By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
On Feb. 7, Mainland Regional High’s boys basketball team lost 50-44 to Cedar Creek. That put the Mustangs’ record at 10-10 — a pedestrian mark that had Mainland squarely on the bubble when it came to earning an at-large bid to the Cape-Atlantic League Tournament.
In its next two games, Mainland handily beat Hammonton and ACIT, two other bubble teams, and the Stangs garnered the No. 8 seed in the eight-team league tourney. Which of those three teams got in seemed like it didn’t matter much, as waiting in the first round was top-seeded Egg Harbor Township, one of the best teams in South Jersey and a serious contender in South Jersey Group 4. The Eagles would roll to a first-round blowout, it seemed, thank you very much for coming out, and set their sights on storming their way to the championship.
But then Christian Rodgers hit a 3-pointer — and everything changed.
The Mustangs seemed overmatched in that opening-round game against EHT, as they trailed 22-13 at halftime and sophomore Cohen Cook was the only player to even score for the boys in green. But Mainland wasn’t interested in any kind of participation trophy — the Mustangs believed in themselves, and believed they could score an upset over the Eagles. They took the lead of their determined, diminutive, quiet leader at point guard — the only senior in a starting lineup full of sophomores — and outscored EHT 14-7 in the third quarter to close to within 29-27.
Early in the fourth quarter, Mainland took the lead, and extended it little by little. And with just a few minutes to go, Rodgers took a pass off an inbounds play on the right side and drained a 3-pointer — a shot that eventually propelled the Mustangs to their first league tournament crown in program history. Mainland beat EHT, 50-38, then shocked St. Joseph Academy by 10 points in the semifinals before outlasting No. 2 seed St. Augustine Prep, 58-56, in overtime in the championship game at Absegami.
“We knew we had to take care of business the last two games (before the selections were made). We knew we had to beat Hammonton and ACIT, and we blew them both out by 20-plus points. So, we took care of our business and let the committee do the rest. Luckily, we got in. I was in class and everyone in the group chat was going crazy. They came out with the selections while we were still in school, we saw (that we were in) and we were all freaking out,” Rodgers recalls. “We knew we had a chance because the second time we played (EHT) we went into overtime. We were all locked in. We arrived at EHT about an hour early, we all got our shots up and were feeling good. The first half, though, was terrible. Everyone was slow except for Cohen. We knew going into the second half that we had to lock up on defense and our offense would catch up. We were getting good shots, we just couldn’t hit a shot to save our lives. We got some momentum and started to believe, and we used that throughout the rest of the playoffs. We knew we had to believe in ourselves. We were just as good as those other teams, we just had to show it.
“Once I hit that shot I felt like we had the game,” he continued. “I wasn’t even expecting to get that shot, it was an inbounds play and I just creeped over to the corner. The defender flew out when I pump-faked, and I just hit the shot. I knew we could win the whole thing after we beat EHT.”
Rodgers and his teammates vaulted from mediocrity to stardom in a whirlwind two-week stretch that saw them go from a .500 team to a league champion and a squad that made it to the quarterfinals of the sectional tournament before falling by just six points to a very talented Burlington Township squad. Mainland finished the season 16-11, winning six of its final seven games after that regular season setback to Cedar Creek in early February.
Suddenly Rodgers — who is maybe 5-foot-6 in his shoes — was the toast of the town, conducting post-game interviews with reporters and extolling the exploits of kids the general public had never heard of a week before. Guys such as Jamie Tyson, Stephen Ordille and Tim Travagline.
“He was great. A lot of people want to talk about Cohen, but the other guys made what he did possible and Christian was maybe the biggest reason for that. He’s a really good ball handler, and when he gets going he can really shoot it. And he’s really good in transition because he’s little and quick, and handles the ball well. We saw some glimpses of what he could do in the summer league. Of course nobody is as intense in summer league, but we thought, OK, we want to temper our expectations but if he’s going to play like this — jeez,” said Mainland coach Dan Williams. “We got into the real season and that was his first action starting on varsity, running a team and all that, and it did take a while in a tough conference like ours. But once he figured out he belonged out there and he had some things that weren’t affected by height — such as shooting the ball from three and being quick in transition. He was the first guard off the bench last year in our eight games and had never played a second of varsity prior to that, so it took about half the year (for him to be comfortable). But the second half of the year he did such an outstanding job running the point.
“Maybe the biggest thing when you look at the last two-and-a-half weeks of the season, our turnovers — until the Burlington Township game — he did not turn the ball over and that was a huge difference for us,” Williams continued. “He was making sure we got a shot every time down. Take the EHT game (in the CAL Tournament) for example, Christian had two of the biggest plays in that game. He hit a 3-pointer off an out-of-bounds under that gave us some breathing room; and there was one possession late the fourth quarter, they were playing pretty good defense and we couldn’t get a look, but he dribbled from the wing in front of our bench and ended up getting to the elbow, stepping back to about 17 feet and draining a shot. He was a threat in various ways — he ran our offense, got the ball to guys in good spots, and he was able to do some scoring.”
Rodgers said he had a glimpse of the potential this team could have when the Stangs played their annual summer league schedule.
“I was hoping we would have had a full season last year, but we only had about eight games (due to covid-19). And we had a really young team, too. Not playing that many games, we didn’t really get to form those bonds. I didn’t really know many of the players coming in this year besides Cohen,” he said. “Coming into this season, I didn’t really know what to expect. We had a good summer league at St. Augustine Prep, but we had to forfeit in the playoffs because we only had four kids. But I knew we were going to be good because all those sophomores — Jamie, Timmy, all those guys — they got bigger and stronger from their freshman years. So, I knew we had a lot of potential, I just didn’t know how much. Cohen was hurt last summer so we didn’t know what to expect from him, but he got so much bigger and stronger from last year.
“Midway through the season, we were .500. We were playing alright. We got blown out by St. Joe’s early in January and lost to Holy Spirit. But at the halfway mark we started to click. When we lost at home to Cedar Creek, after that we just started to click and win games. We started to play as a team and that’s the big reason we started winning games, we started playing together more,” Rodgers added. “Everyone bought in and started playing unselfish basketball. Everyone was looking for other people and we were all scoring. It felt like we were all one family that bought into the program.”
What was looking like a forgettable senior season in early February turned into something magical, and that’s something Rodgers and his teammates can take with them the rest of their lives. Their names will always be visible on a championship banner in the high school gym.
“That’s the best part of it. I know it sounds like coach-talk, but we talk about it all the time about how kids come back after graduation, and the relationships they built and the experiences they had — it makes it much more enjoyable when you are winning,” Williams said. “We’re high school teachers who happen to coach, and if we’re fortunate enough to be able to have a kid say that he had a really good experience playing in our program, if that’s what they walk out feeling enough that they want to come back after they graduate and see how the program is doing, that’s very rewarding. That was the awesome thing this year, Christian said multiple times that he had a blast playing basketball for us and what a great experience (winning the CAL title) was. I hope these young guys listen to him when he says how fast it went for him. He’ll see that championship banner years from now and know he played a huge part in that.”
“I loved it. We were doubted the whole season. Nobody really showed up to that game against EHT. They didn’t believe in us. Everyone was saying it was going to be a blowout. That’s all I was hearing before that game, but right after the game my phone was blowing up. It was crazy. I’ve been an underdog my whole life, and same for the rest of the guys. It’s crazy that we accomplished something so big for our school,” Rodgers said. “The memories we created the last month of this season, I won’t forget. My little brother is the point guard for the JV team and hopefully next year he’ll be able to take over. I feel like my whole life I’ve been able to handle the pressure, so just winning those games and finally getting recognized for all my hard work and the whole team’s hard work, it was just amazing.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays
Two weeks in February changed the life of Mainland point guard Christian Rodgers
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN