Sports are a big part of Haley Unger’s identity.
One of the top girls basketball players in the Shore Conference, the Marlboro High School athlete also stars in volleyball.
“I definitely love sports in general because I am very competitive,” she said, “but my focus has always been pretty much on basketball. I do love volleyball, too. I love to win. I really hate to lose. I love working toward a goal and working with a team makes it that much better.
“It almost seems weird not playing basketball almost everyday or not playing a sport each day. It’s an identity thing. Sports are a part of who I am. Sports have really helped shape who I am in the classroom. They have helped me get into college.”
Unger’s derives her competitive nature from her genetics.
Her mother, Doris, played volleyball at Hunter College High School in New York City. Unger’s father, Harmon, competed in basketball, wrestling and football at Lincoln High School in New York City. Her dad and mom coached basketball and volleyball, respectively, in New York City. Unger’s sister, Chelsea, swam for Marlboro and Marist College.
“It’s always great to have an athletic family,” Haley Unger said. “We can all play sports together. I grew up swimming. Sports bring my family together. Sports help me make friends in school.”
The bar is set high for Unger, who averaged 17.4 points, 14.0 rebounds and 4.2 steals per game last year. She led the Mustangs to a 17-8 overall record and third place in Class A North at 7-5.
“Any of the pressure I feel whether it’s in basketball or volleyball is placed on myself by myself,” she said. “We as a family don’t like to lose. If anything, I am my own worst critic. I judge myself harshly. I have high expectations of how I perform in sports and in school (she owns a 4.17 grade point average). My parents taught me that attitude growing up.”
Unger said she is watched closely by both parents.
“Who’s my toughest critic?” she asked, repeating a reporter’s question. “It depends on the sport. My dad takes a back seat for volleyball, but he steps up more when it’s the basketball season. It helps to have parents who went through the sport and coached female athletes my age. I also have coaches who were in my shoes when they played.”
Unger said she enjoys the team aspect of sports.
“It’s real fun meeting new people and bonding with the girls,” she said. “I like being on a team with everyone working on reaching one goal. It’s not so much about each individual. It’s about how we all come together and perform. It’s great when the chemistry on the volleyball and basketball courts works out.
“It’s awesome when you have teammates who are best friends and can be trusted when the game is on the line. It allows me to function without being nervous about the person who is standing next to me.”
Unger wasted little time displaying her volleyball prowess, putting up 12 kills, two blocks, five digs and five aces in a 2-1 win over host Southern Regional in the regular-season opener for both teams earlier this year. Southern entered the match 183-3 all-time against Shore Conference opponents.
“It was a huge win,” Unger said. “We were focused more on our team and what we could do to win than Southern’s record. We worked on our defense as they have real great hitters. We worked on our blocking and adjusted our players to see what we could do to stop Southern and still score our points.”
A four-year varsity starter, Unger is a team captain and an outside hitter.
“She is a powerful outside hitter and a great blocker,” Marlboro coach Margie McNamara said. “She gives the girls on our team confidence. She never gets frazzled about anything. She always says, ‘Don’t worry about it. We will be fine.’ That really helps the other girls. She comes to me when something goes wrong and acts like, ‘Mac, don’t worry about it. We will be fine.’ “
Unger displayed her competitive nature against the Rams.
“She does not back down,” McNamara said, “and she is the ultimate competitor. She does not want to lose. She will do whatever she has to do to make it work and make it happen.”
Unger puts her 5-foot-11, 175-pound frame to good use on the volleyball court.
“Her passing is spot on,” McNamara said. “She’s so agile. She can move from side to side.”
Unger is also adept at serving.
“If she finds a target, watch out,” McNamara said. “She can serve a float serve. She switches it up and does a hard serve. She can hit a short serve. She hardly misses a serve. Her best serve is a hard serve that is an inch or two over the net. It goes over hard and drops.”
Unger is not afraid to crack a joke or two to break the tension among the Mustangs.
McNamara said Unger makes the team laugh each day, but also can flip a switch and turn on the intensity at a moment’s notice.
In basketball, she’s known to play bigger than her size.
“She plays like she is six feet tall,” Marlboro coach Kristin Hein said. “She is arguably one of the best forwards and centers in the Shore Conference. She has become very good at finishing around the basket. She makes little moves inside. Nobody can get in her way and stop her. When people do get in her way, they foul her, but she goes to the line and knocks it down from there.”
Unger is a well-conditioned athlete, the result of intense training. Hein said she once ran into her during a practice and got the wind knocked out of her.
That undoubtedly helps Unger on the boards, where she is known as a fierce rebounder.
“She is beyond determined inside,” Hein said. “She rips down the rebounds, too. She does not have very good ups (leaping ability), but she is deceptive. People call her an undersized post, but they have no idea what they are in for.”
Unger captained the Mustangs last season and takes pride in captaining both the volleyball and basketball teams.
Hein said her determination to win shines through in her willingness to be a team player and do whatever it takes to help the team win.
Unger admits to being quite loud in crucial game situations.
“It is real important for me to keep the girls focused and to get them to maintain their composure when there are 30 seconds left in the game and we have to make the stop,” she said. “I love taking on that leadership role.”
Unger hopes her next stop will be a basketball career at the United States Naval Academy.
“One of the most important things was choosing a high academic school,” said Unger, who organized a clothing drive for superstorm Sandy victims last fall. “I looked at Navy and other Patriot League schools as you have to have certain GPA and SAT scores to attend those schools. In most schools, if you are an athlete they can just get you in. At the same time, I wanted to attend a school where I could contribute to the basketball program. I feel I can do that at Navy.
“I also wanted to find a school that had the rah-rah of a big school while still having small enough classes and high academics. I also wanted the prestige of a great university. I could not have asked for more in Navy.”
A self-described “stat nerd” who studies advanced placement calculus and advanced placement statistics, Unger is a possible engineering major.
“That is my likely major as I am a fan of math,” she said.
Unger showed up on Navy’s radar about a year ago while she was playing for the Jersey Shore Wildcats, an Amateur Athletic Union team.
“Navy liked my physicality and intangibles,” Unger said. “Two assistant coaches saw me, then the head coach watched me play. They looked at my academics. I went on an unofficial visit, met the head coach and that’s when I was pretty much set on Navy.”
Unger soon hopes to sign her National Letter of Intent to attend Navy.
“I guess choosing a school early really does take some of the pressure off of me,” she said. “My situation is laid out. At this point, I am in preparation mode. I want to come into school being as fit as possible. I want to have my 15 and 18-footer ready to go by the time I get there. I wan to be as complete a player as I can be so that I can be an impact player right away.
“Whether I get minutes significant or otherwise as a freshman, I totally believe practice players are just as helpful as creating a successful team. We have to keep each other motivated in practice and on the road trips. Whether I play right away or not, I hope to be able to contribute and make an impact.”