By Wayne Witkowski
Middletown High School South’s girls basketball team is one victory away from a return to the NJSIAA Group III championship game it won last year, and the team can credit an emotional boost provided by the bench.
For the third straight year, the Eagles won the Central Jersey, Group III championship over Neptune High School, this time by a 55-40 score March 7 on its home court.
Stephanie Karcz led the way with 18 points and made two blocks that led to fast break points on the other end, including one that ended in a key layup late in the game by freshman starter Emily McCarthy. Freshman guard Isla Brennan, daughter of head coach Tom Brennan, scored a career-high 16 points.
The Eagles (23-4) picked up their foul shooting in the fourth quarter after a slow start at the line, making 8-of-12 foul shots in the quarter after missing their first nine earlier in the game. They stopped a torrid Neptune team (23-5) that came in winning 10 of its previous 11 games.
Middletown South’s next challenge was defensive-minded Ocean City High School (25-4) in the Group III semifinals March 9 at Deptford High School. Ocean City beat Toms River High School East, 37-29, for the South Jersey, Group III title March 7 and has held its last 10 opponents to 36 points or less — two of them in the teens.
Middletown South has been no slouch on defense, limiting Neptune’s vaunted fast breaks.
The winner of the semifinals goes to the Group III championship game at the Pine Belt Arena at Toms River High School North March 13.
Karcz and Alexandra Balsamo have provided the lethal one-two punch in the second half of the season in the absence of another reliable scorer, junior Haley Dalonzo, who suffered a knee injury Jan. 22 during a game against Howell High School.
But the presence of coach Brennan, who has not coached a game since late December while recovering from heart bypass surgery but has sat on the bench and come to practices in recent weeks, has further fueled the inspired Eagles.
Assistant coach Jessie Chalmers, who has been interim head coach, said Brennan’s return has been a huge boost come tournament time.
“Having him on the bench is a tremendous boost of confidence for everyone,” Chalmers said. “Everyone’s been on the same page.
“Coach Brennan is so passionate about this team and teaching the girls life’s lessons and then teaching them to become good basketball players.”
“It’s nice to hear that because you get to know these kids beyond what they do for you as athletes when they give so much individually,” Brennan said. “I’ve needed them as much as they’ve felt they needed me. It’s a reciprocal relationship being around their positive energy.”
Brennan said he hopes to return to routines at Middletown South after spring break, according to his doctor’s advice.
“It’s mostly good, but I’m in uncharted territory because I’m still really sore,” Brennan said. “The healing process has taken longer than I thought.”
Brennan and Chalmers credit the older starters — including seniors Karcz and Brianne Naughton, junior Balsamo and widely used sub senior Julia Valkos — for helping guide the five freshmen, two of whom are starters: McCarthy and Isla Brennan.
“She was tremendous and played amazing,” Chalmers said of the younger Brennan’s game against Neptune. “Even when she picked up her fourth foul, she played with composure and confidence and came right back with a big 3-pointer.”
“It’s amazing to see how Isla has carried herself on and off the court at home with everything that’s been happening and has led this team,” Tom Brennan said. “I’m so proud of how she’s handled it.”
But it came down to the all-around efforts of Karcz.
“There was nothing Stephanie did not do in this game,” Chalmers said. “Her rebounding alone was outstanding.”
“It’s definitely been different, not having [Coach Brennan] coaching on the sideline, but we wanted to win this one for him,” Karcz said.
Valkos helped it along with two big 3-point baskets.
At one point, with Dalonzo sidelined and Valkos and Isla Brennan out healing from injuries, the Eagles were without half of their leading players. Karcz, with a tender knee, and Balsamo, with shin splints, added to the uphill climb. But the Eagles still found a way to keep on rolling and have won their last six games after a 61-40 loss to a formidable St. Rose High School team in the Shore Conference Tournament quarterfinals.
“We’ve been through an unimaginably enormous amount of obstacles and to be where we are is a tremendous tribute to those girls,” Chalmers said. “Julia Valkos is just back in the lineup and that’s a huge boost of confidence for us with her leadership skills.”
With everyone back in uniform aside from Dalonzo, the Eagles are ready to make another run for the greatest glory despite having only three seniors and five freshmen, as well as a sophomore and two juniors, on the roster.