By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Sydney Stokes, a junior forward at Mainland Regional High, said she wasn’t playing with a lot of confidence at the start of this season. She was a first-year starter on varsity and tended to defer to more experienced players around her.
She picked a perfect time to come out of her shell and put together the best performance of her career, as she went for 17 points, 15 rebounds and three blocked shots to help the Mustangs defend their Cape-Atlantic League Tournament championship. With Stokes leading the way, the Bunting Family Pharmacy Game of the Week at Egg Harbor Township High was all but over at halftime, as Mainland, the No. 1 seed, cruised to a 46-26 win over No. 2 Atlantic City. Mainland beat Wildwood Catholic in last year’s league championship game.
“My confidence level was lower when I started the season, but my teammates really pushed me to take risks,” Stokes said. “I wouldn’t have expected to score that much in the beginning of the season. My teammates have always pushed me to take risks, but I feel like I’ve never really accomplished that. But I feel like I’m getting a lot better at that.”
What makes Stokes’ performance even more impressive is that lurking in the lane throughout the game was Atlantic City senior forward Quanirah Montague, a Mississippi State recruit. But Mainland limited her to eight points, seven rebounds and just one blocked shot.
“This feels great. This performance was big for me,” Stokes said. “I really just needed to settle down. I made the first couple points of the game but every time we play Atlantic City it’s really high energy, and sometimes it can be hard to finish around the rim — especially knowing that 6-foot-4 (Montague) is coming to block you. I just really had to settle in and go up for shots.”
Mainland (23-2) — which snapped Atlantic City’s 18-game winning streak — jumped out to a 21-10 lead, scoring buckets in transition and hitting 3-pointers, but the Vikings (19-5) stayed within striking distance, getting a big three from Bridget Roach to cut the deficit to 21-13 and getting a jumper from Montague at the second-quarter buzzer to head into halftime trailing just 21-15. But in the third quarter the Mustangs put the game away, outscoring Atlantic City 13-6 to take a 34-21 lead. Stokes was a huge part of that rally, as she scored the first seven points of the third quarter to push Mainland’s lead out to 30-17.
“These past couple of games, especially now in the CAL Tournament, she’s been playing great,” senior Jane Meade said of Stokes. “It’s not even the points that she’s putting up, but it’s the rebounds and all the little things that she does.”
Mainland also got a big game from championship game MVP Kasey Bretones, who played defense on Montague the entire game — as a point guard — and finished with 12 points, three rebounds and two steals. The Stangs also got six points from Ava Mazur and five each from Bella Mazur and Ava Sheeran. Mainland turned the ball over 19 times, but made up for that with an incredible 46-17 rebounding advantage. The Stangs also shot 53 percent from the floor in the second half while holding Atlantic City to just 22 percent shooting.
“This is awesome because I didn’t play basketball last year,” said Meade, a soccer star and the lone senior on Mainland’s roster. “Kasey Bretones, the MVP, was actually the one who made me come out and play basketball again. Soccer was a great season, but this is a great add-on to my senior year. I love these girls, they are my family now. This is awesome for everyone involved.
“The past two years we’ve won this tournament and I think it just shows how talented this program is.”
What’s Next: Mainland hosts Pemberton on Monday at 1 p.m. in the opening round of the South Jersey Group 3 playoffs. Atlantic City hosts Kingsway on Tuesday at 4:30 p.m. in the first round of the South Jersey Group 4 playoffs.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays