By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
In the past decade, the Middle Township High girls basketball program has produced some of the best players in the Cape-Atlantic League. The names read off like a who’s who of South Jersey girls basketball: Jenna and Kate Herlihy, Bridget Ruskey, Summer and Kira Sides, Allison and Aubrey Hunter, Madison Barber. You can add Jada Elston to that list.
The 2023 graduate took the reigns from Kate Herlihy and helped keep the Panthers’ winning tradition going. South Jersey Glory Days’ Shore Ortho Senior of the Month scored more than 500 points in her senior season, tallied more than 1,000 for her career, and led Middle Township to a 23-9 record this past winter that included a South Jersey Group 2 championship.
The numbers she put up during her career — 1,152 points in 95 games, 117 three-pointers made, nearly 200 rebounds, 123 assists and 81 steals — certainly will be enough to get her into the Middle Township High Hall of Fame someday. But when it comes to Elston, her value to the program goes well beyond numbers on a stat sheet.
“Jada has really been one of the cornerstones of our program for the last four years. I really think she is a tremendous role model for all the younger kids out there. She really is the definition of what a student-athlete is supposed to be. Obviously, she has worked her tail off to get better at her sport, but she’s also a straight-A student, she’s one of the leaders in our hallways in terms of our student population, she’s involved in clubs and different community events. She does a lot outside of school to give back to her community. She really is the full package and she’s a tremendous example of what a student-athlete should be,” said longtime Panthers coach John Leahy. “I tell people all the time I’m very lucky to be able to coach great kids. It’s neat to see how Jada has evolved as a player and also grow up and mature as a person. She had great role models when she was a freshman — we had really good seniors like Kira Sides and Maddy Barber. So she had kids that she learned from. We try to stress to the kids in our program that they have a responsibility to pass the torch on to the younger kids and show them what’s expected. And Jada has certainly done that. She has grown as a leader, and every year she’s accepted more responsibility. She’s been great. I like to think that the younger kids in our program have learned a lot from her, and now it’s her turn to pass the torch to the other kids. We try to teach these kids how to be leaders and let them take our program where it needs to be.”
“(My high school career) went by quickly, to say the least, but I enjoyed every minute of it. Coming into high school, I was battled tested right from the beginning. We had such a good group. We had seven seniors that year and they pushed me every day, and I thank them for my success. I was battle tested every practice. That was a great teaching year. Every day I went in eager to learn and soak in every moment of what those seniors had to offer. Overall, that helped me establish my role and develop,” said Elston, who received a full scholarship offer to Fairleigh Dickinson University and will play for former Ocean City High coach Stephanie Gaitley, who just got hired by FDU this spring. “My point totals at the end of the game are nothing that I set in stone, I just tried to do everything I could to help my team win. If that meant me scoring 20 points then so be it, but if it meant scoring less than 10 points, I was fine with that, too.”
Elston didn’t start out as a superstar. Leahy, like he does with just about every other highly touted freshman, eased her into the lineup and let her do what she was comfortable with before trying to load too much responsibility onto her shoulders. But as she grew and matured, so did the expectations and the responsibility.
“Our kids are super competitive and a lot of kids are multi-sport athletes, and our kids are also very lucky to have a lot of support from their families and friends, as well as the community. They take that support and embrace it. In our program, we’ve tried to set a certain standard and have expectations about how we handle ourselves, both on and off the court, and Jada is a perfect example of somebody who came in as a player who filled a role and learned from the older kids before growing into a leader. She took on more responsibility each year, and now she has a full scholarship to go play college basketball. She’ll go on and do great things in college,” Leahy said. “When you think about her career, as a freshman she was able to get into the rotation but her role was very simple. She was asked to play defense and just kind of fit in (on offense), make a few open shots. We didn’t really ask her to do too much. As a sophomore, she had to do more offensively, and it was really her and Kate Herlihy. Then, as a junior and senior, we really needed her to score a lot. It’s nice to see a kid like her develop every year and work on their game in the offseason. Jada is one of those kids who is all about winning, all about her teammates and making her team better. I couldn’t think of a better way to finish off her career than getting a chance to win a South Jersey title on our home floor. She scored her 1,000th point on Senior Night — so she had some great things to cap off her senior year.”
Elston said she took a measured approach to improving throughout her high school career, getting hyper-focused on a few things each offseason that she could improve upon, until she became a well-rounded basketball player as a senior.
“I meet with trainers year ‘round and in the offseason I focus on one or two things that I want to improve on. I make those my targets for the next season,” she explained. “So it’s been just working on my weaknesses during the offseason and trying to apply that as much as I can in open gyms or full-court games against players from other teams. I really enjoy that, and building friendships outside of basketball. My success has come with reps and time, and wanting to get better at something you know you struggle with.”
Helping her along the way was Leahy, one of the premier high school girls basketball coaches in the entire state.
“Coach Leahy is amazing. I thank him for every opportunity he’s ever given me. I’ll forever be thankful for the trust and the relationship that he and I have, and how that has grown over the years,” Elston, a Woodbine resident, said. “He’s tough, but at the end of the day he tells us we’re like his kids. We know he’s there for us in any situation. He might get heated in the moment, but 20 minutes later he’ll be that goofy, funny guy that we all know. He’s the kind of guy that if we think he’s being too hard on us, we’ll all sit down in his classroom and have a discussion about it and we can say what we need to do better. He makes it a big point that it’s not his team, it’s our team, and we all figure things out together.”
It also helps having teachers who understand how difficult a high school basketball season can be, especially at Middle Township. Most of the Panthers’ games feature at least a 45-minute bus ride, which means getting home late at night during mid-week games. That can make studying for a test or doing homework a challenge late at night.
“The teachers are really understanding. We play a lot of teams that aren’t in Cape May County and we have to leave school early sometimes. But our staff really makes it a point for us to manage our time, whether it be in study hall or in class when we have extra time, just getting that work done,” Elston said. “I really took advantage of that. And coach is always open to us coming down to his classroom to get away from everything so we can focus. If we have a big test or something that might cause us to be late to practice, he’s fine with that because he knows school comes first. We always help each other (as teammates) too. We’re all on the same page in terms of wanting to be good academically first, before basketball. And that helps a lot.”
When it came time for basketball, though, few shined the way Elston did. This past season she scored in double figures in all but two games and she scored 24 points in a win over OLMA, 26 in a win over Vineland, and 30 in another win over Vineland. During the Panthers’ five playoff games she scored 24, 26, 15, 31 and 17 points. Those 31 points came in the sectional championship win over Cinnaminson.
“It hasn’t even hit me yet that the season is over. But knowing my name will be on the 1,000-point banner for as long as this school stands is really cool. Hopefully people will look up at that banner, read my name and think about the good things I’ve done for this program,” Elston said. “Winning a South Jersey championship was a night I’ll never forget. It was wonderful, and to be able to do it on our home floor made it that much more special with all our families there. The whole community came out, and to be able to hang a banner feels wonderful. Me and my teammates really enjoyed that night and that’s something we’ll be able to talk about for years to come.”
“We tried to put her in the best position we could for her to succeed. She’s put in a ton of time to make her game better so she’s not one-dimensional. She wanted to have different options in her game and as a result she’s able to score at all three levels (in the post, mid-range and 3-pointers). Her free-throw shooting is tremendous and that’s a big advantage. It’s always nice when you have a player who other teams have to game-plan for, and they still go out and get 20 points,” Leahy said. “I think she’s going to do great at FDU. I know the type of work ethic she has. When you get to that level, you’re going to have great coaches, great facilities and everything you need to succeed. I think you’ll see — there’s a big adjustment period going from high school to college, so it will take some time — but I think similar to her high school career, she’ll continue to get better and figure it out as she goes. There isn’t going to be anybody who’s going to out-work her, that’s for sure.”
Whatever happens for Elston in the future, she’ll never forget her roots at Middle Township. She bleeds black-and-orange.
“I couldn’t see myself at any other school and I’m really glad I decided to make Middle my destination for high school,” she said. “The environment, the student body, everyone is so involved. I’ll have people who have never played basketball a day in their life say, ‘I watched you last night and you played so well.’ It’s nice to have that kind of support system.
Added Leahy, “like all my kids, she has a great support system at home. Her parents have been great, and she’s from Woodbine and that whole community has embraced her. She’s made a lot of people very proud, that’s for sure.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays