By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
The Mainland Regional girls basketball team reached the Group 3 state championship game last winter before falling to Sparta. The Mustangs return three starters from that team, and Sparta brings back four, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility that those two teams could meet again in March with a state championship on the line.
First things first, though. The journey begins tonight, as the Mustangs host rival Ocean City at 5:30 p.m. in the season opener.
The bar is always high for Mainland, and this season is no different, but gone are the likes of senior captains Camryn Dirkes and Kaitlyn Boggs, the last remaining links to Mainland’s only state championship, back in 2019. There is plenty of returning talent, however, mainly in the form of the Stangs’ three tremendous guards.
Kasey Bretones head up the offense as the point guard and she’s flanked by twin sisters Ava and Bella Mazur, younger sisters of former Mainland star Luke Mazur. All three of those players are juniors, as is 6-foot forward Sydney Stokes, who got a lot of minutes coming off the bench last year to spell Boggs.
“We’re really excited, particularly about our junior class and the experience that they bring back. The way they play, they are just tenacious,” said head coach Scott Betson. “We don’t have a true back-to-the-basket big on offense. Sydney is our biggest kid (at 6-feet tall) and she got a lot of really valuable experience last year playing in big games. She played a ton of minutes for us in the state semifinal and made some big plays. She gained a lot of confidence from that, and it’s kind of her time to take over from the spot that Kaitlyn Boggs left. She can play around the basket but she also likes to step out and shoot the ball, so we can be a little more creative offensively. We’ll have shooters everywhere.”
Mainland’s success this season will revolve around the twins, who have a ton of AAU basketball experience and are two of the toughest players to defend in South Jersey. Both can shoot the 3-point shot with great accuracy but are also adept at driving to the basket, dishing to teammates or getting fouled to gobble up points from the free-throw line.
“They are both so physical and so tenacious when it comes to getting to the basket, and they both love to shoot the ball. They are a terror on offense. They attack so physically that they don’t really give defenders much of a chance, other than to foul them. I feel like they were kind of deferring (to older players) the past couple of years, but now they know it’s their time,” Betson said. “The two of them, along with Kasey Bretones — people will be on notice real quick about how much development Kasey had this offseason. And that makes things easier because all three of those kids are such good players.”
Mainland, which went 28-3 last year and won the Cape-Atlantic League Tournament championship, is going to need as much as it can get from its strong junior class considering the type of schedule the Stangs will be playing. They’ll be taking on all kinds of traditionally strong South Jersey programs, such as Atlantic City, Gloucester Catholic, Middle Township, Holy Spirit and Wildwood Catholic.
On Saturday at 5:15 p.m., Mainland is schedule to take on Atlantic City and Mississippi State recruit Quanirah Montague — a 6-foot-5 forward — as part of the Ocean City PBA Tip-Off Weekend at Ocean City High.
“Every game is going to be interesting for us,” Betson said. “There are no nights off — Middle will be really tough, Atlantic City has one of the best players in the area (in Montague), and I’m sure Wildwood Catholic will be a tough out for everybody.”
Despite the daunting list of opponents, Betson has full confidence in his group and believes this team can be every bit as good as last year.
“This is an interesting mix of returning experience and some new faces, too,” Betson said. “The three guards have all the experience in the world that you could expect a junior to have — they are all returning starters on a team that lost in the state final. And Sydney was in the mix last year, too, but for girls like Ava Sheeran and Jane Meade, this will be relatively new. It’s going to be an interesting mix. The thing we like about it is Jane is our only senior, so we bring everybody back next year. We’re looking at this as a multi-year investment with this group.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays