By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
OCEAN CITY — With all the upheaval the Ocean City High girls basketball team went through last season, it took the Red Raiders a few games to find their sea legs under a whole new coaching staff led by Stephanie Gaitley — a former Ocean City great in the 1970s who went on to have an outstanding college coaching career that featured 11 years leading Fordham in New York City.
Ocean City began the season 1-2, dropping road games to rival Mainland as well as Wildwood Catholic Academy. But since a 46-38 win over Hammonton just before Christmas, the Red Raiders have been red hot, winning 11 straight games. The latest came Thursday night at Ocean City Intermediate School (where the Raiders have been playing since a burst pipe at the high school ruined the gym floor) where the Red Raiders pulled away from visiting Wildwood Catholic in the fourth quarter and got some revenge, winning the rematch 44-25.
Seniors Avery Jackson and Tori Vliet led the way, combining for 21 points, including 17 in the second half. Vliet hit a pair of huge 3-pointers that helped stretch a 20-16 lead into a 28-18 advantage heading into the fourth quarter. After Wildwood Catholic shaved the lead to just four points, Ocean City outscored the Crusaders 24-9 the rest of the way.
“This was definitely a payback game. We made a lot of adjustments from watching film. A lot of it was just learning from our mistakes and coming back and improving on that. It’s all about making adjustments. Each game is a little bit different, the girls on each team are coached a little differently, so you have to be mentally prepared for each game. You have to come in focus, that’s the way it has to be this year because there are no easy games for us. It’s a battle every game, but we love it, we love seeing students out here every night and our fans are absolutely amazing,” Jackson said. “In those tight situations we’ve improved a lot — especially since the beginning of the season — staying patient and running our offense. We were forcing shots a little bit in the beginning, but we made some adjustments and found our groove. Tori hit some big shots and we all really came together.”
The game was a slog from the start, as neither team scored for the first 5-plus minutes before Jackson’s driving layup with 2:40 left in the opening quarter broke up a scoreless tie. Ocean City (12-2, 5-2 Cape-Atlantic League National) took a modest 7-3 lead after one quarter and built that to 16-8 by halftime, but Wildwood Catholic (12-3, 5-3 CAL National) came out strong in the third, getting three foul shots from Kaci Mikulski and a 3-pointer from Carly Murphy to shave a 19-10 deficit all the way down to 20-16. But from there, Ocean City went on an 8-2 run to extend its lead to 28-18 heading into the fourth quarter.
“We watched a lot of film going into this game, trying to break down every player and find weaknesses in their game. We were trying to plug the lane to make sure they couldn’t get many drives to the basket, and we worked a lot on switching on screens to make sure we could keep them from shooting (3-pointers),” Vliet said. “We try to stay as patient as much possible. Like our coaches say, basketball is a game of runs. Teams are going to get up and teams are going to get down. It takes staying together and slowing things down when we need to. We can’t get too high or too low, we just have to stay consistent throughout the game.”
That run featured a driving layup from Jackson and a three from the top of the circle from Vliet. Ocean City also got some big baskets early in the fourth quarter to keep the Crusaders at bay. Vliet found Jackson underneath for a conventional three-point play that put the Raiders up 31-20 early in the fourth, and Madelyn Adamson found Naomi Nnewihe underneath the basket for an easy layup that pushed the lead to 33-20.
“We trust in our teammates,” Vliet said. “It’s all about trusting your teammates to make the shots when you need them to. We’ve had time now to build our team and build our chemistry, and it’s been going great. We have such great chemistry with this team. I feel like if we keep going the way we’re going there’s no stopping us. We just have to keep our minds on our work.”
“I’m just so proud of this team, we’re playing so hard, coming into practice mentally prepared. We know all these games are going to be challenging, but our coaches prepare us so well. They get us game ready and mentally ready, and we just come in and do our thing,” Jackson added. “I knew at the end of last year that this team had so much potential. We learned a lot this summer and the coaches all came in here and made us feel like family. They’ve done so much for us and have brought all of us together. We couldn’t ask for better coaches.”
Ocean City puts its win streak on the line Saturday morning when it hosts Camden Catholic, and the Red Raiders have a host of tough games coming up, including Cape-Atlantic League matchups against the likes of Middle Township, Mainland Regional and Holy Spirit, along with nonconference games against Toms River South and West Deptford.
“We’re going to take it game by game,” Jackson said. “We have Camden Catholic on Saturday and they are tough, but we know that. We’re just going to come in prepared and locked in, and just keep improving.”
What’s Next: Ocean City hosts Camden Catholic on Saturday at Ocean City Intermediate School at 11:15 a.m. Wildwood Catholic hosts Manchester Township on Saturday at 11 a.m.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays