By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Staff Writer
The past three years, Mainland Regional seniors Taylor Dalzell, Claudia Mairone, Lauren Toner and Jillian Gatley have had their seasons come to a crushing end in the South Jersey Group 3 playoffs. When they were freshmen, the Mustangs lost in the quarterfinals to a Winslow team that ended up losing in the semifinals to eventual champion Ocean City. The next two years were supposed to be different, as Mainland welcomed in highly touted forward Kylee Watson (now a junior), but — twice in a row — the hated Red Raiders handed the Mustangs a loss in the championship game.
Last year was particularly heartbreaking, as Watson got into big-time foul trouble very early in the second half and Ocean City scored a 36-32 victory. The Mustangs had come into that game with a 28-0 and record and were thinking overall state championship. The Stangs had Watson, perhaps the best freshman in the state, along with four senior starters. Head coach Scott Betson knew there was a better-than-good chance that his Stangs would see the Red Raiders again in this year’s sectional championship, even with four new starters in his lineup.

The South Jersey championship in basketball was the first in the outstanding career of senior Taylor Dalzell, who also is one of the stars of Mainland’s soccer team and had come close to winning a title several times in that sport. (Glory Days Magazine photo/Dave O’Sullivan)


“We probably could have predicted this would be the matchup at this time last year, we’re just destined to keep running into each other, it’s like we’re stuck in purgatory, we’re going to keep doing this over and over again,” he said on Monday night after his team finally took down its nemesis, beating Ocean City 41-27 to win its first South Jersey championship since 1999.
The win epitomized exactly what these four seniors have meant to this program during their careers. It was a microcosm of what their roles were, and how good they were at performing their specific tasks. Mairone is the team’s sharpshooter, and she nailed two big 3-pointers in the first half that helped Mainland build a lead. She hit another in the second half that helped Mainland start to pull away. Dalzell is one of the best defending and rebounding guards in the Cape-Atlantic League, and she defended like there was no tomorrow — which there wouldn’t have been if the Stangs had lost to the Red Raiders for a third consecutive year.
Toner came off the bench to spell Mairone and freshman point guard Camryn Dirkes, and did a tremendous job, even grabbing some important rebounds in traffic despite being the smallest player on the floor. Gatley, as she has done all year, came off the bench to help the Stangs match up with Ocean City’s taller players, like Emma Finnegan and Lauren Mirsky.
“We have two who start and two who will come in for whatever minutes we ask them to. They come in and play defense and rebound, whatever they need to do. We’ve been through the ringer in these South Jersey finals, and it felt really good. They’ve earned it. You won’t find a nicer group of kids or a group that deserves it more. We talked before the game about how things in sports only have meaning if they are difficult, and we’ve gone through enough setbacks in the last two (sectional finals) that we felt like we’d arrived at a place where we had earned this one. They came out and played like it,” Betson said. “I’m so happy for them. They are such super kids that they deserve all the opportunities they’ve created for themselves, playing in big games like this. I’m glad they finally got this one.”
This win was a crowning achievement for this group of seniors. Only Mairone had ever won a South Jersey title, as a member of the tennis team. Dalzell had been so close in soccer the past two years, and Toner has had to suffer through some tough losses in the softball sectional tournament during her career.
“I’m always saying, ‘we’re good.’ No matter what the score is, I’m like, ‘we’re good, we’re good.’ I just have that same mentality all the time,” Dalzell said. “I feel like I’m always playing Ocean City, I really do. It’s always a tough game, every time. Both teams have heart. We just came out with energy, and just really wanted it. It’s awesome. We’ve been playing together since we were young, we know each other and we have chemistry. When I drive, I know there is going to be somebody behind me, and if not Kylee is always there in the paint. Everyone contributes.”

Senior guard Claudia Mairone hugs coach Scott Betson after winning the South Jersey Group 3 title, her first in basketball after winning one in tennis. (Glory Days Magazine photo/Dave O’Sullivan)


“This is awesome, we’re so happy. We knew we just had to come out and play tough, Ocean City is obviously a very good team, and in the second half we really brought it,” Mairone added. “We really wanted this game, and in the second half it showed with the way we played.”
The win was extra special for Toner and Gatley. It’s never easy to be a senior who has to sit the bench, especially for athletes who are used to starting in other sports. Toner was a starter last year on the softball team, and likely will be a key player on that squad again this spring, and Gatley is a starter on the girls track team and one of the better pole vaulters in the area. For them to accept their roles as reserve players to help this team win a championship says a lot about their character, and Betson and the starters know just how important those two players have been throughout the grind of a nearly 30-game season.
“This group has only lost 23 games over the course of their four-year career. They’ve worked hard, they are basketball kids and they love to play. It’s certainly a fun group to be able to spend time with it,” Betson said. “Those two are just eager to play and they’ll embrace any opportunity they get. We talked about everybody embracing their roles and they were excited for any chance they got. They just wanted to go out and contribute.”
“They always bring energy off the bench and help pick us up. They give all they have, all the time. It’s great to know that we can always rely on them,” Mairone added. “We’re all just so happy. I won it in tennis, and I just really wanted to win one in basketball because these are the girls I grew up playing basketball with. It’s a special feeling.”
Said Gatley, “This is such a special feeling. We’ve worked so hard for this and I’m so glad to be able to celebrate this with my team. Once Lauren and I get in there, we know what we have to do no matter how much playing time we get. It’s a total team effort.”
In a fitting gesture, the rest of the Mainland players made sure that Gatley and Toner were the first ones to hoist the South Jersey Group 3 championship trophy high over their heads. The starters knew they wouldn’t be holding it themselves without players who accepted their roles, never complained, and did whatever they had to do. To the victor go the spoils.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sully@acglorydays.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays