Hampton girls basketball team unwraps memorable holiday trip

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Saturday, January 7, 2023 | 11:01 AM


The Hampton girls basketball players received a Christmas present they will never forget.

The Talbots competed in the Pensacola Beach Christmas Tournament in Pensacola, Fla., the first time the program has traveled to an out-of-state tournament in at least two decades.

“It was great,” junior guard Kathleen Milon said. “We really played together as a team, and it was just a really fun tournament.”

The Talbots went 1-2 from Dec. 27-29, losing to a pair of Tennessee powers — Lincoln County (57-51) and Jackson South Side (58-43) — before topping Fayetteville Starr’s Mill (Ga.), 49-42, in the finale.

Hampton was the only school at the 22-team event from the North. Other schools hailed from Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina and Tennessee.

“We played pretty well,” senior forward Claire Rodgers said. “They were pressing a lot. We haven’t seen that much pressure all year.

“I think it will definitely help us. We don’t see anything like that (back home). So we are prepared for whatever they throw at us now.”

The Talbots were 6-4 overall (1-1 in Section 2-5A) as of Jan. 2. On Jan. 6, they were scheduled to visit Fox Chapel to begin a run of 10 consecutive section games in their bid to return to the WPIAL playoffs.

They brought back some confidence from Florida. Milon, who averaged 15.3 points in the three games, senior guard Meghan Murray (15.0 ppg) and Rodgers earned medals after being named to an all-tournament team.

After one of the coldest Christmas Eves in Pittsburgh history, the five-day trip to Florida involved more than just playing basketball. The traveling party consisted of eight varsity players — Rodgers, Murray, Milon, McKenna Andrews, Emma Rick, Sterling Thomson, Haley Hoehler and Ava Galuska — as well as coaches Tony Howard, Neal Martin and Cate Potter and a couple of parents.

The excursion started on Christmas night, when the players held a sleepover at Murray’s house on the eve of their Dec 26 flight. They awoke at 3 a.m. to begin their journey.

“We didn’t get much sleep,” said Rodgers, who, along with Hoehler, was flying for the first time.

Fortunately, the Talbots were able to reach the Florida panhandle without any travel issues. The Mars boys basketball team, on the other hand, never made it to the Pensacola event after their Southwest flights were canceled. The Hampton girls had booked a different airline, Delta, for the trip to Florida.

“We avoided the turbulence,” Howard said.

The players bonded during the trip. All eight of them stayed in the same three-room suite at a Pensacola Hilton and were regulars in the hot tub, on the beach volleyball court and at the local shops and nearby sushi restaurants. Prior to a pair of their early afternoon tipoffs, Milon, Murray and Rodgers cooked a pregame meal of eggs, bacon and pancakes for the team using the suite’s kitchenette.

Following their physical loss to undefeated South Side (Tenn.), the 2022 Class 3A state runner-up, the Hampton players went to the beach and braved the chilly Gulf waters for an afternoon “ice bath.”

“It was such a great team-bonding trip for us,” Milon said. “The competition was really good. The high intensity of the games will really help us. (But) no matter what happened, we were just excited to get to be in Florida together and play as a team. It really brought us together.”

Hampton typically stays home over the Christmas break; the Talbots have hosted a holiday tournament for more than two decades.

But Howard and his staff decided last March to head south this season to increase team bonding and potentially face tougher opponents. With the help of the Hampton boosters and some fundraising efforts by the girls, they booked the trip to the Pensacola event.

“We decided to give this one a shot,” Howard said.

The Hampton boys hosted their holiday tournament, but Howard said the future of the girls event is “going to be a year-by-year thing at this point.”

He said the trip to Florida was invaluable for his players and for more reasons than just the high-level caliber of their opponent.

“The kids had a great time,” he said. “I think they are very happy that we went. The experience was great.

“It’s mainly about camaraderie and chemistry and an experience they won’t forget. And a little bit about basketball. But I think we got more about basketball than we maybe think.”

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