of eighth grade, and as a freshman, she scored 13, 14 points a game. From what I’d seen in the spring and summer, I knew she’s come back even stronger,” Bixby said.
“The one concern I had was that now she was on everyone’s radar. Teams knew about her, and how would she respond? The way she handled it was maybe what I was most impressed with this year.”
Giacone’s experience playing at a high level in offseason AAU competition not only helped her hone her skills, but also gave Bixby enough confidence to ask her to take on more of a leadership role.
“We talked about what the expectations were. The biggest adjustment was that we were going to expect more leadership from her,” said Bixby. “That’s not something you typically expect from a sophomore.
“She has a pretty high motor. When the time comes, she’s able to step it up. She always plays well, and she also has that ability to say, `It’s time for me to make plays.’ ”