By ANDY LOIGU
You can’t win them all if you don’t win the first one.
Coming off a 16-11 season with four experienced senior players returning, the Hackettstown girls basketball team emulsified Hopatcong 76-19 on Friday evening.
“The strength of our team will be our defensive effort,” said assistant coach C.J. Robinson, as practices got underway. He wasn’t kidding.
At the end of his first season as head coach, Bernie Ivin emphasized off-season conditioning work, so the girls would be able to play relentless defense all game long, and remain strong enough so their shots don’t fall short.
Now he has an experienced crew which has the confidence that it can contend in the Freedom Division of the Northwest Jersey Athletic Conference and make a long run in the North Jersey Section 2 Group 2 tournament come March. Several of the players were on an undefeated freshman team, so the intangibles of team chemistry and a knack for winning are already there, simply fine-tuned for the demands of highly competitive varsity play.
Offensively, senior point guard Amber Sagan is the straw that stirs the drink. She was on fire on Friday evening, scoring 33 points, including seven three-point bonus bombs from beyond the arc, a feat which has earned her the Sports Chatter Whatever It Takes Award this week. Sagan led the team in scoring last year, with a 12.7 points per game average.
A player with Sagan’s talents draws a lot of attention from the defensive team, but Sagan is a smart player who makes her teammates better, distributing the ball when openings develop. Jessica Scheper was in the right places at the right times and also scored in double figures, contributing 12 points.
Also returning are Sagan’s backcourt mate Stefanie Jaxheimer (7.6 ppg) and senior forwards Hunter Ruppel and Nicole Ivin, who give the squad a strong interior defense and clear the boards.
Warren Hills 59 South Hunterdon 29
The Blue Streaks also started their girls’ basketball season off in grand style.
Devyn Gara (11 points), and Shawnn Flaherty and Stephanie Veneziano with 10 points each, led a balanced Warren Hills offense. Gara is one of the area’s top returning scorers and the group as a unit, is quick and has a high basketball IQ.
Under veteran coach Meghan McGeehan, who grew up playing in the perennially successful North Hunterdon program, the Blue Streaks were 13-13 last season and appear ready to vault themselves into contention in the very competitive Skyland Conference and North Jersey Section 2 Group 3.
Hackettstown and Warren Hills are both coming off successful seasons with 20 or more wins in boys’ basketball.
Warren Hills went 21-7 last year and made history, winning the first sectional championship ever for the Blue Streaks in boys’ basketball. However, graduation has hit the team hard and sophomore guard James Jordan returns as the team’s most experienced player. He averaged 7.6 points per game in varsity play as a freshman last year.
Hoping to make an impact at the varsity level are sophomores Mike Montana and Sean Morris and juniors Matt Tubens and center Alex Ehirim, who I shall nickname Take It To The Rim Ehirim.
Veteran coach Stan Kubbishun (who now has won sectional titles in both girls and boys hoops) has molded young teams into winners many times. He will get his players accustomed to the pace of varsity games, and keep the team focused and improving game to game, hoping they will be at their best for the biggest games as the post-season comes around.
Hackettstown was 20-8 and should be strong once again in the Freedom Division of the Northwest Jersey Athletic Conference. Coach Mike McDonagh has the philosophy that ”Nobody gets better by playing cupcakes.” He has entered the team into a Christmas tournament in Florida and five showcase tournaments, giving them a brutal non-conference schedule. He hopes it pays off come post-season playoff time.
Last year, the Tigers lost a 57-55 heartbreaker in the North Jersey Section 2 Group 2 semifinals to end a very good season. They will miss James Britt and the 14.9 points per game that he provided, but McDonagh is a believer in pressure defense forcing turnovers and fueling an offense that scores points in transition. He has several returning players who are good at playing that kind of game.
Seniors Tyler Akers and Matt Arcona averaged 8.2 and 7.8 points per game. Junior guard Jelani Awai averaged eight points per game and shows a lot of potential to step into a bigger role. Also returning to play major roles are seniors Robert Begley, Ryan Gallagher, Brandon Rojas and junior center Jack Quinoa.
Adding depth, which is important for man-to-man and pressing teams, are Ben Ward, Jeff Morgan, and Eddie O’Melia.
With size, speed, bench depth and experience, the Tigers will be hard to beat once again.
Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has left the building.