As the Hopewell Valley High girls’ basketball team rolled into the latter portions of its season with a 10-2 record, there was still one burning question surrounding the Bulldogs.
Is there anything Kara Hageman can’t do?
Through HoVal’s first 12 games, the junior led the team in scoring (12.5 ppg), rebounding (12.2), assists (45), blocked shots (47) and steals (31). Not even LeBron James does stuff like that.
“Kara has always been capable of doing anything we asked,” coach Jeff Losch said. “The biggest difference is that we are asking her to do more this year. While the points, rebounds and blocks have been great, the most important thing has been her ability to help us break pressure. She’s also easily leading the team in assists, which is a credit to her all-around ability.”
The fact that she has become so versatile is no accident, as Hageman put in the work over the summer with her United AAU team.
“At the practices, we worked on everything from ball handling, shooting and defense,” she said. “ I think working on all of these things and playing against good competition from different areas really helped me to become a more well-rounded player.”
Well-rounded is putting it mildly. The 5-foot-11 forward is as rounded as the ball she plays with, able to help Hopewell in every way possible. But what really gives her a charge is rejecting an opponent and clearing the boards.
“I would say blocking shots and getting rebounds are really what pumps me up the most,” Hageman said. “It makes me motivated to continue working really hard and playing the best I can because it will pay off.”
Losch takes it a step further in discussing Hageman’s talents. She is not just a well-rounded player, but specific parts of her game are also well-rounded.
“Kara is a great three point shooter, can hit the mid-range shot, drive to the basket, get to the free throw line and score on putbacks,” the coach said. “Her scoring is just as versatile as her overall play.
“Her defense is also versatile. We can put her on the opponent’s best player no matter what position, or we can play her off her girl and help her teammates. She’s a great luxury to have. The hard part is figuring out which is the best way to play her.”
None of these attributes surprises Losch, who was aware of Hageman’s ability when she was playing for Coach Bill Russell at the Timberlane Middle School.
“I think it’s extremely rare,” Losch said of having a high school player this versatile. “Bill Russell told me that she could be a point guard. It did not take me long to realize he was right. Even as a freshmen, I told her that if she got a rebound, she did not have to immediately pass it to ‘a guard’, that she could bring it up herself.
“I definitely think her ball handling and passing was not as evident last year because Kelly (Williams) handled the ball so much. I think Kara’s versatility catches opponents and even officials off guard. We’ve had officials call fouls on her blocks a few times and I think they just don’t realize what’s she’s capable of. They aren’t used to seeing girls with her reach and body control.”
Williams is now at Montclair after graduating as HVCHS’s second all-time scorer. There were some questions as to how the Bulldogs would handle the guard’s loss, but through the first part of the year Hageman and slick shooting Nellie Tanguay were answering them.
“Losing Kelly was definitely a reason to not only motivate Nellie and I, but also the rest of the team,” Hageman said. “Everyone knew we had to step up our individual game to make up for the loss of such an incredible player. I think the team as a whole is doing much better than people may have expected with losing Kelly.”
The fact that Hageman is a central figure on an outstanding CVC team makes sense, since the game has apparently been part of her soul forever.
“Playing basketball is one of my earliest memories,” she said. “Ever since I can remember it seems basketball has always been in my life. I would shoot on a little toy hoop that we had and would play with my older brothers all the time.
“My neighbors also really liked to play and would have pick-up games at their house. Mostly adults played in those games, but I remember just watching and cheering on the side. My two eldest sisters also played on their high school teams. So when I wasn’t playing with my brothers, or in a game myself, I’d be at one of my siblings’ games cheering them on. I lived in Michigan up until fifth grade, and I believe I started playing on in an actual league around second grade.”
Michigan’s loss was New Jersey’s gain. Along with playing for Timberlane, Hageman was involved with a travel team that played in two different leagues.
“We normally played teams from around Central Jersey,” she said. “But it’s fun because I still recognize girls now that I have been playing against since fifth grade.”
She has also been on AAU teams for the past several summers, and is one of those rare year-round basketball players found in suburban high schools. Hoop teams often consist of girls staying in shape for softball, lacrosse, soccer or field hockey, but Hageman is all-basketball all the time.
It’s part of the reason she has gone from a good season as a sophomore to a great year as a junior.
“I did not need to tell Kara anything specific to work on (over the summer),” Losch said. “She already had all the skills last year, she just needed to keep improving them.
“She’s a very hard worker and participates in an excellent AAU program that really stresses skill work instead of just playing as many games as possible. We did discuss after last season how she will be relied upon much more heavily this season and Kara looked forward to the challenge.”
A challenge she has met in impressive fashion.