BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - With only three upperclassmen on the Highlanders Girls’ Basketball team many would consider the 2019-2020 season a rebuilding year. Head coach Chris Eckert had a different idea for his squad this season, leading his girls to a 17-11 record, highlighted by a Valley Division co-championship and an appearance in the Union County Tournament championship game. Eckert’s work with his team earned him Union County Conference Girls’ Basketball Coach of the Year honors for the season.
One of Eckert’s best qualities as a head coach is his attention to detail during the games. He is always locked in and pays attention to the little things that can give his team an edge.
“As a staff, we do a really good job of in-game adjustments based on what our opponent is showing us or how the game is flowing,” Eckert said.
These adjustments on the fly made the difference for the Highlanders in many games, including the Union County Tournament semifinals, in which the Highlanders trailed Union Catholic by double-digits with under five minutes to play and came back to win.
In the county tournament, GL was the underdog in the last three rounds. However, Eckert’s squad played with confidence and poise.
“We never thought about expectations, we focused on reaching our goals. Being able to hit those goals one possession at a time, one quarter at a time and one game at the time helped us get the county championship,” said Eckert.
This strategy was so successful because the girls on the team understood Eckert’s plan and bought into his ideas. A big reason they were able to do so was Eckert’s ability to clearly communicate his plan so that each player and coach understood his goals for the season.
“He was very vocal with our teams and constantly keeping us positive,” said Regan Hopeck, sophomore center.
Eckert takes great pride in having good communication with his team. He believes that confusion is an obstacle in success that can easily be avoided. One way he avoids it is by laying out the framework of each practice before his players take the court so they each know exactly what to expect.
“Communication was key to this season because most of our players were underclassmen. We needed to keep them up to speed,” senior guard Paige Phillips said. “Coach Eckert helped coach us to communicate during practice with drills, which is what led us to the county finals.”
Although Eckert’s unique philosophies and coaching techniques earned him Coach of the Year honors, the highest honor for a coach in Union County, he was quick to give credit elsewhere.
“It is always nice to be recognized but you can’t be Coach of the Year without a great coaching staff and without girls who are willing to play tough for you,” Eckert said.
Despite the successful season, Eckert is not going to take it easy on his players next year or beyond that.
“I want the same thing I expect every year from my team: hard work, togetherness, and to be coachable and committed. If we do that we can be successful on and off the court,” he said.
A deep run next year is very possible, as the Highlanders bring back all but three players from this year's team. Current sophomores Hopeck and Gianna Ciccimarra will return to the starting lineup, with fellow classmates Allie Post, Danielle Kang, Sarah Davey, and Julia Byrne contributing as well.
With Eckert at the helm, Hopeck said, “I’m looking forward to growing as a player as well as connecting more with my teammates.”
Eckert's talent can’t be undermined. He plans to stay committed to his team and do whatever he can, whether in-season or out of season, to let his team succeed at the highest level.