By BRIAN CUNNIFF
CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — The Middle Township High School boys basketball team’s game against Mainland on Monday went the same way as many of the Panthers’ games this season.
The team battled hard against a more experienced team, threatened to keep the game close to the finish but then ultimately faded down the stretch in a 61-50 defeat.
It’s been a trying season for Middle so far. But it’s certainly understandable under the circumstances.
The Panthers lost Jalen Freeman at the end of last school year. Freeman, who transferred to Pleasantville and recently scored his 1,000th career point there, had averaged 17.3 points per game for Middle last season.
As if the loss of Freeman wouldn’t be enough to overcome, senior forward Coley Holton then went down with a season-ending injury less than a week before the start of the regular season. Holton was projected to be at least a 15-point-per-game player this season.
Cameron Hamer, another senior who was a starter last season, is also currently out with a hand injury.
“It’s very difficult to lose guys like that,” Middle coach Anthony Farmer said. “We put together a pretty difficult (non-conference) schedule and then Jalen leaves and Coley gets hurt. Those are two seniors and two core pieces that we thought were going to make us a very solid basketball team. Now, A.J. (Baez) is the only kid we have that had any varsity experience from last year.”
Monday’s loss to Mainland dropped Middle to 2-7 for the season.
There is cause for optimism, though, as some younger players are seeing significant playing time. Sophomore guard Marcus Pierce is averaging in double figures and is establishing himself as one of the Cape-Atlantic League’s better young players. Juniors Miles Sapp and Torey Harris have shown potential in the post. And seniors Baez, Matt Sgrignioli and Matt Marino are providing leadership and some outside shooting.
Middle showed its potential last weekend. It led powerful Eastern for much of the game at the Seagull Classic at Holy Spirit, only to lose that lead in the final period and lose, 61-57.
“We’ve definitely shown flashes but I think (Monday) against Mainland we regressed,” Farmer said. “We go on the road to a neutral site and battle a team like Eastern down to the wire. But then we come out here against Mainland with the wrong approach and wrong mindset. We tried to turn it on in the third quarter (cutting a 10-point deficit to two) but we’re not a good enough or experienced enough team yet to get down 10, 11 points and come back and win against a good team.”
Middle’s schedule gets no easier. After a contest with Vineland Wednesday, the Panthers face successive games against Pleasantville, Winslow Township and St. Augustine before a rivalry game Cape May Tech next Wednesday.
“We just have to come and get better every day and see progression out of this group. That’s really the only goal,” Farmer said. “I don’t think we can be judged on wins and losses. I think we’ll string a few (wins) together at some point, but right now I just want them to work hard, keep a good spirit and come to practice and get better. Hopefully that will eventually translate for a few wins for this group.”