By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
HAMMONTON — Middle Township High girls basketball coach John Leahy has been in the game for decades, so he shouldn’t be nervous about coaching another season opener. But on Thursday night in Hammonton, the longtime Panthers skipper admitted he had some jitters.
The reason? He has three new transfers that he’s plugged into the starting lineup and he was antsy about getting a chance to see how they would mesh with returning starters Jada Elston and Mia Elisano.
A season of high expectations couldn’t have gotten off to a better start, as the Panthers raced out to a 20-9 lead and never looked back, cruising to a 50-32 win over a Blue Devils team that features 1,000-point scorer Emma Peretti and four starters returning from a team that went 15-10 a year ago and advanced to the South Jersey Group 3 quarterfinals.
“Hammonton is a good team and they are going to win a lot of games. Opening night is always tricky. I know the kids are nervous because I’m nervous. We were on the road, and we try to challenge ourselves with our schedule every year,” Leahy said. “Coming on the road and beating a good team is not easy on opening night, but I felt like once we settled in a little bit we were good. And if we want to be able to achieve our goals we have to be able to beat good teams on the road.”
There’s a lot of buzz around the Panthers this season, as they welcome in sharpshooter Hannah Cappelletti, who transferred in from Ocean City, as well as the Palek sisters, Madison and Mackenzie, transfers from Our Lady of Mercy Academy. Their older brother, Keith, was a recent standout player at St. Augustine Prep.
Cappelletti made her presence felt in a big way in the second quarter, draining a 3-point shot that gave Middle Township (1-0, 0-0 Cape-Atlantic League National) a commanding 30-16 lead. That come on the heels of a three from Madison Palek that put the Panthers up 27-16 after Hammonton (0-1, 0-0 CAL American) had shaved the deficit to eight points on a three from Giada Palmieri and a jumper from Peretti.
“I like to take my time, and if (the shot) is open, I’ll take it,” Cappelletti said. “It’s alright to miss sometimes, just focus on the next one and move on (from the missed shot). That’s all you can do.”
Defensively, the Panthers were able to hold Peretti and Palmieri in check. Peretti did finish with a game-high 18 points to go along with 13 rebounds, but Middle was able to limit her to just eight points in the first half as they took a 32-16 lead into halftime. Palmieri finished with nine points, four rebounds and an assist.
“Coach talked before the game about how we had to come out strong and rebound. Peretti is a great player, same with Palmieri, so it was pretty much try to get them to pass to other kids. We just wanted to drive to the basket, run through our stuff, and as we slowed it down a little bit things opened up for us,” said Elston, Middle’s senior point guard. “We just had to adjust (to Peretti) and take what our coaches were saying and apply it. We were told to help (on defense). We rotate our bigs a lot so (as guards) we just had to help when we can and rotate when we had to.”
Elston was the difference maker in the first half as she racked up 12 of her team-high 16 points, including going 8-of-9 from the free-throw line in the first two quarters. She was right on last year’s scoring average of 16.9 points per game.
“There’s no question that Jada is our leader. She’s been one of the cornerstones of our program since she got here,” Leahy said. “She works really hard, is a great teammate and does all the right things. Offensively she’s very crafty, knows how to change speeds and use screens and stuff like that. And she’s very good at drawing fouls, like we saw tonight. She’s a pleasure to coach, and I can’t believe she’s a senior already. She’s one of our captains and we’re expecting big things from here this year.”
Middle also got a big night from Madison Palek, who nearly had a double-double with nine points and nine rebounds, and Mackenzie Palek and Elisano combined for 17 points and nine rebounds. As a team, Middle finished with 11 assists and 10 steals. The Panthers will look to keep the chemistry and good vibes going the rest of December as they have five more games this month, including Delsea Regional on Saturday as well as OLMA, Egg Harbor Township and Woodstown all before Christmas.
“The kids have been great. A lot of these kids were already friends, so that’s made it a lot easier. And I think the bottom line is they all want to win,” Leahy said of integrating three new transfers into the lineup. “You’ll see times, like tonight, when the passing is really good, but then you’ll see other times when it’s just a little bit late, but that’s just a part of learning each other. And don’t forget, I’m learning as much about them as they are. The important thing is the kids are working really hard and the energy, the effort, the attitude have been very good. If those things stay up the Xs and Os will catch up.”
“It’s fun. We’re all determined to win and we’re all determined to do what we have to do,” Elston added. “I can facilitate to them and they can facilitate to me, and it opens things up. They are all determined to come into the gym and do what they have to do. It’s been great.”
Said Cappelletti of the transition, “it’s been really easy. Everyone is really nice. It feels like a family. I’m really happy that I transferred and it’s going well so far. We’re 1-0, but we still have to keep working on what we need to work on. We’re hoping to keep going strong, we just have to focus on one game at a time. Coming into this game we just focused on Hammonton, now (on Friday) in practice we’ll switch and focus on Delsea, who we play on Saturday morning. We have to take it one day at a time and don’t focus on what’s coming ahead because we can’t control that.”
What’s next: Middle Township vs. Delsea on Saturday at 1 p.m. Hammonton vs. Wildwood Catholic on Saturday at 3 p.m. at the Ocean City PBA Tip-Off Weekend at Ocean City High School.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays