By Wayne Witkowski
Two crosstown girls basketball rivals who both enjoying strong starts to their seasons renewed a tradition Jan. 20 when Middletown High School South hosted Middletown High School North.
Middletown South comes into the week 10-1 and Middletown North is 7-3.
But there is one change on the bench for defending NJSIAA Group IV champion Middletown South — longtime varsity assistant and junior varsity coach Jessie Chalmers served as interim coach against her former high school team where she scored more than 1,000 career points. She has stepped in for head coach Tom Brennan, who is home recovering from a quadruple bypass that took place on New Year’s Eve.
Brennan said he felt discomfort after a Dec. 27 WOBM Christmas Classic semifinals victory over Wall High School that worsened as the night wore on. He went from his home to Jersey Shore Medical Center in Neptune, where he was admitted and had surgery four days later.
“The girls are motivated for coach Brennan and for each other,” Chalmers said. “They’ve focused well on winning and refuse to lose.”
Middletown South is 6-1 since she took over. It lost, 67-56, to Manasquan High School in the WOBM finals and won its last five games.
A 60-47 victory over Newark Tech High School Jan. 16 in the Bulldog Challenge is the closest victory in Brennan’s absence. Alexandra Balsamo led the way with 17 points, while Stephanie Karcz and Haley Dalonzo added 15 and 12 points, respectively, as the Eagles won going away in the second half from an early deficit.
Chalmers has been the junior varsity coach for the past four seasons after serving as a volunteer assistant for four seasons before that. Joe Bembrook is assisting Chalmers on the bench, and Tom Rooney has taken over coaching the junior varsity team.
“Our staff has done a great job. We’re all together on this,” Chalmers said. “We would not be doing as well as we have if not for our staff and our players.”
“They’re doing incredible things,” Brennan said of the work Chalmers, her staff and his team are doing.
Brennan met with his team recently.
“[It] was so special. Text messaging can only take you so far,” Brennan said.
“We’re taking everything day to day,” Chalmers said. “We’re in constant communication. Coach Brennan has established a phenomenal program and from the day we started [this season], the team has been so close. I’ve learned from the best. The team is in good shape right now.”
Brennan said he begins physical rehabilitation this week.
“After that, I’ll have a better idea [of when I’ll be back],” Brennan said.
“We’re still playing the same way — some games not as good as others even though we’re winning,” Dalonzo said. “The coaches have been stepping up and helping us with preparation and scouting, but the players emotionally have taken this pretty well. It’s just weird not having him there for important games and for advice.”
Brennan and Chalmers talked about how the Middletown community, beyond the basketball community, has come together to express its support.
“The outpouring of support has been great,” Brennan said.
“The Middletown community has been wonderful,” Chalmers said. “Not just Middletown but the Shore Conference has been supportive from a lot of coaches. Coach Brennan has such a good reputation. He’s so well liked. It’s all really comforting.”
Middletown North coach Ed Jones said he expected to coach against the same style Middletown South plays when Brennan is there.
“The prayers of Middletown North go to Tom Brennan,” Jones said.
“Coach Jones has been so supportive. It’s always been an interesting rivalry, so strong,” Chalmers said of playing Middletown North. “It’s a great atmosphere and coaching against my former team will be fun.”
Karcz is the integral figure on both ends of the court for Middletown South, while Balsamo and Dalonzo have been reliable scorers. Senior Julia Valkos, who is back from an injury that sidelined her in December, has worked her way into the starting lineup along with freshman Isla Brennan, Tom Brennan’s daughter.
Off the bench, senior center Brianne Naughton has been solid on defense and freshmen guard/forward Samantha Keenan, center Eve Pirie, forward Grace Curtis and guard Emily McCarthy and sophomore Gabby Cook also have made substantial contributions.
“I’m so proud of Isla and what she has had to deal with at home and as a player,” Tom Brennan said.
“They’re running the same stuff as a team. They haven’t changed at all,” Jones said. “To beat them, you have to play defense. We have to do a better job on the floor [ball possession-wise] and boxing out and keeping them to one shot.”
Both teams play again later in the season.
Chalmers said that she looked forward to coaching against Middletown North, which pivots its play on the performance of juniors Kamani Williams, a 5-foot-7 forward, and 5-foot-6 forward Hallie Hallard — the tallest starters and top scorers who each average about 13 points a game.
Also instrumental to the Lions’ success are senior guards Julia Ferrari and Kristen Lenich and 5-foot-6 junior forward Dani Tollevsen, whose older sister — Nicole — is a former Lions standout currently playing at Catholic University.
Senior guard Jordan Derise scored double-digit point totals in three games coming off the bench. Senior Kaitlyn McManus also has made some solid contributions as backup and is one of the three captains along with Lenich and Ferrari.
Also helping off the bench is senior guard Payleigh Behan; sophomore guard Caleigh McAnuff, who has good long-shooting range; sophomore guard Kiera Williams; and freshman point guard Melissa Golembieski.
“I’m a defensive coach and we’re playing well there, but there’s always room to improve,” Jones said.
Jones is pointing his team toward returning to the state tournament and making the Shore Conference tournament for the first time in recent years.
“We’re in a good position. We’re on the right track,” said Jones, who feels his team has been playing better in recent games despite losing two of the last three coming into this week.