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Eppel's HR powers Morris Knolls in emotional MCT final

ROXBURY _ Skye Eppel paced the dugout in the bottom of the seventh inning, pondering what would happen if Morris Knolls got back to the top of the order.

Eppel, a junior centerfielder and leadoff batter, took a few peeks at the action on the field and cheered at times as the Golden Eagles tried to recover from a one-run deficit. After Brielle Eike singled and Nicole Florey walked, Eppel, her stomach churning, was assured another at-bat. The pacing finally ceased when she was in the on-deck area.

The anxiety soon turned to euphoria when Eppel hammered a first pitch over the fence in center field - only the second home run of her career - to conclude an incredible rally and provide top-seeded Morris Knolls with an 11-9 victory over No. 6 Mount Olive for the 2019 Morris County Tournament title at Landing Park on Saturday, May 11.

"I was not expecting a home run," Eppel said of the dramatic two-out homer. "I don't hit many. All I wanted was a base hit. I just wanted to get a run in and tie it. I wanted to give us a chance to pull through. I was a nervous wreck. I obviously want to be in a situation like that and prove myself. Even in the field, I'm on edge. I'm proud of myself. It's something I always wanted to do. It's really cool."

Eppel did not watch the flight of the ball. She hustled to first base and, realizing the ball was out of the park, raised her arms up and continued to make her way around the bases. Of course, her teammates and coaches were waiting and swarmed her to celebrate their first MCT crown since 2014.

Keith Heinemann predicted Eppel would make an epic contribution in the MCT final on the bus ride to the game. He shared his thought with assistant coach Jolyn Veres, telling her Eppel, who has been slumping, would "come up huge."

"The way we won was unbelievable," Heinemann said. "It was an emotional rollercoaster. So many ups and downs... This is great."

In the top of the seventh, the Marauders, trailing 8-4, had a major comeback of their own, sending nine batters to the plate and scoring five runs to pull in front, 9-8. They got their fifth run on a bases-loaded walk in the top of the seventh. They got two more on Alyssa Segnello’s single up the middle for 8-7. Lindsey Walter poked a single to right field - the 100th hit of her career - to knock in a pair of runs and put Mount Olive in control, 9-8.

That, naturally, left Morris Knolls uneasy. Mount Olive, meanwhile, was elated to have new life and felt they were on the verge of the title. But, nothing was certain, as evidenced by the game's five lead changes.

Morris Knolls gained a 2-0 advantage on Jess Arminio’s home run in the first inning. Eppel, who led off with a base hit, scored on the one-out shot to left-center field.

Winning pitcher Kayla Turcios encountered control problems in the top of the fourth inning and Mount Olive capitalized by putting across three runs and led, 3-2. The Marauders had four hits, the big blow being the bases-loaded, three-run double by No. 8 batter Bella Salafia. Bri Segnello started the inning off with a double off a first pitch. Two walks ensued before Salafia doubled, also off a first pitch. The bases were filled again but Turcios quelled the threat with a strikeout.

Nicole Tahmoosh’s sacrifice fly extended Mount Olive's advantage to 4-2 an inning later.

Morris Knolls received an RBI single from Maddison Perna and a two-run double from Casey Heitmann in the fifth for 5-4. Perna picked up another RBI with a bunt in the sixth. Morris Knolls scored its seventh and eighth runs on wild pitches.

"It was a great win, especially because it was so back and forth," said Perna, the Golden Eagles' junior shortstop. "Mount Olive is great competition to play against. When we were up, it was exciting. We were jumping and cheering. Being down was a punch in the gut. Some heads went down. When Skye hit her walkoff to end it, feelings just rush through your body. The team really came together. It was a great win."

Eppel was pleased that Morris Knolls accomplished the second of three goals that were set this season. All that remains is a state crown.

"When we were up by four runs, all we were thinking was we needed three outs and we'd be county champs," Eppel said. "The whole thing was pretty intense and scary. At 2-0, some of us said 'We've got this.' So much happened after that. It was crazy. That's why winning is so great."

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Mt. Olive, Knolls advance to final

ROXBURY _ As a freshman pinch runner, Bri Segnello used her speed and daring to score from first base on Annalee Smith's two-out RBI double in the eighth inning and send Mount Olive to a win over Randolph in a 2018 Morris County Tournament semifinal.

On May 9, Segnello, now the starting center fielder, was once again a critical part of the game-winning run, belting a double to right-center field to snap a 2-2 deadlock in the bottom of the seventh inning and boost the sixth-seeded Marauders over seventh-seeded Parsippany, 3-2, in an MCT semi.

Morris Knolls, the top seed, defeated No. 12 Mendham 9-3 spurred by a six-run offensive burst in the fourth inning of the second semifinal at Landing Park. Kayla Turcios, the winning pitcher, had two RBIs, one off a solo home run, to key the big inning. After giving up two runs in the first inning, Turcios settled in, yielding four hits and striking out four.

"I was trying to hit the ball in the gap. Just hit it as hard as I could," said Segnello, whose two-base hit came off a 2-1 pitch. "I wanted to hit it somewhere, anywhere, so Kaitlin (Pettenger) could score."

Segnello, Mount Olive's No. 5 batter, obviously loves competing as evidenced by the fact that she also plays basketball and field hockey. That's why she was unfazed by being up with one out and the game on the line in the lower half of the seventh inning. Segnello was hit by a pitch her first time up then walked. She hit into a double play in the fifth inning. That, of course, didn't sit well with her.

"Bri can definitely hit," Marauders coach Bill Romano said. "That's a tough spot to be in. Parsippany wasn't going to quit. They weren't going to back down."

Kaitlin Pettenger got a base hit to open the seventh for Mount Olive, which fell to Hanover Park in last year's MCT title game. Pettenger raced to second when the next batter struck out. 

Mount Olive (13-5) scored the game’s first run in the second inning on Lindsey Walter's bunt. Segnello, who was hit in the foot by a pitch to start the inning, slid into home plate in a very close play.

Parsippany went ahead, 2-1, in the top of the fifth on Julia Vincent’s groundout and a miscue. Arianna Urban's double and Lindsey Depetris' single gave the Red Hawks two runners with no outs. A strikeout ensued before Vincent stepped into the batter's box.

Anna Callahan’s two-out RBI triple to right field knotted the score, 2-2, for the Marauders in the fifth inning. The extra base hit followed a 2-3-2 double play by Parsippany in which Red Hawks catcher Michelle Ebel fielded Segnello's bunt with runners on second and third. Ebel fired to first to Gabby Gennarelli and Gennarelli threw home to get Kaitlin Pettenger on a head-first slide.

"That was a great play by them," said Romano, referring to the double play. "We were just trying to get a run in there and it didn't work."

Segnello said she was "disappointed but tried to be positive."

Callahan, a junior righthander, turned in a strong effort in the circle, striking out eight and walking one in her MCT semifinals debut. Callahan allowed five hits, two to Depetris. She struck out the side in order in the first inning and retired 11 of the first 12 batters before walking Parsippany cleanup hitter Jenna Devens with two outs in the fourth inning.

For part of the season, Callahan was splitting the pitching duties with Walter but became the ace several weeks ago. Last spring, Callahan was the first baseman and third-string pitcher.

"I was a little nervous going in," Callahan said. "My warmup was good. I got on the hill and did my part. I contributed. Winning tonight was a blessing. It was the best thing ever."

Her game-tying triple surprised her. Callahan indicated that she "gets the bat on the ball and makes contact."

"My batting average isn't the greatest," Callahan said. "I'm not all over the bases. I try to move runners."

Morris Knolls (19-3) used back-to-back-to-back extra base hits to score three runs in the third in the second game. With one out, No. 9 batter Mary Griffin doubled to right center on a full-count offering. Skye Eppel doubled off a first pitch to drive in a run. Maddison Perna then tripled off the fence for the second run. A throwing error produced the run to give the Golden Eagles a 3-2 edge.

The next inning, Morris Knolls’ bats continued to boom and it added six runs. Eleven batters went to the plate, with Turcios slugging her solo homer and driving in a run with a single up the middle. Griffin knocked in the second of the six runs. Jess Arminio had an RBI. Errors by Mendham accounted for the other runs.

Griffin, typically the flex, has been hitting for the last few games and coming through.

"I really don't hit a lot," Griffin said, shaking her head. "I'm on top of the world. The double was great. It felt amazing."

Golden Eagles coach Keith Heinemann said he was "super happy" for Griffin, noting that "she got us started and created momentum for us."

Mendham used three hits, one an RBI base hit by Grace O'Mahoney, to gain a 2-0 edge in its first at-bat.

"With one out and the bases loaded, our pitcher may have been a little nervous," Heinemann said. "It may have gotten to her and she wasn't hitting her spots."

Griffin is thrilled to be in the MCT final as is Heinemann.

"We were down at first and we picked ourselves up," Griffin said. "Being in the final is amazing. I'm actually playing after being on the bench. I'm speechless."

"The MCT is always one of our goals," Heinemann said. "This is redemption for last year's MCT when we were knocked out in the preliminary round by West Morris. Getting back is great for us."

 

Chatham went down fighting in Group III final

TOMS RIVER _ Defensively, Chatham gave every ounce of energy it could. And, if a couple more shots had gone down on the offensive end, the Cougars might well have come home with a state championship.

However, Mainland Regional was able to rally from a three-point deficit late in the third quarter, outscoring Chatham, 16-6, for the last 10 minutes of the game as the Mustangs took a 42-35 victory over the Cougars in the Group III girls basketball state championship game on Sunday, March 10 at the RWJ Barnabas Arena on the Toms River North High School campus.
 
Chatham, which had won five in a row, seven out of eight and 11 of 13 games coming in, took a 29-26 advantage on a 3-point field goal deep on the left wing from junior guard Maddie Hartnett 5:10 into the third period and a traditional three-point play from freshman forward Carly Frohnapfel with 2:19 left in the third quarter. But junior forward Kylee Watson made a free throw with 1:19 remaining in the third quarter to cut the Mustangs' deficit to two points, 29-27, entering the final period.
 
Sparked by from five points from Watson in the fourth quarter, Mainland outscored Chatham, 15-6, in the last eight minutes to slowly pull away from the game Cougars.
 
"I am very proud of my team. They left it all on the floor today," said Chatham 22nd-year coach Joe Gaba, who recorded his 400th career win a year ago January. "We played some outstanding defense and really making them search for a way to attack us successfully for a long while. It was an excellent effort by all our players."
 
For Chatham, it is the fourth time in the last 16 years that it has been a state Group runner-up. In 2004, the Cougars (23-7) lost to Haddonfield Memorial (Newark Shabazz won the Tournament of Champions that year), then Chatham fell to Rumson-Fair Haven in 2009 (St. John Vianney won TOC that year) and they were defeated by Shabazz in the 2010 final (Neptune won TOC that year), all in Group II.
 
Bumping up to Group III for the first time, Chatham was led by a strong effort from Hartnett, who scored a game-high 12 points and also contributed four rebounds, one assist and one steal. Also making an impact for the Cougars were senior guard Michaela Ford (six points, three assists, one steal), junior forward Shannon Donohoe (nine rebounds, three blocked shots), senior forward Olivia Mathern (four rebounds, two blocked shots), sophomore guard Tess Ford (eight points, one assist) and Frohnapfel came off the bench to grab four rebounds and score three points.
 
Chatham, which was bidding for its first-ever state group championship in girls basketball, won the Northwest Jersey Athletic Conference American Division title with a 9-1 mark, the ninth time in the last 10 years the Cougars have accomplished that feat. In the Morris County Tournament final, Chatham was edged by eventual first-time MCT champion Morristown-Beard on a last-second basket, 34-33, after the Cougars held a 33-32 lead going into the final six seconds at the County College of Morris on Friday, Feb. 22. Chatham was the 2018 MCT champion.
 
In the North 2, Group III final on Monday, March 4, top-seeded and host Chatham had defeated second-seeded Warren Hills, 48-40. Two days later, Chatham earned a 41-38 victory over Pascack Valley in the North Group III semifinals. In that game, Chatham led, 34-26, after three quarters, but was outscored 9-1 in the fourth quarter to send the game into the extra session, 35-35.
 
"We played really, really hard and we really held them down defensively," said Hartnett. "But, like in the fourth quarter of the Pascack Valley game, we went through kind of a dry spell late in the game today. We were able to overcome that against Pascack Valley, but we just came up a little short against a very good team today. Still, our effort was there all the way and we gave it our full-out best for the complete 32 minutes."
 
Mainland Regional (28-3), which earned its first-ever girls group state championship, has now won six in a row and 20 of its last 21 games. The Mustangs won the Cape Atlantic-League National Division with a 12-0 mark.
  
The teams went back and forth in the first half with the Atlantic County team taking a 13-12 lead after one quarter and a 22-20 edge at halftime. Freshman guard Camryn Dirkes had nine of her 11 points in the first half to help give the Mustangs that slight advantage after 16 minutes.
 
A three-point field goal by junior guard Madison Hafetz off a pass from senior guard Taylor Dalzell gave the Linwood school the lead for good at 30-29 with 7:12 left in the fourth quarter. Dalzell had 11 rebounds and six points for Mainland and Watson, a 6-foot-3 junior center, had 11 points, 13 rebounds, two assists and two blocked shots for the South Jersey team.
 
Chatham, as a team, shot 25.5 percent (12 for 47) from the floor and the Cougars' tough defense limited Mainland to 29.7 percent (11 for 37) from the floor. The Cougars were 3 for 16 (18.8 percent) from 3-point range and Mainland was 6 for 13 (46.2 percent) from long distance. The shorter Cougars were outrebounded only 35-30 by the taller Mustangs, who now advance to the Tournament of Champions.
 
Sixth-seeded Mainland will play third-seeded Manchester Township, a 65-48 winner over Lincoln of Jersey City in the Group II state championship game Sunday, in a first-round TOC game at the RWJ Barnabas Arena on Tuesday at 7 p.m. The first game that night in Toms River will match fifith-seeded University of Newark against fourth-seeded St. Rose of Belmar at 5:30 p.m.
 
In the TOC semifinals on Thursday night on the Toms River North campus, the winner of the Mainland-Manchester game will take on second-seeded Saddle River Day at 5:30 p.m. and the winner of the St. Rose-University game will play top-seeded Franklin Township from Somerset County at 7 p.m.
 
The TOC championship game will be on Sunday, March 17 at the Rutgers Athletic Center in Piscataway at 2 p.m. between the two girls semifinal winners. The boys championship game will be the nightcap of the TOC championship doubleheader and will be at 4 p.m. at Rutgers.
 
Chatham, off its excellent run in the states, returns three of five starters to next year's team and four of its top six players.
 
"We were in it all the way and in three of the four times in the final these last years, we have been right in it to the end (six-time TOC winner Shabazz being the exception in the 2010 Group 2 final)," Gaba said. "We feel we can compete with anyone and we really made Mainland work for everything they got today. It was an inspired performance by both teams, and I'm already looking ahead to next year and more great competitive games."
 
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Crimson claim MCT title on DeMattheis buzzer beater

RANDOLPH _ Christina DeMattheis put the ball up and time stood still, seemingly for eternity.

Multiple thoughts raced through DeMattheis' head in the second or two it took the ball to travel 10 feet. Were the tears that formed in her eyes in anticipation of a miss or from the euphoria of netting the basket that would propel Morristown-Beard to its first Morris County Tournament title in any girls sport? 

Twenty minutes later, DeMattheis, understandably, still didn't know and it didn't matter. She was elated by the Crimson's 34-33 victory over top-seeded and defending champion Chatham in the 2019 MCT final on Friday, Feb. 22. And, best of all, it was her buzzer beater - off a pass from fellow senior and tournament most valuable player Bridget Monaghan - that ensured that she and her teammates would long be remembered.

"I got the ball and I didn't have time to take another second," said DeMattheis, a guard. "I didn't think it was going in. I put my hands to my face and stood there. I wasn't sure. I was shocked. I was crying. I didn't expect this."

No one did.

Everyone in the gym at County College of Morris, packed nearly to capacity, likely anticipated that Monaghan would go all the way after receiving the inbounds pass under Chatham's basket from Erin Martin with six seconds remaining and Chatham up, 33-32, after Tess Ford's free throw.

Monaghan (15 points) dribbled left then cut to the right at halfcourt. She neared the 3-point arc and, smothered by defenders, whipped the ball to the left to the wide-open DeMattheis, who did not expect to be in a high-pressure, no-time-to-think situation at crunch time of a monumental game. Monaghan said she had no choice because she "saw bodies" and the scoreboard was ticking down. The decision, obviously, was the right one, setting off a wild celebration between the players and the fans who spilled out of the stands.

"Our last inbounds play is exactly why we're the team that we are," Morristown-Beard coach Mike Sturgeon said. "Bridget had instructions to go the whole way and to win the title. She saw the defense and passed to Christina who has been clutch for us quite a few times this year. It was a great move. Bridget knew what to do."

DeMattheis may have been stunned to be called upon under stressful circumstances but her teammates had the utmost faith in her.

"That little jumper... I am so proud of Christina," Crimson junior Addisyn Ibrahim said. "There was so much pressure. That's so hard to do."

"Winning this is insane," said senior Gianna Rella, who missed the semifinals because of an emergency appendectomy. "Christina was great at the end. She was composed. She's hit some clutch shots and free throws during games but nothing like this."

Morristown-Beard (23-3) trailed 18-14 at halftime. Neither team shot particularly well in the third quarter and there were multiple turnovers. The Crimson tied the score, 21-21, on Olivia Omelczuk's layup with 1:31 left. The Cougars regained the lead, 24-21, on Maddie Hartnett's 3-pointer from the right corner with 55.8 remaining. Monaghan got the rebound after an errant shot by Chatham and raced down the court to drop in a layup at 4.2 seconds.

The closing period was tight as well. Erin Martin's free throws 1:32 into the fourth period put Morristown-Beard on top, 25-24. The Cougars went in front again, holding the edge for a little more than two minutes. The score was deadlocked two more times, the last at 30-30 when Monaghan had a layup with 3:30 left. From there, Ibrahim put in a hook shot at 2:18 to give Morristown-Beard a 32-30 advantage. Following a Chatham foul shot by Shannon Donohoe at 1:56 for 32-31, there were two turnovers.

At 26.4 seconds, Morristown-Beard missed the front end of a one and one. It appeared that Tess Ford's field goal off an inbounds pass at 5.3 seconds would be the gamewinner, allowing Chatham to become a repeat champion but, right after that basket, officials put 0.7 seconds back on the clock because it was running after a timeout was called, giving the Crimson six seconds to race into the record books.

"None of this has sunk in yet," Ibrahim said. "It was so close. This shows how much we love each other. I wouldn't want to do this with anyone else."

Rella, cleared to practice on Thursday, was delighted to sub in for DeMattheis twice, seeing a minute of action in the second quarter and another in the third when DeMattheis was whistled for her third foul. She held the trophy tightly and raised it often.

DeMattheis, an accomplished equestrian who has been riding since the age of 5, indicated that the decisive shot - the first of her career - and the MCT championship were "pretty special."

"We're going to get a banner. We're going to be remembered," she said. "We came in here ready to go and ready to win. We're a family. We love each other and play for each other."

Sturgeon thought of Bob Caprio, the former Morris Catholic girls assistant coach and long-time referee, who passed away three and a half weeks ago after the monumetal win. The two men often talked on the phone, with Caprio offering advice.

"Bob helped me a lot," Sturgeon said. "Over the years, he'd call me after games and tell me what I did right and what I did wrong. Not many people know what he did for me. I used to be a big yeller and screamer and he advised me to calm down. I miss him. Maybe he was looking down on us."

The all-tournament team consisted of Chatham's Michaela Ford and Hartnett (15 points in the final), Hanover Park's Kelsey Stites, Morristown's Tara O'Neill and Morristown-Beard's Olivia Omelczuk.

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Mo-Beard, Chatham to face off in MCT final

RANDOLPH _ The text from Gianna Rella had an emotional impact on each and every one of Morristown-Beard’s players.

Rella, a senior, sent the encouraging words from a bed at Overlook Hospital, where she underwent an appendectomy five and a half hours before the Crimson’s first appearance in the Morris County Tournament semifinals on Friday, Feb. 15 at County College of Morris. Morristown-Beard's players read her text in their group chat right before taking to the floor for warmups.

You've got this. I'll be there for the final.

It was apparent that third-seeded Morristown-Beard, which will meet top-seeded and defending champion Chatham for the title on Friday, Feb. 22 at 7 p.m. at CCM, missed the exuberant senior guard as it struggled through the first half of its game versus No. 7 Morristown before ultimately gaining a 32-30 win.

Rella’s absence, however, wasn't all the Crimson (20-3) had to overcome to land a berth in the final. The Colonials applied effective high-pressure man-to-man defense and held a five-point halftime lead. Add in some nerves, the experience of playing before a larger-than-usual crowd in a cavernous and it's easy to understand why this wasn't a typical game.

“We were upset about Gianna, of course,” said senior guard Bridget Monaghan. “That text had all of us in tears. We were like ‘Do it for G.’ It really helped us. This was not one of our best games.”

At halftime, Rella appeared in the locker room via FaceTime and listened to the pep talk given by coach Mike Sturgeon. That, too, touched her teammates and made them determined to turn things around in the second half. Rella normally is a key component in the huddles, saying "Crimson on three" before everyone follows with "1-2-3 Crimson." Right before the players exited the room at the break, Rella did her part via cellphone and her teammates immediately responded with enthusiasm then took that energy out on to the court.

"Gianna is our lifeblood," said Sturgeon, who found out that Rella was hospitalized at 2 a.m. on Thursday night and never went back to sleep. "She doesn't light up the scoreboard but is as valuable as they come. She's a big part of our gameplan."

Morristown-Beard trailed, 18-13, but went on a nine-point run over the first 5:20 of the third quarter to gain a 22-18 advantage. Monaghan had six of 10 points in that burst, dropping in two layups and getting a basket off a putback to put the Crimson on top, 19-18. Erin Martin's 3-pointer capped the run.

The closing period was tense as the Colonials, outscored 11-2 in the third period, showed no quit. Olivia Omelczuk had her lone field goal, a 3-pointer, 11 seconds into the closing quarter to extend Morristown-Beard's lead to seven, 27-20. Morristown received a free throw from Elizabeth Mongey before Nicole Ferrara netted a 3-pointer to bring the Colonials within three, 27-24. Soon after, Ferrara sank a pair of foul shots which enabled Morristown to pull ahead, 28-27. Senior guard Christina DeMattheis converted a pass from Martin, boxed in by defenders, into a layup with 1:42 left, allowing the Crimson to regain the lead, 29-28.

Over the last 19 seconds, Morristown-Beard connected on 3-of-4 free throws for 32-28. Morristown's Aziah Adams then went in, uncontested, for a layup at 3.8 seconds.

"We were in a situation where nothing went right for 16 minutes," Sturgeon said. "We had to change things and run our offense. Morristown plays good hard-nosed defense. It's as good as it gets. Morristown wants 30 possessions in a game. We want 60. We had to adjust."

Rella watched the entire game, the last half of it live, thanks to Sarah Bregna, a former player. There also may have been another factor in the Crimson's victory, thus far the biggest in their school's girls basketball history. On the way to the semifinals, Morristown-Beard players sipped a Starbucks acai drink, Rella's favorite.

"I figured we could come back," Monaghan said. "We had it in us. This feels incredible. It's our first time at CCM. We always hoped to be here. We have high hopes for this season." 

Chatham, competing in the Final Four for the 12th time, earned the right to defend the MCT crown by defeating fourth-seeded Hanover Park, 42-38, behind 17 points by Maddie Hartnett. 

This semifinal was a nailbiter as well, with the Cougars (18-5) in control at halftime, 23-21. The score was knotted on three occasions in the second half. One minute and 27 seconds into the fourth quarter, the Hornets' Brielle Junda knocked down a 3-pointer for 32-32. Two free throws by Kelsey Stites ensued and Hanover Park led, 34-32. A three-point play by Hartnett put Chatham in command to stay, 35-34. 

Still, the game was far from over. Olivia Mathern, a senior forward, had her second 3-pointer with 4:50 remaining to keep the Cougars ahead, 38-34. The Hornets fought back and, with 1:55 remaining, Stites (15 points) made a layup to make it a one-point game, 39-38. Ultimately, Chatham netted 3-of-4 free throws over the last 11.9 to seal the win.

Chatham coach Joe Gaba deemed Mathern's 3-pointer to be one of the plays of the game.

"I try," said Mathern of her long-range shooting ability. "We all shoot a lot of 3s. We got a lot of opportunities because Maddie and Tess (Ford) drive a lot."

Mathern acknowledged that "there was a lot going on at the end." She said that the Cougars were able to move on in the tournament by "talking to each other" and "staying calm."

Gaba attributed his squad's play in the semifinals and this season to their defense, noting "We'll defend the floor until the last horn goes off" and to "their love for each other."

"They're close on and off the court," Gaba said. "They do everything together. You want to go into battle with people you trust completely."

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Morristown stuns No. 2 Crusaders

DENVILLE _ The team. The team. The team.

Those six words are entrenched in the minds of the players on the Morristown girls basketball team. Each time the Colonials exit their home locker room, whether for practice or a game, they jump and tap a sign that bears those repetitive words.

"We think about it a lot," said senior guard Nicole Ferrara, whose 3-pointers, along with Kolby Lynch's spirited play, helped Morristown rally in the third period en route to a 49-42 upset of second-seeded Morris Catholic in a Morris County Tournament quarterfinal on Saturday, Feb. 9.

"We're playing for the seniors, for each other. The seniors may not have another chance to do this."

That's why the Colonials, trailing 24-20 at halftime, turned it up in the third period. Ferrara, bound for Ohio State University on a lacrosse scholarship, nailed a 3-pointer with 1:30 remaining in the third quarter to put seventh-seeded Morristown in front to stay, 32-30.

Ferarra's trey commenced a nine-point run, one that extended into the fourth quarter. Lynch, out all of last season with a torn ACL, had nine of her 12 points in the third period, including a critical layup following a rebound with 24.7 seconds left. Ferrara ended the third stanza in dramatic style, hitting a 3-pointer at the buzzer. The ball bounced high off the rim before trickling through the net.

"That was a lucky one," said Ferrara of the 3-pointer. "I got a great pass from Katie McGuinness and shot. I think that gave us more momentum. We were super hyped. It was like 'Let's do this.'"

For Lynch, a junior, being on the court was much better than sitting on the Colonials' bench.

"This is my first time here, my first year on varsity," Lynch said. "It's so much different being in the game than being on the sideline. I fed off all of the energy. I went off of it and played for the team."

Colonials coach Jim Pisciotto was elated about the comeback and the victory it produced as well as for Lynch, new to the spacious gym at Morris Knolls High School.

"We saw an opportunity and what could happen," Pisciotto said. "We got the ball to Kolby. She can make 3s. She can drive. Kolby didn't get to play last year. Now, she's picking and popping."

According to Pisciotto, Morristown, which adjusted to the graduation of four-year starter Elizabeth Strambi by using Tara O'Neill, Morgan O'Neill and Grace Godfey at point guard, fell behind because it was rushing shots, not playing team basketball, not moving the ball well and not boxing out.

"They were killing us on second shots," he said.

Composure, said Lynch, was key for the Colonials. 

"I was more excited than nervous," Lynch said. "This was a great environment to play in. Coming out of the locker room at halftime, we had to focus on our shots, keep the lead and stay calm."

The game was tied three times in the first quarter then Morris Catholic began pulling away. After O'Neill made it 12-12 with a baseline move with 1:06 left in the period, Sanai Newell had a three-point play. Newell scored after three misses. She then took a pass from Mimi Rubino and scored for 17-12 with 0.4 seconds remaining. The Crusaders further distanced themselves by getting the first basket of the second quarter. It was a low-scoring second period for both teams but Morris Catholic retained the edge.

The third quarter, at least the last 1:30 of it, belonged to Morristown, which has been to the last four MCT finals. It wasn't over yet, though, as the Crusaders fought back. They came within three, 42-39, with 2:09 left in the game. The Colonials (12-7) then went to the free throw line five times, converting 6-of-8 attempts to go up, 48-39.

"Don't look at our record," Ferrara said. "We prepared so much for this. We've improved from the first game until now. It's crazy how much we've grown."

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Crimson headed to MCT semis

DENVILLE _ Morristown-Beard's Gianna Rella accomplished things at a dizzying pace in the second quarter.

Rella, a senior guard, tends to always go all out but this was an extra-intense effort. With the Crimson holding a six-point lead 1:37 into the period, the 5-foot-2 Rella, unguarded, went up - extraordinarily high - to take down a defensive rebound. Less than two minutes later, she made a steal. Not for one millisecond did Rella let up.

The performance by Rella was representative of the entire Morristown-Beard team: Relentless and driven. Because of it, the third-seeded Crimson, who harbored unpleasant memories of their first-round loss to West Morris in a 2018 Morris County Tournament first-round game, earned a 69-53 over the Wolfpack in MCT quarterfinal-round action on Saturday, Feb. 9.

"We worked so hard all summer," Rella said. "We were strong in the fall league. This is unfinished business for us. We want to show we're here to win. We're capable of it."

Last year's setback to West Morris had a double sting. Not only did Morristown-Beard make an early exit, it was playing without Bridget Monahan, who was sidelined with a broken hand. Monahan, a senior guard, was a huge presence this time around and was one of three Crimson players in double figures with 18 points.

Morristown-Beard, which has won eight of its last nine games, was clearly out for revenge after the 69-31 defeat at the hands of the Wolfpack. Every possession had purpose and each girl was focused.

"I'm not going to lie," Morristown-Beard coach Mike Sturgeon said. "We wanted revenge. The front page of our scouting report was the boxscore from the West Morris game. This is it. Unfinished business. We're coming back for you. These kids remember stuff."

Saturday's game, however, was one to remember as the Crimson (18-2) assumed control early and did not relinquish it. Morristown-Beard, whose opponent will be No. 7 Morristown in its first MCT semifinal appearance, raced out to a 19-11 advantage behind eight first-quarter points by Monaghan (18 points). They went into halftime on top, 30-24.

Olivia Omelczuk scored 14 of her 23 points in the second half for the Crimson. She had the initial seven points of the third quarter, including a 3-pointer that she banked off the glass 56 seconds after the break.

"We wanted to go out and hammer them in the second half," Omelczuk said. "This was a big game. We wanted to leave it all on the floor. We had to if we wanted to advance. We had to stay focused which is what we did."

Erin Martin (16 points) stood out in the fourth quarter with six points while Monaghan had seven. Martin indicated that it was ball movement which enabled Morristown-Beard to be successful from start to finish. Another factor was Morristown-Beard's desire to seal the win and move on to the semifinals.

"It's just unfinished business," Martin said. "That's it. We wanted this last year. The seniors pumped us up throughout the week. They kept saying we could do it. Our goal was to get past this and to move on."

Rella beamed when reminded about the second-period rebound and her non-stop hustle.

"Our coaches kept saying the guards needed to go in the lane," Rella recalled. "It was four on two. No one was on me so I crashed (the boards). The whole team was on fire. We wanted this."

Sturgeon spoke of Rella's value to the team, noting that she didn't start several games. Rella was upset she wasn't among the first five and asked what she could do to contribute.

"We need Gianna out there. She's our sparkplug, our Energizer Bunny," he said. "She doesn't get many points but her energy is a big thing. Gianna has no numbers really so she's so overlooked."

For West Morris, Mackenzie Selvaggi, a freshman, had 17 points. Five of Selvaggi's baskets were from outside the arc.

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Crusaders triumph in time of sorrow

DENVILLE _ Mimi Rubino, as always, tied back her hair and piled it high on her head when Morris Catholic clashed with Morris Hills in a Morris County Girls Basketball Tournament first-round game on Saturday, Feb. 2.

Rubino, a junior guard, thought about one of her former coaches, Bob Caprio, several times that day, recalling the inside jokes they shared, in particular the one about her wavy brown hair, which falls almost to her waist when it's down.

"Coach Caprio kept telling me he was going to take scissors and cut it all off," she said with a smile while remembering the former Crusaders assistant coach who passed away on Tuesday, Jan. 29. "It's kind of heavy when it's up. I'm used to it."

This time, it was Rubino's heart that was heavy as she spoke about Caprio after scoring a career-high 29 points in Morris Catholic's 68-35 victory over Morris Hills. She, like the entire Morris County sports community, was stunned by his death. She and her teammates attended Caprio's wake on Feb. 4.

"This has definitely been hard for the team," Rubino said. "He had a light spirit. He cheered us up. I was close to Coach Caprio. Many of us were. He definitely united us."

The atmosphere for the game versus was the Scarlet Knights was subdued. Caprio, who left the sidelines along with head coach and close friend Rich Fachet at the conclusion of the 2017-18 season, was on many fans' minds at the second game since his passing.

Caprio, the former long-time athletic director at Parsippany Hills, had a passion for the MCT. He was in the midst of planning a ceremony to honor past coaches of boys teams that had captured MCT titles.

Senior Danielle Mills played three of her four years at Morris Catholic under the guidance of Fachet and Caprio. Mills said the Crusaders found out about Caprio's death the day after on a group chat.

"We were all taken aback," Mills said. "No one could believe it. Coach Caprio was a goofball kind of coach. He joked around with us, made things fun. Before games, he'd remind us to catch the ball with two hands and to make good bounce passes. He was the type of person who put a smile on your face. We love him. He will be missed."

Rubino, who missed two practices due to a stomach virus, got off to a slow start, missing a trio of 3-point attempts in the opening quarter. By the second period, Rubino was on her game, scoring 12 points to help second-seeded Morris Catholic gain a 30-8 halftime lead. She kept it up in the third quarter, adding 12 points. Rubino made five steals and was 4 for 4 from the free throw line.

"We played like we know how to play," Rubino said. "We were running to the ball. We got the ball to each other. There was a lot of teamwork."

Mills felt that same way. Teamwork, lacking at certain junctures this season, was crucial to the win and will be important in coming games.

"We've been on and off," Mills said. "In our last game (Villa Walsh), we were a second-half team. It was a little stressful. We all know we have to contribute. We've got our first MCT game out of the way. Now it's wins, wins, wins. We're not going to lose anymore."

Fey Idera joined Rubino in double figures with 12 points. Idera also had six steals and four assists. Mills ended with eight points, eight rebounds, four steals and three assists. The Crusaders netted 10 field goals from outside the arc.

"We have a good shot at the MCT title," Rubino said of the Crusaders, who claimed their last county championship in 2016. "We split the season into three parts - conference, county and state. We want to win all of them." 

Wax block seals win for Montville

MONTVILLE _ Emma Wax leaped high, timing perfect, arm upstretched, to deny Chatham a last-second 3-point attempt, one that would tie the game.

Wax's effort capped Montville's 38-35 victory in an NJAC-American Division game on Thursday, Jan. 31 and indicated how she and her teammates felt: Let's end it here. No need for overtime.

"Everyone was super pumped up because of what happened last time," said the Mustangs' Dani Campbell, a senior forward, referring to a 23-point loss to the Cougars 27 days earlier. "We've been thinking about it. We talked about it all day. We prepared for this a lot. Our adrenalin was pumping."

Wax may have had the last big defensive play but there was so much more to the win that stretched Montville's winning streak - its longest this season - to four. The Mustangs stepped it up, especially over the last four minutes of the fourth quarter.

Dani Vito's basket with 3:23 remaining knotted the score, 35-30. Thirty seconds later, Campbell blocked a shot. With 2:35 left, Bella Vito netted a 3-pointer to give Montville the lead. Chatham, the defending Morris County Tournament champion, of course, wasn't going to yield without a fight. Wax, a junior guard, was swarmed by three defenders after grabbing a defensive rebound. She held onto the ball and was fouled. In the closing seconds, Bella Vito was surrounded by Cougars in the corner yet didn't panic.

"You're always worried at the end of close games," Mustangs coach Derek Lynn said. "We rewatched that last game against Chatham and we weren't ourselves. We played better in the second half tonight. Chatham's very talented and has good shooters. We had to defend better than the first game. I keep telling the girls every game that everyone needs to contribute."

That teamwork and what Lynn referred to "as little tweaks" to the 2-3 zone were key elements in the triumph that moved Montville's record to 10-8. One of those tweaks was extending the zone and getting up on the 3-point shooters as the clock wound down. In addition, the Mustangs remained calm at crunch time.

"Keeping our composure was important," Campbell said. "We kept reassuring each other. We could get the win if we were careful of what we were doing."

 Chatham, which received 22 points from Maddie Hartnett, fell for the second game in a row. That doesn't concern its coach, Joe Gaba, at all.

"Montville came out and did a great job in the second half," Gaba said. "We couldn't get stops. They had more energy than us. They wanted it more than we did. We're young. We're hitting midseason bumps in the road. That'll help us as we refocus and get ready to defend the county title."

The Mustangs, in the words of Lynn, have "won close ones or been blown out."

That's why hanging on against a top-notch opponent like Chatham was pleasing to Lynn. On Saturday, Feb. 2, the Mustangs defeated Mendham by 10 points in a Morris County Tournament first-round game to stretch their winning streak to five games.

"When we want to be competitive, we're a very good team," Lynn said. "I hoped our early season schedule would make us tougher and prepare us for the long haul."

Bella Vito led Montville, which will clash with Chatham in the MCT quarterfinals, with 14 points and 10 rebounds versus Chatham. It was the third double-double in four games for the sophomore standout. Wax ended with nine points, 10 rebounds, five assists and three blocks. 

Colonials believe in "power of three"

MORRISTOWN _ The history lesson in the midst of the Morristown High School Girls Swim Team's pasta party on Friday night served two purposes - to enlighten and inspire.

Colonials coach Donna Gelegonya had her swimmers' rapt attention, telling them of Morris County championships past. The last title Morristown won was in 2009 and was rapidly fading into the distance. The one before that was in 1999 before members of the current squad were born.

Gelegonya is a steadfast believer in the "power of threes" and Morristown, obviously charged up, delivered, tying Chatham for a share of the 2019 crown on Saturday, Jan. 26. The Colonials, thrilled about their first title in 20 years, and the Cougars, who stretched their championship run to 11 with the deadlock, each scored 234 points in a meet that came down to the final event, the 400 freestyle relay.

"I absolutely believe in the power of threes," said an elated Gelegonya, wet from a celebratory leap into the pool, shortly after the meet ended in dramatic style. "Three times... Ten years apart... This is unbelievable. I'm excited and so proud of our kids. Chatham is a great team. Very talented. We really had to turn up the volume."

It all came down to the closing relay. Morristown was in a must-win situation and received sensational performances from Nicole Barkemeyer, Elyse Genrich, Molly Webber and Annalise Webber, who turned in a time of 3:57.97. Molly Webber, a freshman and the Colonials' third leg in the 400 freestyle relay, was key in the Colonials finishing first as she came from behind and made a powerful turn to take a half-body-length lead.

"I went over and talked to them before the last event and emphasized that we needed to win to tie it," Gelegonya said. "They had the opportunity to be legendary. We had to hang on."

Molly Webber's "rally" was not surprising nor was the outcome. Samantha Smith, one of six Morristown seniors, knew of Webber's abilities. She also felt the Colonials were more than capable of coming through.

"Watching Molly come from behind was incredible," Smith said. "From freshmen to seniors, top to bottom, the talent is there. I think for awhile our energy went down and we were nervous. Our spirits went up again and I figured we had a chance of winning. Coach Gelegonya told us about everything on Friday night at the pasta party. I had a feeling it would motivate us."

The history lesson made a significant impact. Gelegonya filled the girls in on the 1999 Morris Championships when the Colonials girls went from third to co-champs with Mountain Lakes because of a scoring error. It was originally thought that Chatham was atop the standings. However, three days later, the miscue was discovered and changes were made.

In 2009, the Morristown boys took top honors along with Mountain Lakes. Again, there was a scoring issue. It was corrected and Morristown was deemed outright champion.

"Everybody counts. Every point counts," Gelegonya said. "Every place counts. Every person counts. Even if you're 12th, you're important."

Junior Grace Miller had a big day, taking gold in two individual events, the 200 and 400 freestyle, and swam on the victorious 200 freestyle and medley relays. Miller set a county record in the 200 freestyle, swimming a 2:03.06 to eclipse the mark set by Reagan Kology of Chatham in 2014.

"This day has been awesome," Miller said. "We wanted to win so badly. We knew we could but it would be very close. It was hard watching at the end but everyone did amazing. I was very hopeful for today. I felt we'd do great things."

Annalise Webber (50-meter freestyle) and Barkemeyer (100-meter backstroke) also had first-place finishes for Morristown.

Chatham coach Frank DiGiacomo didn't seem to mind at all that the Colonials claimed a piece of the title.

"This is awesome," DiGiacomo said. "I honestly love this. It should be like this. Both teams are good, talented, exceptionally fast. We want each other to be successful and push one another. For our team to be successful for this long is a testament to the community which supports us. It's the parents who do what they do. It's not just the coach and swimmers. I'm glad to be a little glimmer in all of it."

Victoria Eisenhauer, a Montville junior, became a three-time winner in two events, taking the 100-meter breaststroke and 200 IM. In both races, she broke her own records.

"I'm happy with how I did," Eisenhauer said. "I got the records and I'll continue to get faster. I feel like the key was going out fast and keeping the pace. I didn't feel any pressure. I try to have fun with it and enjoy being here with my team."

Eisenhauer's father, Gary, will add the medals to the room devoted to the athletic achievements of Victoria and her younger sister, Nicole. In addition to medals, the room features photos from the YMCA Nationals and softball trophies. Nicole, a freshman, doesn't swim for the Mustangs team but competes for the Somerset Valley YMCA club team.

Roxbury's Autumn-Brook Tucker prevailed in butterfly for the second consecutive year. Tucker, a junior, went into the race and "tried not to think about" what she did last year.

"I wanted to have fun and be loose," she said. "I thought of this as a team event."

Tucker's mother, Amber-Sky, got a closeup view of her daughter's win while serving as a timer in an adjoining lane.

"It was great to have my mom there," the younger Tucker said. "She was happy."

Tucker wore a five-year-old traditional pink, black and gray Nike suit, a birthday gift, for a bit of luck. Her teammates jokingly urged her to "Beat tech," referring to the tech suits preferred by some swimmers.

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