By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
LINWOOD — If you only watched the Mainland girls basketball team for one game you might think that everything just comes easily for the Mustangs because of all their individual talent. But there is a ton of hard work and attention to detail that goes into weaving a championship season over the span of four months.
The top-seeded Mustangs put on a show Monday night in the South Jersey Group 3 championship game of everything they work on during those long hours of practice, and the discipline they’ve built throughout the last several years to be able to take everything they implement in practice and have it work to perfection on Game Night.
Mainland used a 15-0 run to start the second half to blow the doors off a very good Timber Creek team. The Stangs went into halftime holding just an 18-12 lead, but when the dust had settled after that mesmerizing run, Mainland had built a 33-12 lead and cruised to a 53-24 victory. Mainland advances to the Group 3 semifinals on Wednesday night at Deptford High, where the Stangs will face Central Jersey Group 3 champion Ewing, a 69-46 winner over Colonia.
The sectional title was the second in the last four years for Mainland, and its first since Kylee Watson — now a star at the University of Oregon — led the Stangs to their only state championship in program history in 2019.
“This is everything I’ve ever wanted. I’m so happy for all the girls to get this, especially with last year being what it was. This is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing and I couldn’t be happier for everyone,” said Camryn Dirkes, one of just two seniors and the starting point guard on that 2019 team. “We said it in the locker room at halftime, we had been playing great defensively, holding them to 12 points in the first half, but our offense wasn’t finishing around the rim and we were turning the ball over more than we wanted to. So, in the second half, we needed those two things to come together, and they did.”
In all, Mainland outscored the second-seeded Chargers 17-2 in the third quarter, showing the capacity crowd why this team is 27-2 and so hard to defend. The drive started with a slashing layup from sophomore guard Bella Mazur. Then Dirkes found fellow senior Kaitlyn Boggs down low in the paint. 22-12. A three from Mazur. 25-12. Dirkes to Mazur for a press-break layup. 27-12. Another press-break layup from Mazur. 29-12.
At this point, Timber Creek (21-6) called a timeout, but the damage was done. Mainland capped off the run with a driving layup on the baseline from Dirkes to push the lead to 31-12, and then the Stangs made it 33-12 when Boggs put back a Dirkes miss in the paint. The Chargers finally stopped the bleeding with a bucket from leading scorer Amaya Burch, who finished with 13 of Timber Creek’s 24 points.
“We’ve been working so hard for this. No matter what we go through the whole season, this is what is on our mind. We take it game-by-game, but this is always the big goal at the end, so we’re excited. It just feels so good to be here. We did it my freshman year and to be here again, and win it, it feels great,” Boggs said. “We’ve had so many people return from last year, we’ve just bonded so well. We’re all great friends and I think that really plays a role. Not all teams can say that. We’re always having group chats together, we’re always talking to each other about basketball and working out together, on and off the court. We just know how each other plays. All the sophomores — which, our team is a majority of sophomores — they’ve been playing together for so long. And it’s the same thing with Cam and I, we just know what the next person is going to do. I always know what Cam is about to do, and she always knows what I’m going to do — I think that helps us excel so well.”
“The key to this game — we knew it was going to be tough because Timber Creek is a great team — but we knew if we played our game tonight we’d be fine,” Dirkes added. “And that’s what we did. We played our game, trusted in each other, worked hard and it worked out for us.”
And what is Mainland’s game? Everything you want in an unselfish basketball team — making the extra pass, taking charges, rebounding, drawing a double-team defense and being able to recognize where the open shooter is. All those little things that coaches try to teach high school players — the Stangs have them in spades.
“Those little things make a great team and we’re constantly working on those things, and they helped us in this game,” Dirkes said.
In nearly every game it seems there is a different leading scorer. On this night it was Mazur, who finished with a game-high 17. Her twin sister, Ava, netted five points, Boggs added 12, Dirkes finished with nine. In all, eight players scored for Mainland, which won its 10th straight game.
“It’s really hard (to defend us) because you can’t just shut down one player on our team,” Boggs explained. “Each night we can have someone scoring 10-plus points, and that’s what makes us such a great team. We also have people who can come off the bench and score and make plays. I’m really proud of our team right now.”
Dirkes and Boggs, Mainland’s two seniors, are hoping there is enough magic left to win two more games — and the program’s second state championship.
“Being a senior, every game could be my last game, so it feels great to be on my home court, playing in this game, and to be able to go out there and work our hardest and come out with a big win — it feels so great,” Boggs said. “Freshman year you’re thinking, ‘oh, I have three more years.’ But now we’re leaving everything on the court every single game.”
Added Dirkes, “I’m not taking anything for granted — every game, every practice, it’s great. This is something I’m going to remember forever.”
What’s next: Mainland vs. Central Jersey Group 3 champion Ewing at Deptford High School on Wednesday, time TBD, in the Group 3 semifinals. The winner takes on the winner between Sparta and Chatham for the overall Group 3 state championship.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays