By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Mike Brestle, a former all-state football player at Holy Spirit High School, gave a quick pregame assessment on Jan. 24 at Atlantic City High School before the Vikings’ girls basketball team took on Ocean City. “If Abbey Fenton hits her threes, we’re in trouble.” He just as quickly caught himself and added, “but that would good, too.”
There are divided loyalties in the Brestle family these days, as Madison, a senior, is the starting point guard at Atlantic City while Marlee — 16 months her junior — is a junior at Ocean City and the starting point guard for the Red Raiders. Madison lives with mom, Marla, and Marlee actually began her high school career at Atlantic City before deciding to live with Mike in Linwood and transferring to Ocean City, a choice school, halfway through her freshman year.
Prior to this season, Marlee was mostly a junior varsity player who got spot minutes on varsity under coach Paul Baruffi, but she has worked hard to become a starter this year. So, when the teams met last week it was the first time the sisters and on-court rivals had the chance to really go at it against each other on the varsity stage. And neither disappointed, as they played their signature scrappy brand of basketball and made plays to try to help their respective team come away with a victory. In the end, it was a Fenton 3-pointer — with less than 30 seconds to go — that proved the difference, as Ocean City won the game, 40-38 in come-from-behind fashion.
“I don’t know if there are two girls who have a motor that goes as strong as those two. They play hard. Marlee has improved so much from her freshman year and has really taken over that point guard position to lead this team. And Madison has done a great job for (Atlantic City) for four years, she’s great defensively. I’m just happy Marlee is with us,” Baruffi said. “She has big shoes to fill, going from Grace (Sacco) to Danielle (Donoghue). Marlee is a different player but she’s accepted what she is, and one thing I love about her is she’s going to play hard and give you everything she has. If she makes a mistake, it’s because she’s trying so hard. It was a great game. I guess their parents were torn trying to watch it, but it was a great game.”
“That was a big game for me because I was playing my sister, so it was a sister rivalry all week,” Marlee said.
The pair grew up going against each other in one-on-one games, and periodically played on the same travel and recreation teams. But now Marlee has found a home at Ocean City while Madison has become one of the stars of the CAL and is widely regarded as one of the best defensive guards in the league. Through Jan. 27, Atlantic City was 11-4 overall and 6-0 in the CAL American Conference, while Ocean City, after a 1-5 start, had ripped off eight straight wins to improve to 9-5 and vaulted into the top spot in the CAL National. Both teams could be in line for a top-four seed in the upcoming CAL Tournament, which features the league’s best eight teams.
“I went to Atlantic City for two months my freshman year, but I realized all my friends were at Ocean City and I liked it when I went over there for a tour. I realized that when I was moving to Linwood I could do school choice, and it just felt like a better fit for me,” Marlee said. “I love it (at Ocean City). All my friends and teachers are great, I love basketball over there. It’s a great atmosphere. We get to see each other like normal sisters, maybe we don’t fight as much. But I like having these types of rivalry moments, it makes for good memories.”
Both sisters said their meeting on Jan. 24 was highly anticipated.
“We played with each other in AAU our whole lives, so this was the first time we’ve played against each other in an actual game. It was awesome, I loved it,” Marlee said. “(My coaches) didn’t want me to guard her because they were scared we might get too aggressive in some situations, but I loved it. It was so fun. A lot of our mutual friends were there cheering for both of us. It was kind of a surreal feeling playing against her and trying to not let my older sister beat me in the end.”
“It was fun. I’m very happy for her, she played a great game. We were smack talking each other and stuff like that, but I was super excited for this game because it doesn’t happen very often. Before we were joking around and stuff, but once the game started it was game time and a switch goes off,” Madison added. “She really impressed me tonight. To see her come out and run the point guard position was really nice. I think she did a great job. (During the game) Marlee was out of my head, I was just focusing on the game and I was just worried about the fact that we were down at halftime.”
“It was kind of cool. I’ve known both of them since before they were in high school and Marlee was here for a little bit, so I was looking forward to them playing together. But the dynamic of them playing against each other and the energy led to some interesting basketball,” said Atlantic City coach Jason Lantz. “I told Madison to not be too excited, but that’s hard to do when you have the chance to play against your sibling and have some fun. That’s a lifetime conversation the two of them will have through the years, talking about their high school experience.”
Much like the Meltons are considered the first family of football at Cedar Creek, the Brestles are writing their own legacy at Atlantic City, and now Ocean City. Lantz said stories like this one are great for South Jersey girls basketball.
“The whole family is great. I’ve had the opportunity to get to know them, and the grandparents, the parents, they’re all very supportive of both programs. They always ask if there is anything they can do to help out,” he said. “It’s a good thing for basketball in general in this area. We have so many good stories, with Kylee Watson (of Mainland), the Brestle girls, Wildwood Catholic is rolling, Middle Township is really rolling — I think South Jersey is on the come-up with a lot of players coming up. Girls basketball is about to really explode in this area, not that it hasn’t already.”
“It’s weird going to different high schools, but it’s fun getting to see her over there and we do our different things,” Madison said. “She does a great job with what she’s doing. Nowadays we get along much better than we used to. When we were younger we didn’t get along very well, we’d always be fighting and stuff.”
While Marlee is just beginning to make her impact with the Red Raiders, Madison’s story at Atlantic City is nearly written, as she has less than six weeks left in her high school basketball career. And what a career it has been, as she — along with teammates like Alex Fader and Ciani Redd-Howard — has been instrumental in turning the Vikings into a CAL contender on an annual basis.
“I couldn’t be where I am without my teammates and coaches. You can’t be a basketball team with just one player, that’s not how it works, so it’s been a lot of help and dedication from everyone,” she said. “I’ve been happy with my career. I’ve had a great opportunity here to play four years of varsity and not many players get to do that, and to be able to grow with the team — the dynamics change every year. This year, I’m hoping we can go further. I think we have potential, I think we just have to be able to harness it.”
That Jan. 24 meeting was the only regular-season game scheduled between the schools, but there is a chance they’ll meet one more time, in the CAL Tournament. Madison would love nothing more than a chance to exact some revenge, but for now Marlee has the family bragging rights — with a bit of a caveat, Madison is quick to add.
“The good thing is, she fouled out, so I can always say, ‘you didn’t beat me, your team did,’” Madison said. “But I had a lot of fun, a big crowd came out and saw us. It was a good time all around.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays