By BRIAN CUNNIFF
On a very good team with seven seniors and an extremely talented junior, Jada Elston found a way to crack the varsity rotation with the Middle Township High School girls basketball team last season.
Her talent was evident almost from the start, shining through early in the season when she knocked down a big three-pointer in a win over rival Wildwood Catholic. She remained a steady contributor during a wonderful season that culminated with an appearance in the South Jersey Group II title game.
This season, Elston is looking more and more like a future star.
Thrust into a much larger role, Elston is a major reason why the Lady Panthers have won all seven of their games entering this week.
Senior Kate Herlihy, who’s averaging well over 20 points per game, has garnered much of the headlines for Middle, and rightly so.
But the contributions of Elston, a 5-8 sophomore guard, haven’t gone unnoticed.
“In a normal year, you’d have three or four scrimmages and that would give more time for a girl like Jada to grow into an expanded role,” Middle coach John Leahy said. “Last year, with all the seniors we had, all she really had to do was come in, get her feet set, make a shot and play a little defense. This year, I think it took her a few games to figure things out and start to feel a little more confident offensively.”
Elston enters this week averaging 9.7 points per game. More critical than her scoring, however, has been her defense. Elston is regularly assigned to guard the top player on the opposing team in every game. She has guarded the likes of Wildwood Catholic’s Marianna Papazoglou, Mainland’s Camryn Dirkes, Lower Cape May’s Lindsay Holden and others and has more than held her own.
“I’m most proud of what she’s done on the defensive end,” Leahy said. “She made it really tough on Marianna. She made it really tough on Dirkes. She’s filled that role of trying to be a defensive stopper.”
It’s a role Elston enjoys.
“It just shows that Coach can rely on me, he has faith in me and he knows I can get the job done,” Elston said. “A lot of it is mental preparedness. If they score when I’m guarding them, then it’s on me. I just try to keep them down below what they average. Defense wins games. I’m just trying to step up and get the job done.”
Elston’s offense has improved as the season’s progressed as well. She has scored in double figures three times, including twice in the last three games. She netted 15 points in Friday’s win over Lower Cape May.
“We can’t all just rely on Kate,” Elston said. “Some of us have to step up and personally I feel like I have to step up because we won’t have Kate next year. I need to get more comfortable now so I’m even more comfortable for next year.”
Leahy sees Elston becoming a better offensive player with each passing game.
“She’s kept her head up even though I know in the beginning of the season she was a little frustrated with her offense.” he said. “But her defense has always been outstanding and that might have been taking away from her offense with all the energy she has to exert on that end. But the last couple weeks, we’re seeing her conditioning getting better and that’s been helping her offense more.
“There’s no question she’s a difference maker. We need her to play well against the good teams for us to have success for sure.”
Elston said she’s excited for what the last few weeks of the season will bring.
“It’s been pretty good. We’re 7-0, so I can’t complain,” she said. “We come into practice every day working hard so we’re ready to play every game. I think last year playing every day with seven seniors, that got me ready for what I was going to have to do this year.”