NEW PALTZ — Jim Malak scratches his head and scans the bench. “Who are we missing?” he asks his players.
The Highland girls basketball head coach is not talking about Bri Rozzi, the do-it-all Varsity 845 Player of the Year who left to play Division I basketball at Loyola-Maryland this past school year. But he might as well be.
It’s the question that hangs in the balance as Highland transitions to a team dominated by primarily underclassmen, all of whom will see expanded roles in the absence of the 1,920 career points Rozzi amassed, a Mid-Hudson Athletic League record, throughout her illustrious five-year career.
“Now these girls can’t look to just one person,” Malak said. “They’ve got to look in the mirror and say, ‘I’ve got to do my job. You’ve got to do your job.’”
At an MHAL summer league game at SUNY New Paltz on Thursday, Malak is relaxed in both mood and attire, keeping in perspective that it’s only the middle of July and he should be allowed to wear sandals on the sideline if he wants. But when he sees something he doesn’t like — namely one of his players not speaking up or passing up an open shot — he lets them know what’s on his mind. “Who’s talking? Who’s talking on defense? Come on! I want to hear you!”
Two seats over from Malak sits Rozzi. In fact, the Rozzi name has not truly left the building. This time it’s Tom Rozzi, Bri’s father and coach of Highland’s junior varsity team. In one half of play, it’s clear where the five Rozzi sisters — all of whom eclipsed 1,000 points in their high school career — inherited their competitive spirit. Tom rises from his seat multiple times during a scrimmage against Rondout Valley. “Why do we have to beg you to shoot?” he says, before turning to Malak one minute later, following a successful offensive possession and repeating, three times, “I like this, Coach.”
While another 15-win season seems ambitious heading into this season — Malak projects his team to finish closer to .500 — both Malak and Rozzi rave about the young talent on their roster, like a pair of locals acquainting their out-of-town friends with all the hip new places in the city.
Katie Dauenheimer, an incoming freshman point guard who started on the varsity team last year as an eighth-grader, dribbles the ball upcourt with deliberation, reading through her options as a seasoned quarterback examines routes. While she’s not being anointed as Rozzi’s heir apparent, Dauenheimer is the first girl her coaches bring up when breaking down the lineup's current configuration, the one they believe is poised to have a stellar high school career.
“Last year we worked for it, but Bri helped us a lot,” Dauenheimer said. “Now we have to work 10 times harder.”
Dauenheimer and fellow Highland guard Bridgette Carle, a rising sophomore, recalled a game during their AAU season this summer, when the familiar voice of Rozzi was missing from the huddle. It was unusual at first as both stepped into more of a vocal role for their team, but they quickly grew comfortable harking back to the mantras Rozzi used to preach.
“It feels weird,” Carle said, “but it feels good to lead.”
Carle said the Huskies carry a chip on their shoulder this year knowing they’ll be underestimated by virtually every team they compete against. But what this team is facing is not so much rebuilding a house from scratch as it is simply trying to plug up one major leak. What Highland lacks in an upperclassmen core, it makes up for in varsity experience. Paige Dauenheimer, the lone senior, is joined by Adrianna Scalo, Carle and her sister Katie, all returnees on the starting lineup.
The final spot, a big one, remains to be filled. But it's only July and there is time.
No one will take Rozzi’s place. There almost certainly won’t be any 37-point outbursts by one single player. It's a harsh reality, but it's also a giant opportunity.
“I feel like we might surprise people,” Carle said.