By BRIAN CUNNIFF
The Middle Township High School girls basketball team jumped at the chance to play Haddonfield in its season finale last weekend, even though the result wasn’t ideal.
Sure, the Lady Panthers could have scheduled a different opponent to give them a better chance of finishing the season undefeated. But Middle’s program has never been about shying away from top competition.
As fellow Group II schools, Middle and Haddonfield often meet deep in the South Jersey playoffs. Last season, Middle won on Haddonfield’s home floor en route to a spot in the South Jersey Group II title game.
“This is what our program does,” Middle coach John Leahy said. “If anybody looks at our schedule every year, we always challenge our kids. I feel like, it’s March, so it’s only fitting that we’re playing Haddonfield since we seem to play them every year in the state tournament.”
Saturday’s 47-37 defeat to Haddonfield prevented Middle from finishing unblemished. But the coaches and players were thankful to have the chance to play one of South Jersey’s best small-school programs.
“It was awesome to play this game,” said senior guard Kate Herlihy, who poured in 26 points in her final high school game. “I was so happy to play a really good team at the end. It was a fun game, even though we lost.”
Middle (8-1) trailed by as many as 15 points in the second half before cutting Haddonfield’s lead to as low as six points with less than three minutes to play but the Lady Panthers got no closer. Standout senior Keegan Douglas scored 16 points, going 8 for 8 from the foul line in the fourth quarter, for Haddonfield (14-1).
The game was Middle’s only contest after getting shut down for two weeks due to concerns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. Middle came back in time to hold two practices prior to the contest.
“Regardless of whether we were shut down for a while, we knew this was going to be a really tough game,” Leahy said. “We’re not making any excuses. We played as hard as we can but to Haddonfield’s credit they had some kids step up and make shots. Sometimes you have to tip your hat and give the other team credit.”
The loss signals the end of an era at Middle, as Herlihy, a four-year starter, exits the program. After averaging 22.6 points, 7.9 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 3.8 steals per game as a senior, she emerged as one of South Jersey’s top players despite the team playing just nine games. Herlihy ended her career with 1,239 points, good for ninth in program history, even though she missed at least 18 games her senior season due to the pandemic. She led Middle to first place in the pandemic-created Cape-Atlantic East Division, widely regarded as the top division in the CAL. Middle won all eight of its division games. Middle was ranked 18th in the state before Saturday’s loss.
“It was definitely weird but it was still one of my favorite seasons ever,” Herlihy said. “We just had a lot of fun.”
In addition to Herlihy, senior starting forward Brynn Bock also graduates. Middle will rely on players like juniors Lynasia Harris, Kylie Graham and Brianna Robinson and sophomores Jada Elston and Mia Elisano going forward.
“Kate will be a big loss going forward,” Leahy said. “Four years ago, we basically gave her the keys to the car and she’s been driving it ever since. I’m very, very thankful for all the time and effort she and her family have given to us. But not just us, but also the school and the multiple programs here and the community.
“Obviously we’re going to miss her, but as I said to the girls, you build a culture where you have certain expectations. People graduate and others have to step up in bigger roles. We still expect to be good next year and we’re not going to back off the schedule. We’ll try to figure it out as we go.”