Takai Emerson-Hardy, Agjanti Miller lead Viking charge
Launching the Monticello Empire League season in spring was odd for all concerned. But when it was time for tipoff for Vacaville and Vanden High at Vacaville’s Harold Youngblood Gymnasium on Tuesday night, the players on both teams put COVID and other distractions aside and settled in for some hard-fought hoops, even if both teams were understandably rusty.
Vanden came away on top, 68-54, led by 6-7 junior Takai Emerson-Hardy’s 21 points and senior Agjanti Miller’s 17. Senior I’saac Montgomery also played a key role, coming off the bench to score 12 points to go along with some tough defense.
Those three were a big part of Vanden’s Sac-Joaquin Section Division III championship team last year, and they provided the glue whenever Vacaville drew close.
And all three like what they have seen so far in their teammates.
“We’ve got a good group,” said Emerson-Hardy. “Once we start meshing more we’re going to be unstoppable. We just have to execute and be tuned in at all times.”
“I’m confident I’m going to give them the ball and they are going to make a shot,” said Miller. “I’m confident in them playing defense.”
Vanden blew out to a 12-2 lead, playing at a blistering pace up and down the floor. That forced a Vacaville timeout. The Bulldogs regrouped and methodically plugged away at the lead with their 2-3 zone causing the Vikings some problems. Vacaville got six points from big man Nathan Schnell and five from sharp-shooting guard Brayden Kamman to close the quarter trailing by just a point, 14-13.
Miller had ten of Vanden’s points in the quarter.
Montgomery entered in the second quarter and added some instant offense with seven points in the stanza, including a three-pointer. Despite several turnovers, the Vikings turned up the defensive heat and outscored the Bulldogs 13-9 in the quarter to take a 27-22 halftime lead.
“The first half we came out a little sloppy,” said Emerson-Hardy. “The second half we picked it up, started playing defense more, started being more vocal.”
Emerson-Hardy let his actions do the talking as the second half began, dribbling downcourt and elevating for a thunderous dunk to make it 29-22. But Vacaville clawed right back with seven straight points, punctuated by an Evan Adams three-ball to knot the score at 29.
Then Vanden applied defensive pressure, forcing two consecutive turnovers and a 10-second violation, and pulled away for a 36-32 lead keyed by two buckets by Isaiah Moore, one of them a dunk. Buckets by Jalen Encinas and Emerson-Hardy pushed the lead to 40-32. Emerson-Hardy had two more baskets before the quarter ended to help Vanden to a 47-40 lead.
Vacaville started to close the gap in the final quarter, but Moore and Miller slammed back-to-back dunks to give the Vikings a 58-49 lead with 2:33 remaining and force a Vacaville timeout. The Bulldogs never recovered, and Vanden closed out the game with six consecutive free throws, two each by Montgomery, Moore and Emerson-Hardy.
Moore finished the night with 14 points. Vacaville was led by Kamman’s 20 points and 17 from Schnell.
Asked what it has been like to prepare for a season on short notice in the midst of the pandemic, Vanden head coach Micheal Holloway replied, “Today was just chaotic, very unprepared. And with COVID and regulations, even if you think you’re prepared, you’re not prepared. So scrambling around, trying to make sure the guys are as comfortable as possible, our fans are as comfortable
as possible and making sure that as a leader of this program we are following all the protocols.”
Two guests per athlete were allowed in the bleachers for the game, so it was far from a packed house. The energy that a huge crowd generates was lacking, and the coaches could actually be heard directing their players.
The teams started practice just a couple of weeks ago.
“No matter how much we practice you get into a league setting and it’s a rival game every game,” said Holloway. “So it’s weird and awkward, and at least they are getting out here and getting a chance to play, especially my four seniors.”
Miller admitted the team had some mental lapses and still has to shake off some cobwebs.
“The season is supposed to be over already,” said Miller. “It just started, so it’s kind of odd.”
But Montgomery is optimistic.
“As long as we play hard, it don’t matter if we’re rusty,” he said. “We’re going to make it happen.”
Holloway noted the difficulty in having full practices because many of the sports have dovetailed in this spring COVID season and he has some multi-sport athletes. But overall, he was pleased with his team’s performance.
“They did fine,” he said. “It’s hard because there is not much time to fine-tune in between testing and limited practices. We just have to take the good with the bad. It’s always good to get a W against a quality opponent.”
One multi-sport athlete on everybody’s mind was Vanden football-basketball star Daniel Hughes, who passed away recently after a tragic shooting on Easter Sunday. Hughes would have been a big part of the Vikings hoop squad. The team brought his No. 11 jersey to the game and all the players wore a wristband with his name.
Montgomery, Miller and Emerson-Hardy said they were all very close, like brothers, with Hughes, who they have known since elementary school.
“It’s heavy,” said Holloway. “We’ve been dealing with it a lot. He’s a special human being. Our community right now is still mourning, but the impact of losing a kid like that is going to be long-term. Great family. He was raised to be a great young man, never had under a 3.0 (GPA). He was going to be huge for us.”