For Half Hollow Hills East, things are beginning to look a little clearer.
Thanks in part to "Goggles."
That's the nickname teammates have bestowed upon bespectacled junior forward Kristen McKenzie, who wears prescription sports goggles while on the court.
"I've been wearing them since freshman year," she said. "When I take them off, the only way I can describe it, is that the world is blurry."
But goggles or no goggles, it's now coming into focus that Half Hollow Hills East is inching closer to its first Suffolk League II championship in nearly a decade. In a matchup between two teams tied for first place, McKenzie scored 21 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and made six blocks to lead host Half Hollow Hills East to a 48-35 win over Northport Thursday night.
Julia Gnieser made a pretty bounce pass to a cutting McKenzie, who converted a layup at the buzzer to give Hills East a 21-8 lead at the end of the first quarter. McKenzie tallied 10 points in the first quarter to establish a double-digit lead that the Thunderbirds maintained for a majority of the game.
"We came together and said we needed to come out strong in the beginning to intimidate the other team," McKenzie said. "We knew this was the game we needed to win."
Aliyah Minor added 13 points and eight rebounds, and Gnieser had 11 points and four assists.
With two league games remaining, Hills East (11-1) is nearing its first league title since 2005. It was a vision Gnieser had for Hills East when she first joined the team.
"Coming in freshman year, I always said to myself that I wanted to help change the program," Gnieser said. "Now being my senior year, leaving off with a league title would be unbelievable."
Northport (10-2) trimmed the lead, which was as large as 16 points, to nine late in the third quarter after Kelley Clouse made a layup after picking up a loose ball in traffic, and drained a pair of threes. But Minor fed McKenzie as she wove through the lane and she made a runner to open a 40-29 lead the Thunderbirds would take into the fourth.
After the game, Minor was asked how important the win over Northport was in order to gain sole possession of first place. She looked across the gym, pointed at the girls basketball banner hanging on the wall and started counting the years.
"Considering we haven't won the league in nine years," she said, "this is going to be big. It would be nice to see a 2014 on that banner."
It would be a sight for sore eyes . . . goggles and all.