By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — The 2021 high school basketball season has lasted about as long as an average summer romance, and Egg Harbor Township girls coach Adam Swift is wishing there were a few more weeks of sunsets left before he has to hang up the whistle until November. His team is hitting its best stride of the season, having won three straight and 5-of-6, but there’s only one more game on the schedule for the surging Eagles.
In the final home game of her outstanding career, senior guard Lauren Baxter led the way on Wednesday afternoon, scoring a team-high 15 points to go along with four assists, four rebounds and three steals as EHT cruised past Hammonton, 53-35. The Eagles also got huge games from the Zinckgraf sisters, Amelia (a sophomore, 10 points, 12 rebounds, two steals) and Kierstyn (a junior, four points, five rebounds) to improve to 8-5 overall and 7-5 in the Cape-Atlantic League North.
EHT jumped out to a 24-10 lead in the first half and that was more than enough to withstand a big-time effort from Hammonton’s 5-foot-11 sophomore forward Emma Peretti, who scored a game-high 22 points while adding 16 rebounds. Of her 22 points, 16 game in the second half, including 10 in the third quarter.
“We wanted to really come out and pressure their guards,” Swift said. “Peretti is pretty skilled around the basket so we wanted to put pressure on their guards, and that’s exactly what we did. We came out aggressively, they turned the ball over and we were able to convert those into opportunities.”
“I think we’re starting to gain confidence as a team and play more as a team. I think as a result we’re going to gain the respect we deserve,” Kierstyn Zinckgraf said. “It feels good to finally get the wins that we’ve been wanting. Our main focus was Peretti — we were trying to shut her down. I had to drop and play her, and we knew if we could shut her down it would be our game.”
EHT got off to a slow start and led just 6-4 late in the first quarter, but then a big 3-pointer from Mikki Pomatto followed by a converted steal from Amelia Zinckgraf gave the Eagles an 11-4 lead. Baxter then nailed a three and fed Amelia Zinckgraf off a steal as the lead grew to 16-4. Olivia Cutaia added a jumper in the paint to cap a 12-0 run, and EHT outscored the Blue Devils 18-6 after taking that initial 6-4 lead. Baxter scored just three points in the first half but came to life in the second, scoring eight points in the third quarter to help shut down any comeback thoughts Hammonton (6-6, 5-6 CAL West) might have had.
“She helps us because she knows where to feed the ball, and she’s a team player,” Kierstyn Zinckgraf said of Baxter. “She gives us the ball whenever she knows we’re in position to handle it, and she has the confidence herself to take shots when she can.”
“We wanted to go in and win for the seniors because this is their last home game,” Amelia Zinckgraf added. “We’ve been on a winning streak so we wanted to continue it. We’ve been working hard for it, so it felt good to get the win.”
The big difference in the game was EHT’s defensive intensity, as the Eagles racked up 14 steals — including seven from Pomatto.
“I think the big thing has been their buy-in at the defensive end. They’ve accepted that sometimes you’re not going to shoot it well and sometimes if you don’t execute and get a little sloppy with the ball, if you just play defense you can be in every game,” Swift said. “That’s something that they’ve done and bought into, and it’s impressive as a group because it’s easy when you’re struggling offensively to put your head down. But as a collective whole, they get back and they dig in on defense, and that’s what has allowed us to win as many games as we have this year.”
The Eagles will look to cap their season with a road win at Ocean City on Saturday, but even if they don’t win, simply getting the chance to play this season has been a victory.
“This season went by so quickly, it doesn’t even feel real,” Amelia Zinckgraf said. “But I feel like we had a good season. We got lucky and didn’t have any shutdowns. We went in, made sure we were safe and we didn’t take anything for granted because we knew the season could be shut down at any point.”
Kierstyn Zinckgraf is especially grateful, as she lost her sophomore lacrosse season last spring to the pandemic.
“Last year, I was one of the athletes who lost their spring season, for lacrosse, so it feels really nice to know we were able to get through this whole season without being shut down,” she said. “I was looking forward to this season, and it did go really quickly, like Amelia said. But it felt good to play as a team and get a whole season in.”
“I definitely have seen our progress. The girls are starting to execute more offensively, and defensively we have just gotten better and better throughout the year. The last I checked we were holding teams to an average of 32 points per game, so the girls are really executing our defensive stuff well, and just playing better as a group,” Swift added. “It takes time during the season to come together. We’ve started to really turn the corner, so it would have been great if (this season) could go on further. We have a game against Ocean City on Saturday and that’s a great test. I told the girls, ‘that’s an opportunity to prove your talent level,’ because we all know Ocean City has that reputation of being one of the better programs in the area. So we’re definitely looking for that to be the culminating game for our season.”
What’s next: EHT travels to Ocean City on Saturday, time TBD. Hammonton hosts OLMA on Friday at 4 p.m.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays