By Wayne Witkowski
Middletown High School South’s girls basketball team reached the NJSIAA Group III state championship game for the second straight year as many had hoped and some expected with the number of leading veterans coming back to the team.
What they didn’t expect going into the season was the adversity they confronted on their way to getting there, starting with head coach Tom Brennan leaving the team in December to recover from heart surgery. And then there was trusty starter Haley Dalonzo going down for the season at the midway mark with a knee injury.
They can only speculate how things could have been different following a 47-36 loss to Northern Valley Regional High School at Old Tappan March 13 at Pine Belt Arena in Toms River in a rematch of last year’s title game, which the Eagles had won. Instead, the players who were on the floor can only consider what fell short as they made a gutsy comeback before suffering only their fourth loss in 29 games.
“We missed a bunch of layups,” said Stephanie Karcz, who was held to eight points at the end of a spectacular high-school career. She’s heading to Loyola University in Baltimore in the fall. “Definitely my performance reflects on the team, but it all depends on what we do as a whole, not an individual’s game.
“We did not play like we’re used to — didn’t run our offense like we usually do.”
Karcz said she felt confident her team would come back and win after it cut down a 23-5 lead at halftime by Old Tappan (26-4) to seven points. Credit that to an uncharacteristic scoreless second quarter for Middletown South, as Old Tappan opened up an 11-5 lead in the first quarter.
The deficit was as high as 21 points before Middletown South mounted a 14-point run spanning the third and fourth quarters. Alexandra Balsamo rallied the Eagles back after the third-quarter break, scoring seven of her 12 points in a 9-0 run that pulled Middletown South to 36-29 three minutes into the fourth quarter. But they couldn’t get over the hump from there.
Isla Brennan, daughter of coach Brennan, who turned the team over to trusty assistant Jessie Chalmers during his recovery, led the Eagles with 13 points. She is one of five freshmen on a team that loses three seniors in Karcz, Julia Valkos and Brianne Naughton.
It’s a season that the trio can look back on with pride and set the bar high for the future.
“I’m still proud, no matter what, with all the stuff [we had] going on through the season,” Karcz said.
“When the going gets tough, the girls come up huge,” Chalmers said. “We dealt with a lot of adversity and never lost sight of our goals: to win the division and section championship and to repeat as state champions, although we fell short there. The upperclassmen were tremendous with this young team. Over the course of the season, the girls stuck by the coaches. They never gave up, and it’s a credit to the upperclassmen, the three seniors.
“It was remarkable to be around this group of girls. [I] could not be more proud. We love this group of girls.”
Amid the adversity that included injuries that sidelined Valkos and Isla Brennan for part of the season, the opportunity was given to younger players to step forward and keep the team winning while grooming their skills for the future. Along with Brennan, fellow freshman Emily McCarthy started and Eve Pirie had some stellar moments.
“We definitely had the most freshmen we’ve had [on the team], and the seniors instilled the family environment and hard-working atmosphere,” Karcz said.
“I’ve been around this group for some time, and it’s been such a roller coaster this season. But it was inspiring to be with such positive people,” Chalmers said. “That got us through.”
If Dalonzo fully recovers from her injury, she’ll provide some of the leadership to keep the team moving along as its bid for continued success, which included a third straight NJSIAA Central Jersey, Group III championship this season.