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Chatham topples Colonials for MCT title

RANDOLPH _ Shortly after the final buzzer sounded signaling the end of the Morris County Tournament final and sending Chatham into a frenzied celebration, coach Joe Gaba's cell phone received a deluge of text messages.

Among those checking in immediately and sending congratulatory texts were former players Amanda Berntsen, Grace Conroy, Cassie Falone, Caitlyn Kuntz, Kelsey and Kendall Davies and Liz Ford. Several of them had experienced the thrill of playing in MCT title games when the Cougars were runners-up from 2010-2012.

On Feb. 23, 2018 - a date long to be remembered in Chatham High School sports history - the Cougars, fueled by Veronica Kelly's 13 points, left the County College of Morris gymnasium as proud champions following a 40-31 victory over top-seeded Morristown.

Finally, the Cougars, perenially contenders in the conference, county and state, were holding and showing off the championship plaque that represented their first MCT crown. And, if one looked closely, they'd see the fingerprints of the players who came before them on the plaque. Clearly, they were a part of this, too.

"Coach Gaba and Chatham have been chasing this for 20-something years," said Kelly, named the tournament MVP. "It's crazy. Just insane. It hasn't set in yet. I know I feel excited. I'm happy. Really happy. We knew we could do it."

Reasons for the elation are many. Third-seeded Chatham (18-7) suffered losses to Morristown this season by 10 and five points, respectively, in NJAC-United Division matchups this season. Kelly and the other seniors had never beaten the Colonials, who claimed the MCT title in 2017. Last year, the Colonials triumphed three times by double digits.

The Cougars held few leads over Morristown in the past and never late in a game. They either fell behind early or were even at halftime before the Colonials took charge. So, there a little anxiety at halftime at CCM when Chatham was up by only one, 16-15, yet it had the mindset required to prevail. The Cougars benefited from clashing with Rumson-Fair Haven, University, Hunterdon Central, Oak Knoll, Bayonne, Montville, West Morris Morris Catholic and Jefferson.

"What they did to win this championship... We were prepared," Gaba said. "The schedule in the conference and the counties was tough. We were tested each and every night. I can't say enough about these girls. Morristown is so aggressive. They take you out of your offense. I knew it would be a dogfight and it was. It came down to execution and we were a little better."

Both teams had to cope with an injury or illness to a starting player. Morristown certainly missed Kate Kolb, who amassed 34 points and asserted herself inside in the previous two MCT games. Kolb was not herself due to a sprained ankle and saw limited action, scoring only three points. The Cougars did not have a full-strength Hannah Kelly, who was getting over an illness. Tess Ford, a freshman, started in her place. The younger Kelly did play and contributed five points.

The championship, along with this entire season, has been savored by Chatham senior Chloe Blanc, who sat out much of last season after knee surgery.

The main objective versus Morristown was "to take the game minute by minute," according to Kelly.

"We couldn't let them get a big lead," Kelly said. "We had to win more minutes than them. We couldn't play for 32 minutes and try to win all of them. That was unrealistic."

"We have not played from the front against them," Gaba noted. "We had to get a little separation, maybe six points or so, and we had to put pressure on them and defend the other end of the floor."

Chatham, the lone Morris County team to defeat Morristown this season, didn't open a huge gap in the third period. Two minutes and 34 seconds after halftime, Kelly fired in the second of her three 3-pointers, connecting from the right side, to put the Cougars on top, 23-18. Up 25-22, Chatham closed out the third quarter with a field goal by Maddie Hartnett at 54.3 seconds and went ahead by five again.

Twice in the frenzied fourth quarter, the Cougars led by seven. Nicole Ferrara netted a 3-pointer 56 seconds into the closing period to bring Morristown within four, 29-25. From there, Chatham commenced a nine-point run, highlighted by Kelly's five points, and took command, 38-25, with 47.3 seconds remaining. The Cougars made 8-of-10 free throws in the fourth quarter, including 6 of 6 over the last 1:26.

"It feels great that we were able to beat Morristown," said Camryn Davies, one of three Chatham seniors. "Everyone was involved. We were super pumped up. We didn't turn the ball over as much as we did in the other games. We played four of us against six defenders to get ready for Morristown's ball pressure. On defense, we didn't give up easy looks. We were together. We played as one."

Morristown, which received 11 points from Elizabeth Strambi, simply did not put forth its best effort.

"Chatham was the better team tonight," Colonials coach Jim Pisciotto said. "We picked a bad day to have an off game. I am proud of our girls for all they accomplished this year. We took our best shot and won the conference. When you are No. 1, you only have one place to go. Our girls were poised and executed all year. I'm very proud of my team." 

ALL-TOURNAMENT TEAM

Taylor Langan, Jefferson

Danielle Mills, Morris Catholic

Kate Kolb, Morristown

Elizabeth Strambi, Morristown

Michaela Ford, Chatham

Veronica Kelly, Chatham - MVP 

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Pittas impressed by marathon experience

NEW YORK _ As a first-time participant in the New York City Marathon, Despina Pittas considered every millisecond a highlight.

Pittas, a wraparound clinician at Boonton High School, reeled off moment after memorable moment. The start of the marathon in Staten Island... Crossing the Verrazano Bridge... The bands in Brooklyn... Her family members and strangers hugging her and friends cheering her on in Queens... The struggles she endured over the last 2.2 miles...

"It was all so amazing," said Pittas, who completed the 26.2-mile race in 5:50.47 on Nov. 5, 2017. "It's tough to pick out one thing. Maybe Brooklyn, with all of the bands on the corners, was the best part. It was like a big party. It was definitely the most festive part of the marathon."

Pittas decided to run the "unforgettable race" after witnessing her cousin, Vicki Grapsas, do it three years ago.

"I loved the whole atmosphere," Pittas said. "The fact that my cousin could run more than 26 miles impressed me. It was so inspiring. I thought 'Can I do it?' I wanted to try."

So, Pittas, no stranger to 5Ks, 10Ks and half marathons, began preparing for the NYC Marathon in May of 2016, just two months after the birth of her daughter, Elli. Not long after, she suffered a stress fracture to her tibia and suspended training until Sept. 1. Pittas had two months to prepare but her orthopedist advised her that "it wasn't time for 20 miles."

Pittas, disappointed, set her sights on 2017. She entered the lottery and gained one of the coveted spots. She trained on the streets of Morristown and ran on Patriots Path. Pittas often ran 18 miles from Morristown to Chatham and back.

Prior to half marathons in Brooklyn, New York City and Asbury Park, she considered herself "a runner, not a racer," yet made herself into one. Pittas thought back to the years after college when she returned to running to cope with the stress of teaching at Jamesburg Prison, a maximum security facility.

"I ran because it felt good," she recalled. "It was for fun. A friend influenced me to do a half marathon and that's when I fell in love with racing. I loved everything about it."

While growing up in Randolph, Pittas, a talented athlete, ran for St. Andrews Greek Orthodox Church Youth Organization. She also competed in basketball, softball and swimming for the church organization or recreation programs. Pittas was a sprinter for the Randolph High School track team. Her father, James, taught her mental toughness.

That mental toughness enabled her to persevere during the NYC Marathon last fall. Pittas did not hit "the wall" at the 20th mile. The 24th mile was the toughest. It was there that Pittas, who would like to run the Marine Corps Marathon, began to feel intense pain but she kept her legs going.

"I considered walking but I didn't do it," said Pittas, a resident of Morristown. "I came to run. Finishing is one of my greatest accomplishments. It was an amazing feeling."

For three days after the marathon, Pittas' entire body ached.

"I could barely get up the stairs. It was tough to move," Pittas said. "The mental part trumped the physical. Pain really is weakness leaving your body. Fortunately, I had that toughness."

It'll be Chatham-Morristown in final

RANDOLPH _ Hannah Kelly and Chloe Blanc had done their stints for Chatham, trying their best to contain Morris Catholic's Danielle Mills.

Mills, the not-so-easy-to-contain junior guard/forward, boosted her game in the third quarter in an attempt to erase the Crusaders' four-point halftime deficit. She was succeeding and becoming more and more exuberant with each basket. Displaying her usual aggressiveness and determination, Mills drove to the hoop then fired in a 3-pointer. She drew a foul and sank both free throws with 3:40 remaining in the third to bring Morris Catholic even, 24-24.

It was then that Cougars coach Joe Gaba called on Michaela Ford to deter Mills, their main focus, in the Morris County Girls Basketball Tournament semifinal On Friday, Feb. 16 at County College of Morris.

Ford, several inches shorter than Mills at 5 foot 5 and certainly not as physical, met the task. Ford's defense was exceptional as she denied Mills the rest of the way and helped third-seeded Chatham gain a 43-32 win over No. 2 Morris Catholic. Top-seeded and defending champion Morristown, buoyed by an 11-point run in the third quarter, defeated fifth-seeded Jefferson, 45-30, in the other MCT semifinal.

"We locked down on defense, especially in the fourth quarter," Ford said. "We were determined to win. I didn't mind guarding (Mills). Defense is my favorite thing. No matter who it is, I can guard them."

Ford compared guarding Mills to matching up with Mendham's Joey Meyers. She considers Meyers "a big guard." The Cougars (17-6) went up against Mendham twice recently. Meyers sat out one game with an injury but she was on the court on Tuesday and Ford was assigned to her.

"I've been working on my defense," she said. "I've been concentrating on my footwork. I knew I might have to guard (Mills) at some point in this game so I was ready. I got up on her. The goal is to get her to dribble the ball."

Also beneficial was the time Ford put in with assistant coach Lindsay Atchison, the former Chatham High School standout and King's College player. Atchison, now an assistant coach, is 6 feet tall and offered advice about how to halt talented offensive players.

"Coach Atchison has been helping me, especially with footwork," Ford said. "I learned about fronting the post and what to do when the ball is on different parts of the floor."

Gaba praised all of the girls who had to contend with Mills, who finished with a team-high 13 points for Morris Catholic (22-2).

"The two things were wanted to do were stop them offensively and force our will on them and execute," Gaba said. "Morris Catholic was well scouted. We could not allow Danielle Mills to go out and do what she does. She's strong and dynamic. We saw things on film and felt we could expose them. Everyone was so unselfish tonight. It was a total team effort."

The Cougars, according to Gaba, certainly lived up to this season's theme which is "Good, better, best."

In a 34-second span early in the third quarter, Chatham received 3-pointers from Hannah Kelly and Camryn Davies and pulled in front, 24-16. The Crusaders countered with an eight-point run in which Mills scored seven points. Her two foul shots tied the score, 24-24. The Cougars' Veronica Kelly snapped that deadlock before Feyi Idera dropped in a layup for knot it again, 26-26, with 2:28 remaining in the third period. Morris Catholic went on top, 28-26, with 1:52 left on another Idera basket.

Chatham, which will appear in its first MCT final since 2012, had the last four points of the quarter to secure a 30-28 advantage. The Cougars opened the fourth quarter with a three-point play by Veronica Kelly and stretched their unanswered run to seven. Emma Duerr (12 points) got Morris Catholic within three, 33-30, before Chatham, whose high scorer was Veronica Kelly with 14, commenced an eight-point burst. That run, which featured points from four different players, sealed the victory.

Next, the Cougars headed to their team room to dance. First on the playlist was "Together," a song from "High School Musical."

"We were all going crazy," Ford said. "We've been anticipating this all week, all season. We blasted the music. Winning tonight is special. It's an amazing feeling."

Morristown (18-2) was powered by Elizabeth Strambi and Kate Kolb, who had 17 and 16 points, respectively. Tara O'Neill added eight.

The Colonials, who netted seven 3-pointers, four by Strambi, and Jefferson (17-5) engaged in a close battle. Morristown led 22-13 at halftime but the Falcons bounded back and closed within one, 22-21, with 3:42 left in the third quarter. Jefferson's eight-point skein was keyed by Taylor Langan's four points and Nicole Lemieux's 3-pointer. However, the Colonials strung together 11 unanswered points within the last 3:02 of the period to go up, 33-21. O'Neill nailed two 3s and sank a free throw during that stretch and Kolb, who struggled earlier on, had four points.

"It came down to us, to me, making shots," Kolb said. "I couldn't catch the ball for a little bit. The guards gave me great passes. They were right where they needed to be but..."

Jefferson, paced by Langan's 13 points, could get no closer than nine in the closing quarter and did not score over the final 2:36. Morristown ensured the win by converting 6-of-9 free throws.

Colonials coach Jim Pisciotto expressed relief about being able to overcome Jefferson's 2-3 zone defense.

"That is not a traditional zone," Pisciotto said. "It's a half-court trap more than anything else. It's tough to move the ball. They have five guards and so many passing lanes. Our girls showed a lot of poise. We got the early lead then you look up and it's one point. We got something going to change the tempo. We've seen many defenses lately. It's tough to get a rhythm so we looked a little clunky but that's OK."

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Crimson notch second straight crown

MORRISTOWN _ A three-goal lead didn't put Morristown-Beard at ease in the NJSIAA Girls Ice Hockey Prep Championship game.

It sounds comfortable, especially because the Crimson built their advantage, scoring a goal in each period, and held it into the closing stanza. Still, Morristown-Beard, a bit sluggish at the start, worried when Princeton Day School avoided being shut out by receiving a goal from Gia Massari 7:15 into the closing period.

Forty-nine seconds later, the Crimson, courtesy of Keegan Heher's goal, were up by three again and feeling much better. And, by game's end on Tuesday, Feb. 13, Morristown-Beard's players were exuberant, reveling in their 4-1 victory over PDS that enabled them to notch back-to-back prep crowns.

"We came out nervous today. We were a little flat," said Heher, who also had an assist. "We rallied together and began to connect. We backchecked and battled on the boards. We did all of the things that lead to a win."

Heher's tension-reducing goal came off a pass from Ally Detre. Heher, a senior center, was stationed in the slot and Detre put the puck on her stick. Heher shot and the puck went off the left post and eluded Princeton Day goalie Jillian Wexler (31 saves).

"I heard the ding of the post and turned to celebrate," Heher said. "They had just scored so it was an important goal. We got the momentum back."

Morristown-Beard did not take the Panthers lightly in spite of the fact that the visitors' roster is laden with underclassmen. The Crimson knew they'd have to be consistent throughout to retain the title. Last winter, Morristown-Beard prevailed 2-1 over a much more experienced team.

Grace Urbano gave the Crimson a 1-0 lead when she converted 1:17 into the opening period. Urbano, whose defense was stellar as well, was set up by Emily Kitchin and Leslie Phillips. Kitchin extended the advantage to 2-0 by scoring 4:03 into the second period off a pass from Heher. The third goal came off the stick of Detre 5:52 into the third period. Jenna Kurz initiated the scoring sequence by picking up a loose puck and hitting it off the boards. Detre took control and stickhandled around a Princeton Day defender before flipping the ball over Wexler's right shoulder.

Everything and everyone was in sync by then. The Panthers' goal jarred Morristown-Beard but they maintained a high level of play.

"We stuck with it mentally today," said Detre, the senior center who will play hockey at Wesleyan. "Our coach was not pleased with us at first. Sometimes, the puck doesn't go your way. We weren't making good decisions. We weren't doing the little things right. We weren't connecting. We were sloppy."

Earlier in the day, Detre and several teammates watched the U.S. Women's Ice Hockey Team battle Russia in a preliminary-round game. That helped get them fired up for the championship clash with Princeton Day.

"The U.S women are the best in the world," Detre said. "They're so skilled. They're great inspiration for us and younger girls."

Crimson coach Bruce Driver was glad his squad achieved one of its goals and credited them with righting themselves following a lackluster start.

"The is a great win for us," Driver said. "Give Princeton Day credit. They played hard and played smart. This is always something we want to do. It's important to the kids, the parents, the school and the community. We had a little trouble adjusting to what they were doing. There are a lot of details that I see that others don't see. Our girls set the bar high and want to reach it. They knew they weren't playing up to their standards and raised their games."

In addition to Urbano, Jenna Pych and Anna Bajak played excellent "D." Driver said Bajak displayed "poise with the puck."

"Anna wasn't rushing passes," Driver said. "We've talked about that all season. We want the players to pass to someone."

The championship actually could be considered Morristown-Beard's third in a row. The Crimson triumphed in the title game in 2006 before the prep tournament was suspended for 11 years. Either way, Morristown-Beard was elated by the outcome.

"It's a great way to end my last season," said Heher, headed to the University of Richmond, where she will play lacrosse. "To do it with these girls is a great accomplishment. It's a testament to our hard work. It's an amazing feeling. We take nothing for granted. We gave it all we had and pulled it out. It's awesome."

***PHOTO GALLERY BELOW***

 

Kolb, Colonials survive Hornets

DENVILLE _ Kate Kolb was discussing her career-high 18-point game and her contributions to Morristown's 50-45 defeat of Hanover Park in the Morris County Tournament quarterfinals.

The Colonials' center noted that she thought she played well and stopped speaking.

"I hate talking about myself like that," she said before resuming the interview.

Kolb, very humble, had every right to revel in her play which helped top-seeded and defending champion Morristown come out on top. The 6-foot-2 senior, sidelined for the first six games of the season with a concussion, was exceptional when the Colonials (16-2) needed her most.

With leading scorer Elizabeth Strambi in foul trouble, which resulted in her sitting out for 19 minutes, Kolb asserted herself. Not only did she have a memorable night offensively, she took down seven rebounds. Nicole Ferrara joined her in double figures with 12 points. Elizabeth Mongey had eight points and seven rebounds. Strambi had three points, all on foul shots.

"I had to really fight for rebounds," Kolb said. "I had to jump a little higher today. The Hanover Park girls do everything. They crash. We all knew we had to work together with Elizabeth out. We had to get the ball up and do what we do without Elizabeth."

Before Strambi went to the bench, Kolb was busy. With the Colonials trailing, 16-9, she scored three baskets in a span of 1:19 to cut the deficit to one. In the third period, Kolb had three more field goals from close range. She did her job with efficiency and did not exhibit any signs of nervousness.

"I think our guards were out so far that it isolated me in the post," Kolb said. "That, of course, was an entire team effort because everyone had to be in position."

Kolb's heroics didn't surprise Morristown coach Jim Pisciotto.

"Kate does the dirty work," Pisciotto said. "She boxes out. She scores points. She dribbles. Kate is the stereotype of an inside player. She had some nice moves today."

Eighth-seeded Hanover Park snapped the first deadlock of the game, gaining a 7-5 edge on Meghan Macaluso's 10-foot jumper with 3:48 left in the opening quarter. The Hornets kept the lead, remained even or stayed close in the game which was tied seven times.

Following Kelsey Stites' 12-foot jumper with 2:48 left, Hanover Park was in front, 45-42. A basket by Kolb 10 seconds later brought Morristown within one, 45-44. Free throws were critical as the seconds ticked off the clock.

"If you told me Elizabeth would have three points and we win, I'd take it," Pisciotto said. "It was a gritty performance. We're a really tough team. If you look through our schedule, there were games where we were down and came back. Hanover Park had us on the ropes and we ground it out."

Another Morristown player who came up big was sophomore Tara O'Neill. O'Neill handled the ball in Strambi's absence and chipped in six points. Ferrara had back-to-back baskets in the fourth quarter when the Colonials were engaged in a tight battle.

Hanover Park used five points by Brielle Junda to secure a 14-9 lead in the first quarter. Camryn Coffey had 13 points, including three 3-pointers for the Hornets. The other Hanover Park players in double figures were Stites with 12 and Junda with 10.

"Survive and advance," Pisciotto said. "This prepares us for tough games. I commend Hanover Park. Doug (Wear) is as good of a coach as anyone in the county. They'll throw haymakers at you. Hanover Park had nothing to lose. They had us on our heels."

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Falcons avenge loss to Mustangs

DENVILLE _ The turnovers were upsetting when Jefferson suffered an early-season loss to Montville. The Falcons were perturbed by their shooting, too.

What bothered Jefferson most, though, about the setback at the Mountain Lakes Tournament was something else. The Falcons' record dropped to a not-so-stellar 1-3. Not surprisingly, a team meeting was called. Jefferson turned it around but another matchup with the Mustangs loomed, this one in the Morris County Tournament quarterfinals.

The Falcons knew what it'd take and got ready for a major showdown. It didn't materialize.

Fifth-seeded Jefferson built a 10-point advantage in the first quarter and defeated the fourth-seeded Mustangs 34-22 on Saturday, Feb. 10 to gain revenge and advance to the MCT semifinals.

"We were so mentally prepared," said senior guard Taylor Langan, whose 19 points paced the Falcons. "We knew what tempo we needed. Everything we had to do, we did. I think we exceeded our expectations today. Every individual on this team has gotten better since the last time we played Montville. I think Montville's as sharp as anyone in the county. They come to play."

Montville's win over the Falcons in late December was by 11 points. Jefferson (17-4) committed 22 turnovers and was unable to convert. The Falcons got busy immediately in this MCT quarterfinal, scoring the first nine points.

"We were a little out of sorts after the last one," Jefferson coach James MacDermid said. "We reflected in the meeting and discussed what we were doing well and not doing well, teamwise and individually. We figured out what we could correct. We went on to win 12 in a row."

The Falcons, who have five seniors and start four of them, maintained a double-digit advantage for a good portion of the game. Montville, though, came back and pulled within five points of Jefferson, 21-16, on Amanda Gorski's putback with 3:03 remaining in the third period. The Falcons, MCT runners-up to Morristown in 2017, then had a seven-point run highlighted by five points by the Colgate-bound Langan.

"We slacked off a little bit there," Langan said. "It was not OK to take a break."

Sophomore Emma Wax netted a pair of 3-pointers for Montville in the fourth quarter and ended with a team-high 12 points. Victoria Pietraszkiewicz joined Langan in double figures with 11 points. Effective zone defense also figured into Jefferson's triumph.

"Right now, we're good defensively," MacDermid said. "We're good at reading offenses and intercepting passes. Montville has size and some really good shooters. To hold them to 22 points is really incredible. We're really cooking defensively."

Next up for the Falcons in the MCT is top-seeded and defending champion Morristown.

"We're all excited to go back to CCM," Langan said. "We saw what it was like. Our seniors know what it takes to come out on top."

***PHOTO GALLERY BELOW***

Crusaders back in MCT semis

DENVILLE _ Morris Catholic's Danielle Mills couldn't resist the victory lap after going to the basket hard and making a layup in the midst of a 12-point run that bridged the third and fourth quarters.

As the ball slipped through the net, Mills, bursting with emotion, raced past the baseline, did a little loop and went back onto the court. Her exuberance stemmed from two things: Accomplishing what coach Rich Fachet had just mentioned in a timeout and the fact that the Crusaders were likely to return to the Morris County Tournament semifinals after a one-year absence.

Powered by Mills, who had 11 points and 12 rebounds, the second-seeded Crusaders most certainly are back in the Final Four, courtesy of a 33-24 win over No. 10 West Morris on Saturday, Feb. 10 at Morris Knolls High School.

"During the timeout, our coach told us if we come right out and score that it would close it," said Mills, who drew a foul on that play and sank the ensuing free throw. "I saw the wide-open lane and knew that we needed it. The little run was because I was so pumped. I was like 'Wow! I actually did that.' We needed something to keep us in a good mindset and I think that did it."

The triumph earned Morris Catholic (20-1) a berth opposite third-seeded Chatham, a victor over Mendham. Jefferson kept the Crusaders from the semis last winter, ousting them in this round. 

"Our 12-point run was huge," Crusaders coach Rich Fachet said. "I kept on saying 'Get a stop. Take some good shots.' Danielle's three-point play was really nice. She's a leader. She was very into this game and had a lot of positive energy."

The Wolfpack had gone up, 19-18, on Alyssa Spady's 3-pointer 45 seconds into the third quarter. Alyssa DeBlasis then hit from outside the arc for the Crusaders to send them ahead, 21-19. The last tie of the game was 21-21. From there, Morris Catholic commenced a 12-point run of unanswered points to take command, 33-21. Mimi Rubino came off the bench to score four in the burst. Mills' three-point play widened it to 10 points, 31-21.

"We didn't put the ball in the basket," West Morris coach Fran Gavin said. "We had some opportunities. Give Morris Catholic credit. They played hard and they played smart."

Mills, a junior forward, has treasured every second of this season after coming back from reconstructive surgery to repair tears of the ACL and meniscus in her right knee. She suffered the injury while playing AAU in April of 2017. Mills had surgery a month later and was finally cleared to play last November.

"There's so much adrenalin. I don't even think about it," Mills said of her knee. "If it hurts, I shake it off and keep playing. I don't worry about it."

It was clear that Mills was ignoring it on Saturday. She and DeBlasis had six points apiece in the opening half versus West Morris. The road to the win, however, had its bumpy spots.

With 3:05 remaining in the second quarter, Morris Catholic led, 16-11. West Morris scored the last five points of the period to knot the score, 16-16, at halftime. Stephanie Galayda had four of those points, capping the mini run with a jumper from the top of the key at 8.4 seconds.

Maddie Selvaggi, the Wolfpack's standout, had a tough time as she was battling a stomach virus and got into foul trouble. Selvaggi (6 points) was whistled for her fourth foul with 4:40 left in the third quarter but stayed in the game. She was charged with her fifth foul in the closing period.

"It didn't help that Maddie was under the weather," Gavin said. "She wasn't herself. One of our better shooters, Annie Mauldin, was a little off, too."

For Mills, a part of the Crusaders squad that claimed the MCT title in 2016, a trip to the semis is a big thrill.

"This was a crazy team effort," Mills said. "We shot, drove, dribbled. We did all we could. We're here to win. The MCT is complicated and challenging. We all wanted it."

Her teammate, junior guard  Feyi Idera, relished the opportunity to play at County College of Morris.

"We watched a lot of film," Idera said. "We were really prepared. We won with defense. We wanted to shut down Maddie. Winning today is just great."

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Rams hang on versus Butler

BUTLER _ Randolph is relatively adept at holding leads.

Rarely do the Rams, in spite of their inexperience, allow a substantial advantage to slip away.

On Thursday, Feb. 8, Randolph in command by 17 points after three quarters, may have gotten a bit too comfortable and allowed Butler to come within five.

The undesirable circumstances caused the Rams to dig deep and they emerged with a 57-50 victory over the Bulldogs in non-conference action.

"The lead wasn't taken seriously," Randolph coach Pete Torres said. "The girls were looking for their own shots and putting bad ones up. It turned into a dogfight. Because we're so young, we never know what we'll get. We struggle with remembering how young we are."

Butler, spurred by Sam Beck's eight points, Kaysey Scott's seven and much determination, outscored the Rams 22-11 in the closing period. Randolph made 5-of-9 free throws, enabling it to close out the win. However, there were many tense moments. The Bulldogs (9-11) cut their deficit to five three times, including 45-40 when Beck made a close-range basket with 23 seconds left.

"We're usually able to maintain leads but we made sloppy mistakes," said Rams junior forward Julia Wiersum. "Effort wasn't the issue. We just forgot small things. For me, I stopped boxing out. Then I calmed down."

"It hit us when they were coming back," Randolph freshman Angeleen Mulero said. "There was too much up and down. We need to stay at the same level. There wasn't enough focus."

The Rams (11-10) were still flying high after suffering a one-point setback to West Morris on Tuesday. Wiersum, who had two points versus the Wolfpack, finished with 11 and Mulero, a freshman, topped Randolph with 14. Having Wiersum in double figures was encouraging because she had been struggling.

"Julia had a nice game," Torres said. "As one of the oldest players we have, she was taking on too much. She was putting pressure on herself to carry the team. Maybe she realizes it now."

Wiersum is one of three juniors among the Rams' top six. The others are a freshman and two sophomores. And, yes, she knows she was taking on a lot of responsibility.

"I've been trying to take control and set an example," she said. "I've been slumping the last few games. My game has been off. Driving. Dribbling. Everything. This was a good opportunity to get back where I was at the beginning of the season." 

Mulero, who moved to Randolph from East Stroudsburg, Pa., attained double figures for the sixth time this winter. She joined the starting lineup in the sixth game.

"Angeleen has been dynamite," Torres said. "She runs the show for us. She's one of our leading scorers and leads the team in assists."

The loss was a heartbreaker for Butler, which entered the game with a win over Pequannock. However, coach Kim Wilson was pleased with the Bulldogs' performance.

"We're getting better every game," Wilson said. "We're playing bigger schools, a lot of tough independents, to get us ready for the states. We didn't back down. It was never really out of reach. Our kids are the salt of the earth. They work hard. Everyone contributed something. It came down to Randolph making free throws. Still, it was a great effort. Little things are turning into big things."

Butler, paced by Scott's 14 points and Beck's 10, fell behind 18-12 at halftime. In addition to her 10 points, Beck took down 10 rebounds and made a block.

***PHOTO GALLERY BELOW***

Strong third quarter elevates Hornets

EAST HANOVER _ Morris Knolls' decision to clamp down on Kelsey Stites, who scored in double figures in the first half, served as incentive for Hanover Park in its Morris County Tournament first-round game versus the Golden Eagles.

With Stites under close watch in the Golden Eagles' diamond-and-one defense, eighth-seeded Hanover Park had the opportunity to show off the rest of its talent and exhibit its depth.

The Hornets netted four 3-pointers, two by junior guard Camryn Coffey, in the third period outscored Morris Knolls 19-6 to break open a game that was deadlocked 30-30 at halftime.

Stites had only four points in the second half but that was just fine as Hanover Park gained a 58-46 victory over the ninth-seeded Golden Eagles on Saturday, Feb. 3.

"They faceguarded Kelsey figuring they'd take her out and that no one else could do anything," Coffey said. "We weren't affected by it. It was 30-30 going into the third quarter. We looked at it as a 16-minute game. We were back at zero. We overcame the kink in the defense. We were nervous but we came together. We're a very close-knit group."

That cohesiveness was on display for the duration of the game. Ninth-seeded Morris Knolls (10-7) went up, 32-20, on a basket by Catt Reyes 48 seconds after the break. Coffey and Meghan Macaluso netted 3s over the next 52 seconds to give Hanover Park a 36-32 lead. After Vanessa Elliott scored for the Golden Eagles 2:22 into the third quarter, the Hornets commenced a seven-point run to secure a nine-point lead, 43-34. Coffey capped the string of unanswered points with a 3-pointer.

Brielle Junda had five points over the last 38.6 seconds of the third period. The 5-foot Junda, a sophomore guard, connected from outside 19 feet, 9 inches then nailed a 14-foot jumper from the right side at 6.7 seconds.

"We knew we had to pass the ball around and find the open man," Junda said, recalling the decisive quarter. "On defense, we had to locate their shooters because they can shoot 3-pointers. We swung the ball well and locked down on defense."

Coach Doug Wear, whose Hornets (14-4) will face top-seeded and defending champion Morristown in the MCT quarterfinals on Saturday, Feb. 10 at Morris Knolls, praised his players for coming through when the Stites was under pressure.

"We're more than just Kelsey," Wear said. "Kelsey's a driver/distributor so we used the high post and had shooters on the perimeter once they went to the diamond and one. We've got some physical kids inside. They can body up and bang on the boards. And, Camryn... She's our pure shooter. That's what she does. She's able to knock a few down."

The inside players Wear was referring to are Macaluso (8 points, 10 rebounds) and Martina Wulf (7 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 blocks). Dara DiMaiolo made an impact off the bench by taking down four rebounds and scoring a basket. Wear said DiMaiolo adds to the dynamic by "directing people and talking a lot."

Coffey, a first-year starter, has accumulated 30 3-pointers this season. She gains more and more confidence with each one.

"I know mechanics and form are important," Coffey said. "I'm past that. I'm working on the mental part. I'm getting it down."

Morris Knolls has been without Christi Conroy (sprained ankle) for the last four games but has continued to "fight hard," according to its coach, Rob Moore. He commended the Hornets for shooting the ball well and noted that the Golden Eagles typically have been adept at defending 3-pointers.

"Having Christi back will change the dynamic," Moore said of Conroy, likely to sit our two more games. "We'll do more of what we've been focusing on. We've learned to play without her and I think that will help us in the long run."

Stites powered Hanover Park in the first half, posting 12 of her 16 points. She also had eight assists, five steals and a block. Junda and Coffey ended with 13 and 11 points, respectively. 

Three Morris Knolls players - Carli Van Riper, Reyes and Emily Mitarotonda - scored in double figures. Van Riper's 12 points were high for the Golden Eagles. Mitarotonda had eight in the opening half for the visitors and Reyes had seven.

Hanover Park returns to the quarterfinals for the second straight year after not appearing in them in 2015 and 2016. The Hornets, winners of five of their last six games, are pleased to be back after graduating four starters.

"It's really important that we continue on," Coffey said. "Hanover Park has been really successful year after year. We lost seven seniors. That's a lot. There were big shoes to fill. Now we want to make our mark."

"Counties are never easy," Junda said. "You have to come out strong and play for all four quarters. I'm excited that we advanced. We need to keep up the momentum." 

Cougars stretch streak to 10

MORRISTOWN _ Athletes get through tense situations in a multitude of ways.

Prior to the 400-meter freestyle relay, the last event for the girls at the Morris County Swimming Championships, Chatham sophomore Hailey Harkins danced behind the blocks to calm her nerves.

"Hailey's got nice dance moves," said Olivia Polemeni, who swam the last leg of the relay.

Not long after, the entire Cougars contingent was dancing - and jumping - with joy after claiming their 10th consecutive title on Saturday, Jan. 27 at Morristown High School. Chatham amassed 273.5 points and second-place Morristown had 246. Mountain Lakes was third with 154.

"This is really special to me," said senior Nicole Tingley, one of the Cougars' five captains. "I already had three county wins under my belt. Thanks to these girls, the seniors have another."

Chatham coach Frank DiGiacomo not only went with a different order for the 400-meter freestyle relay, he added in Harkins, who does not consider herself a sprint freestyler.

Polemeni formerly swam the first leg of the race. Isabella Hoie was second followed by any number of swimmers. Tingley had been the anchor. However, for the MCT, DiGiacomo went with Harkins, Hoie, Tingley and Polemeni and the quartet produced the Cougars' only first-place showing of the meet with a time of 4:00.36.

"It made me look like I know what I'm doing or something," DiGiacomo said. "I had to think a little differently for this one. Normally, the second fastest and the fastest are at the end of the relay. I felt Hailey could do something crazy. Hailey does the IM, freestyle. She's a utility swimmer who excels in the 200 and on. We tested her all season and tried her in different things. She's really great so I put her in there."

Harkins, naturally, was anxious about leading off the relay.

"I'm usually in the 'B' race or I'm not in it," Harkins said. "I knew about it all day. I didn't understand the intensity of the meet. I was scared. Our coach and Olivia kept giving me pep talks."

The objective for Harkins was to stay with Morristown's Annalise Webber, certainly not an easy task.

"I tried to sprint the whole way and hang in there," Harkins said. "I wanted to stay in the realm of the Morristown swimmer. She knows how to go fast."

Hoie, a freshman making her MCT debut, did her part. She was a bit on edge, too, and fatigued from competing in other events.

"I have this face," Hoie said of her innocent look. "People see it and tell me not to be nervous. I really wasn't. Maybe I was a little. I knew we could pull this out. I couldn't the team down. I was tired but I had to do it. Everyone was tired."

Tingley, second in the butterfly and 200IM, knew the meet was close and texted her mother, Nancy, seated in the balcony, for scores before the closing relay.

"I asked what we needed to do to win," Tingley said. " She texted back 'It's counties.You need to win it.'"

Tingley initially thought DiGiacomo's plan for the relay was "iffy." She trusted her coach, though, and gave the Cougars a two-body-length lead going into the last leg.

Polemeni thought a bad habit of flipping too quickly on turns might make her a less-than-ideal No. 4 swimmer. Turns were not an issue and the sophomore swam a smooth race.

"Nicole's lead helped a lot," Polemeni said. "She kept asking me how I was beforehand. I think she did that to calm me."

DiGiacomo noted that his teams have thrived under pressure.

"When there's a situation where our backs are against the wall, we work our hardest," he said.

Morristown, led by Grace Miller, took first in two relays and had two other first-place showings. Miller was tops in the 200 and 400 freestyle. Laurel Carey of Madison garnered gold in the 50 and 100 freestyle. Montville's Victoria Eisenhauer was a double winner, setting MCT records in the breaststroke and 200IM.

Autumn Brook-Tucker of Roxbury prevailed in the 100 butterfly and Katie Kiely of Mountain Lakes took the backstroke.

Stretching the championship run to 10, said DiGiacomo, is "a testament to our community." The Cougars captured the first three titles under Dave Steele and one under the guidance of Karen Gaba. DiGiacomo has been at the helm for six.

"It's the swimmers and their parents. It's the support we get from everyone," DiGiacomo said. "It's not what I've done. Chatham loves swimming and its swimmers. We've had a  very long line of kids who were effective. I had no idea what would happen coming in here. As it turned out, our depth got us the championship."

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