BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - Gov. Livingston's girls' basketball coach,Chris Eckert (28-23) will be relying  heavily on a trio of seniors as the Lady Highlanders take to the hardwood this season with cautious optimism. Skylar Dowling, a 1000 point scorer and four year starter, along with fellow seniors Shannon Polimeni and Paige Phillips, will be challenged by Eckert to be the leaders of a roster entirely made up of sophomores. How quickly Eckert can get these three experienced seniors to mesh with this promising sophomore class will be the key to this season's success. 

Coming off a solid 18-9 campaign, which included a pair of state playoff wins, Gov. Livingston returns only four players who logged meaningful minutes last year. Leading scorer Skylar Dowling is back after averaging 14 ppg. and topping the career 1000 point mark. Expect the long range bomber (172 career 3 pointers) to still put it up behind the arc, but don’t be surprised to see the 5'4" guard take her defender off the dribble to the hoop with an array of shifty moves. Dowling's solid handle, combined with great court vision, should allow this veteran point to get the ball down low in position for her inexperienced front court teammates to score. The two time all UCC first team selection will continue her academic and athletic career at Misericordia University (PA.) next year.

Joining Dowling in the starting backcourt for the third consecutive year will be fellow 3 point sharp shooter Paige Phillips. Phillips led the team last year with 61 three balls and pushed her season average up to just under 10 ppg. after averaging 8.5 ppg. as a sophomore. A deadly catch and shoot zone buster, Phillips can break open a game when she gets hot from deep. Phillips joins Dowling as a returning UCC All-Valley Division selection. 

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Shannon Polimeni’s diverse skill set and unmatched work ethic will give Eckert the ability to use her in multiple roles on both ends of the court. After playing in the back court primarily as a pass first point her first two varsity seasons, Polimeni will most likely find herself getting the majority of her minutes in the team's front court. Look for Polimeni  (4.5 ppg.) to boost her scoring average and provide some interior scoring. Keen court awareness and instinct should allow Polimeni to get open and find soft spots in the defense, especially when opponents are forced to extend out on shooters Dowling and Phillips. A versatile defender who will be called upon to guard multiple positions, the undersized  5'6 Polimeni will frequently find herself matched up against taller opponents.

Also reclaiming a starting position from last season will be sophomore Gianna Ciccimarra. Ciccimarra. a superb three sport varsity starter as a freshman, proved early on that she was unfazed by pressure situations regardless of the level or intensity of the competition. Early last season after working her way into Eckert's rotation, she demonstrated consistent quality play for a varsity rookie. A reluctant jump shooter last season, Ciccimarra (4 ppg.) did most of her scoring either driving to the hoop or finishing tough at the rim on the break. However, during the preseason, Ciccimarra has shown off her very capable jumper, which one would expect will become a bigger part of her offensive game. Eckert got a glimpse of this when Ciccimarra hit for a career high 15 points, while connecting on 3 three-pointers against Westfield in the UCC quarterfinals. The team's best on ball defender, the lightning quick athlete, is capable of guarding players anywhere on the court.

The last starting spot is up for grabs but it looks like sophomore Julia Byrne will get the nod. Fundamentally sound, Byrne adds a scoring threat down low and much needed rebounding. She got a taste of varsity action last year scoring in 8 games with a season high 7 against Linden.  Byrne was a varsity athlete in both basketball and lacrosse as a freshman.

Rounding out the rotation will be sophomores Allie Post, Dani Kang, Reagan Hopeck, and Erin Hilongos. Post, an All-State soccer player as a freshman, suffered a season ending injury early this past fall soccer season. She is not expected to return to full strength and back on the court until late January. A dynamic athlete, Post is the type of fierce competitor that every coach loves to have. She will surely give the team a boost defensively and on the boards when she returns. Kang is a diminutive guard who is fearless going to the hoop or going after a loose ball. Eckert gets another 3 point shooter and the ability to press and trap when this energizer is on the floor.

Reagan Hopeck and Erin Hilongos will split time playing the post. How quickly the pair adjust to the physicality and pace of varsity play could be a difference maker for this team. Having lost his strongest post player, Fiona Kerr, who was good for 10 and 10, Eckert will need the pair to fill that rebounding void and aggressively defend the paint. Against teams like Oak Knoll. who has  dominating 6' 2 center Paige Morton, expect both these young sophomores to be on the court together.

Offensively the Lady Highlanders will try to dictate tempo with a primarily guard based lineup. Anticipate extended stretches of play with as many as five guards on the floor banking on the others team's inability to keep up with speedy smaller players. Pushing the ball hard looking for some easy fast break points and shooting the 3 ball will define this year's team "style of play."

Defensively  Gov. Livingston will use their quickness to either apply full court pressure or half court trapping which should help make up for their lack of size. Disrupting opponents offense flow will hopefully result in turnovers or steals which will spark the offense. However, when you have 4 or 5 guards on the court it does create matchup problems when playing straight up defense. Aggressively hitting the boards is a must for all five players on the floor regardless of their size.

Gov. Livingston will tip off the season against Johnson in Clark on Friday Dec. 20, followed by four more tough road games before year's end. After the season opener, the Lady Highlanders will take on Warren Hills (12/23) before playing in Chatham's highly competitive Cougar Classic. The three game (12/27/28/30) round robin Holiday Tournament against Chatham, Watchung Hills, and Oak Knoll, will provide an extremely challenging stretch of basketball for Eckert's young team. By the time Gov. Livingston plays their first home game on January 4, when they host arch rival New Providence in a Super Saturday clash, Eckert should have a handle on which of his young sophomores are making the transition to varsity level play.


Valairco Heating & Cooling is the proud sponsor of the Highlander Athlete of the Week. Kevin McHugh, Valairco Owner and President and Berkeley Heights resident, is an alumni of Gov. Livingston High School.

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