Portland High School basketball seniors (from left) Rowan Bell, Isabelle McClelland, and Natalie Przestrzelski have helped lead the Highlanders through a rebuilding season.
Portland High School girls’ basketball first-year head coach Kelly Coleman is back to her old stomping ground.
Coleman, a 2011 graduate of PHS, is the program’s all-time leading scorer and was an all-state player on the Highlanders first and only state championship team.
After finishing her high school career with 1,639 points, Coleman went on to star on the courts at the University of New England in Maine and has now returned to for the second chapter in Portland.
“This has been my dream,” Coleman said of her returning to PHS. “Back then it was ‘someday’ and now that day is finally here.”
Coleman had a familiar face joining her on the sideline in her mother, Diane Coleman, who is in her third stint as an assistant with the program.
The mother-daughter team took over a program shortly before the season tipped, inheriting a team that lost eight seniors to graduation a season ago.
After starting this season with 13 consecutive losses, the Highlanders have rebounded with a couple of impressive wins late in the season.
“There were some big shoes to fill after losing so many seniors, but the kids have stepped up and everyone is working together and making everyone better,” said Coleman. “We’ve had some tough losses, but no one has ever given up and that is one thing that I really admire about all of these girls, they have never hung their heads and they are always looking towards the next game.”
Coleman has leaned on the team’s three seniors — Isabelle McClelland, Rowan Bell, and Natalie Przestrzelski —- to bridge the gap between the players and the new coaching staff.
“My mom and I are new faces and we’re just trying to build the trust with the kids and get them behind what our vision of the program will be,” Coleman stated.
McClelland said that coach staff’s optimistic outlook has helped create a positive “chemistry” in and out of competition.
“It’s been fun. We know that everyone is happy on the court,” added McClelland. “We lost a lot of really good players last year, but it’s been fun building up the team.”
Rowan agreed that seeing the development of the younger players has been rewarding.
“It feels really good to see the girls grow and have more confidence on the court,” added Rowan. “As a freshman I was definitely scared because it was my first year playing basketball, so we’ve made it welcoming and I think that they’ve enjoyed it.”
One of the highlights of the year was a 56-36 victory over Old Lyme on Jan. 30. The Highlanders had lost to the Wildcats by three points at PHS in the second game of the season, but rebounded to post their best scoring output of the season in the rematch at Old Lyme.
“Going into the season we knew we might not have the best record, but we made it a goal to get better each game and have those building blocks for each game,” stated Coleman. “Old Lyme was a good example of how we did that. We are getting better and the kids have never given up.”
Sophomore guard Morganne Pineda led the way in the win over Old Lyme, scoring a career-high 31 points.
Coleman said that Pineda and junior Jamie Lasky have given the team a great inside-out combination with Pineda providing a threat on the perimeter and Lasky doing damage down low.
“Morganne is doing a great job at reading the court. She has always been a scorer and now she is doing a good job at getting the kids involved,” stated Coleman. “Jaime has been a consistent player all season. She is a natural in the post and she is a hustler.”
The team earned their second win of the season on a memorable Senior Night, defeating Hale Ray 36-26 on Feb. 7.
Pineda netted 16 points and Lasky added a dozen, yet it was the hoopla surrounding the game that made it extra special for the entire program.
The coaching staff reimplemented a tradition of the past in “Girls Night Out”, which invites all the local youth basketball programs — from grade school through middle school — to the team’s Senior Night for a celebration and to recognize the trio of seniors.
It was a perfect send off for the seniors and a chance for the next generation of Highlanders to experience what it’s like at the high school level.
“It was so cool, there were so many people around,” said McClellan, “Those are all the girls that will be playing here in a few years, so it was awesome to see them come out and have the whole town supporting us.”
Rowan added that the Senior Night triumph was a reflection on the season and how the team had improved from the first day until now.
“We are a mentally strong team now and we weren't as much in the beginning,” added Rowan. “We’re always supporting each other and I don't think many other teams have the connection that we do. “
For the Colemans, combining on the courts again is an opportunity they have waited over a decade for.
The last time they were together on the local courts in 2011, the season ended with a state championship. Now, they hope to build the program back into championship-contenders.
“Kelly and I make a great team, we play off each other’s strengths,” stated Diane Coleman. “Kelly has a phenomenal way of connecting with people. Her personality, knowledge of the game and strong desire to succeed is second to none.”
Kelly Coleman added, “From the beginning of the season until now we are a completely different team. The wins will come, but as long as we can keep improving on the little things, then I think they will come sooner than later.”
The team closes the regular season tonight (Friday, Feb. 17) at Hale Ray. Tip-off is 6 p.m.
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin