By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — Whoever the chemistry teacher is at Mainland Regional High School, teaching their class would be a breeze if it was full of girls basketball players.
The Mustangs don’t have that one big star, but the whole is greater than the sum of its parts in this case. Mainland showed once again how diverse its lineup can be on Saturday afternoon at Absegami High School, cruising to a Cape-Atlantic League Tournament championship with a 54-38 win over No. 3 Wildwood Catholic. The top-seeded Mustangs built a 10-point lead in the first half, withstood a slight run by the Crusaders in the third quarter, then build the lead up to as many as 20 points in the fourth quarter.
With the win, Mainland improved to 23-2 and it really wasn’t even challenged during the tournament. In the opening round, the Stangs dispatched No. 8 EHT, 61-31, then in the semis they took down fourth-seeded Atlantic City, 52-37.
Against Wildwood Catholic, Mainland got 19 points and 10 rebounds from senior Kaitlyn Boggs, 10 points and three rebounds from sophomore guard Ava Mazur, another nine points and five assists from point guard Kasey Bretones, seven points, four rebounds and three assists from Mazur’s twin sister, Bella, and seven points, five rebounds and five assists from senior guard Camryn Dirkes.
Mainland shot 48 percent from the field for the game, outscored the Crusaders 32-16 in the paint and outscored Catholic 11-7 on points off turnovers. The Stangs were just as good defensively, limiting the Crusaders to 30 percent shooting and just five points in the first quarter and seven in the second. Wildwood Catholic shot just 3-of-21 from 3-point land.
That was the level of Mainland’s dominance.
“This the first CAL championship for Kaitlyn and I, and it’s great to get this our senior year. I love playing with all the girls and this was one goal we really wanted, and I’m happy we got it this year,” Dirkes said. “The one thing I think people fail to grasp that is so important is the chemistry that comes with this team. We’re all such great friends and we genuinely enjoy hanging out with each other, and I think that is something you can’t fake. It’s either there or it’s not, and I’m really happy it’s there.”
“This means everything, of course, to just go work our butts off and just do this,” added Boggs, who was named the game’s MVP. “We haven’t won this in four years — I think since 2018 — so, it’s just means a lot for us to go. We’ve worked so hard this season and we always want more. This is one accomplishment, but we’re always working hard to push toward states.”
Mainland went on a 10-0 run that stretched from the first quarter into the second and led 20-9 after Bretones nailed a 3-pointer with 2:10 remaining before halftime. The Crusaders got to within 22-12 on a three from senior point guard Kimmy Casiello, but Boggs scored 15 seconds before halftime to give the Stangs a 24-12 lead heading into the break. Wildwood Catholic (21-5) had no answer for Boggs in the paint. She scored 12 points in the first half and added six rebounds, including four on the offensive glass, and added an assist and a steal.
“We worked on new plays in practice yesterday to get me and the shooters open, to make it more difficult for (Wildwood Catholic). They can’t shut down the shooters, because then I’ll be open; and they can’t shut me down because then the shooters will be open. If you leave my unguarded, I’ll go score, and if you leave our guards like Ava, Bella or Cam unguarded, they’ll go score,” Boggs said. “Every day, I just want to work my hardest, with or without the ball, to make it easier for the guards. In the second half they were kind of crushing in on me more and that’s what got some of our guards open. Every game I just want to go in and work my hardest. Today I was able (to score a lot), which is great, and I know it means a lot for my team.”
Wildwood Catholic got back into the game — briefly — with a run early in the third quarter. The Crusaders got a jumper in the lane from Ella McCabe, a steal and layup from Casiello and a bucket in the paint from Carly Murphy to shave Mainland’s lead to 26-20, but moments later Ava Mazur converted a traditional 3-point play and the lead was back to 10 points, 31-21. The Crusaders never really threatened again.
“It was really just to stay, like coach (Scott) Betson always says, ‘dialed in.’ We still had a lead, and we still had a good lead,” Boggs said. “We were kind of breaking a little, starting to stress out, and we didn’t want that. We said we just had to play our game.”
The win highlights what has been an amazing senior year for Dirkes, who played in the CAL Tournament championship game in soccer, led the soccer team to a South Jersey Group 3 championship, and now has a CAL basketball title on her resume. She also helped lead Mainland girls basketball to its only state championship in program history back when she was a freshman.
“It’s my senior year and it’s nice to have great thing happening. There hasn’t been a down side, everything seems to be going up, and I’m hoping it stays that way until the end of the year,” she said. “Even in middle school, I had no expectations for what my high school career was going to look like, but it’s definitely exceeding any expectations I would have had for myself or any of our teams.”
What’s next: Mainland hosts Triton on Tuesday in the opening round of the South Jersey Group 3 playoffs, time TBD.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays