By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
If you want to get information on a high school basketball team, nj.com’s high school sports section is a great source. It lists every game each team plays, and under the “result” tab there is either a red “L” indicating a loss or a green “W” for a win.
There have been a lot of green Ws lately for the Egg Harbor Township girls basketball team.
The Eagles have won 10 of their last 11 games, shaking off a 5-6 start to now boast a 15-7 record heading into the opening round of the Cape-Atlantic League Tournament — and event the Eagles have qualified for this year for the first time in program history. The Eagles are the No. 8 seed in the eight-team tournament and travel to top-seeded Mainland Regional at 4 p.m.
“It’s been an amazing year, just a total team effort with every girl contributing. The younger kids have been stepping up, the older kids being leaders — it’s been fun to watch the growth of the program,” said EHT coach Adam Swift. “It’s definitely a validation. The girls can see the success we’re having and it validates all their effort and hard work. It’s a great achievement for a young team and it validates everything we’re trying to do as a program. And, most importantly, the girls deserve this opportunity.”
This is the best season the Eagles have enjoyed under Swift, who has been at the helm for three years, and EHT recently found out it will be hosting a state playoff game for the first time in 10 years. The last time EHT hosted a first-round South Jersey Group 4 playoff game was in 2012 when the Eagles beat Toms River South, 37-32.
The key to EHT’s success this year, which includes recent wins over Hammonton, Sterling, Vineland and Ocean City (the No. 2 seed in the CAL Tournament), has been its balance. The Eagles don’t have that one star player, but rather a bunch of solid parts all doing what they do best to make the machine work.
“Making the playoffs and the CAL Tournament are always our goals. This year it’s been about everybody contributing. I was going through out scorebook and we’ve had nine different girls start a game for us this year, and we’ve had six different leading scorers. So, it’s been everybody contributing and playing their role. It’s been a program year, which is fantastic,” Swift said. “You usually have that one girl you can lean on, but we have specific girls with specific skill sets. So, in late-game situations, depending on what is needed, we have a bunch of people we can turn to. Sometimes you have a tendency to think you need that one scorer to rely on, but being balanced makes defending us so difficult. There’s been a new kid step up every day. Last week started with a big win over Hammonton and Amelia Zinckgraf, who has been our leading scorer, was out, so (freshman) Lyla Brown stepped up and was our leading scorer. Against Sterling, the other freshman, Ava Kraybill, was our leading scorer and made some timely shots. Against Vineland, it was Amelia again, so everybody has played a role. And everybody else had done what’s been needed to lift the team and that’s what I’ve been most impressed with.”
EHT has just two seniors — Kierstyn Zinckgraf and Katrina Suarez, who is out tonight with a foot injury — so the Eagles have had to rely on younger players to step up. Brown lead the team in steals, assists and made 3-pointers, while another freshman, Averie Harding, has scored more than 100 points and has 84 rebounds in 16 games played. EHT also has gotten solid contributions from field hockey star Kara Wilson, a junior, and fellow junior Lindsay Dodd, the sister of former baseball stars Mike and Ethan Dodd.
“Our big thing coming in this year was how were we going to handle the ball? We lost a starting point guard (Lauren Baxter) who played a ton of minutes, so that was the big question mark we had. Who was going to be the one to handle the ball and get us into our stuff? We knew we had three talented freshmen coming in and we knew they were going to help, but the other thing was how were they going to mold with the upperclassmen? It’s worked out perfectly. Lyla Brown has been fantastic at the point and the older kids have taught the freshmen the culture we want and how we’re going to play and approach things. They’ve been leaders, but also a support system for the younger kids. I think it’s great that the older kids have stepped up and shown the younger kids how to do things, but also allowed the younger kids to build their confidence,” Swift said. “Kiersten (Zinckgraf) has been phenomenal, she’s been dominating the glass and defending the heck out of people, and we also have Katrina Suarez who has been out lately with a foot injury, but she’s been the consummate team player. She’s still supporting everybody and making sure everybody is on the same page. She’s probably one of our higher basketball IQ kids, so just having her around is fantastic. Hopefully she’ll be back at the beginning of next week.”
EHT is a prime example of a team that took some time to put all the pieces together, and one that had to get its freshmen up to speed on the varsity level. They took some lumps, suffering a three-game losing streak in mid-January, but since then the Eagles are 11-3.
“Some of it has been getting kids healthy. That has helped tremendously, and the younger kids’ growth has been important. Being a young team, just getting that experience and getting used to the physicality of a varsity game, the speed of the varsity game. And we’ve gotten better at what we do every day in practice. We make the most out of practice and that’s starting to translate into games,” Swift said. “(Making the CAL Tournament) is great for the kids. Our seniors are such great leaders, so the success they are seeing is awesome because they have been through some tough times. And for the rest of the kids, this is not going to be a one-year thing. This isn’t a team of eight seniors who has finally put it together, this group is going to continue to get better and we’re excited about that.”
Other games: No. 5 Holy Spirit travels to No. 4 Atlantic City at 4:30 p.m. today and No. 6 Middle Township visits No. 3 Wildwood Catholic at 6 p.m. On Saturday, No. 7 Absegami travels to No. 2 Ocean City at 10:30 a.m. The four winners meet in next week’s semifinals.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays