By BRIAN CUNNIFF
A lot was made out of the Wildwood High School boys basketball team’s run to the South Jersey title game last week as a No. 14 seed, and rightly so.
But the girls team at Middle Township enjoyed a Cinderella run of its own.
After an easy first-round win at home, the Lady Panthers won a pair of road games as a lower seed and made it to the South Jersey Group II championship game.
Unfortunately, Middle ran into a Manchester Township team that entered the state tournament ranked No. 2 in the state. Manchester rolled to a 61-36 victory that ended Middle’s season at an impressive 24-6.
“Obviously I’m real proud of my group,” Middle coach John Leahy said. “I’m really happy with the way we finished our season.”
Middle, a team with just two seniors in the regular rotation, was the fifth seed in the South Jersey Group II sectional. After a 30-point win over Pt. Pleasant Boro, the team went on the road and posted a 50-36 victory over No. 4 Cinnaminson before stunning top-seeded Sterling, 42-40, in the sectional semifinal.
Middle’s state tournament run came after the team won two games in the Cape-Atlantic League Playoff Tournament before losing in the title game to Ocean City.
“For us to get to the finals of both tournament is a tremendous accomplishment in itself,” Leahy said. “You lose that CAL final the way we did, sometimes it’s tough to bounce back from that but this group, to their credit, gathered themselves and they were back in the gym the next day getting ready for the state tournament. They really rebounded and responded the way any coach would want.”
Middle’s late-season success came after the team began the season by posting a rather pedestrian 4-4 record through eight games. It went 20-2 thereafter.
“To do what we did in the playoffs, going on the road and beating two really good teams in Cinnaminson and Sterling, I think it says a lot about our team and the heart they showed all season,” Leahy said. “And I think it shows how much we improved over the course of the season.”
Middle seems in good place going forward, too. Victoria London was the only senior starter. Key sub Paige Fox and Logan Thomas were the other seniors. Junior Kira Sides led the team in scoring at 17.3 points per game. She was also the top rebounder at 6.4 per game. Sophomore point guard Kate Herlihy added 11.2 points and a team-best 2.5 steals per game. And junior Aubrey Hunter, who showed marked improvement as the season progressed, added 5.7 points and 4.6 rebounds per outing. Junior guard Maddie Barber was also a starter and led the team in assists per game at 2.5. Another junior, forward Sophia Terenik, was a key player off the bench.
“I feel good about our group that will be returning,” Leahy said. “It’s always tough to lose your seniors and Tori and Paige and Logan were not only major parts of our program but they all play other sports and they’re major leaders in our school, too.
“It’s good to know we’ll have a lot of varsity experience coming back, but I’m also happy with some of our younger kids. I can see some of them pushing for varsity minutes next year and healthy competition is a good thing to have in a program.
“Most of our kids are out there with their lacrosse sticks or they have softball bats in their hands now but we’ll put in the time we need in the summer and I’m sure the kids will be ready to go next season and maybe we can take things a step further.”