By Wayne Witkowski
It didn’t take long for the fanfare to fade of Ed Jones getting his 450th victory in 32 seasons coaching Middletown High School North’s girls’ basketball team with a 50-39 victory at crosstown rival Mater Dei Prep Jan. 6. The coach now prepares his team for what he calls, “Two weeks of hell.”
The Lions, who are off to their best start in recent years at 5-2 behind explosive scoring four-year starter Hailee Hallard, play three top 10 ranked teams in the state during a nine-day stretch.
It started Jan. 10 at home against No. 9-ranked Middletown High School South, which is off to a typically fine start at 6-2.
Middletown South over the holiday break went 2-1 in the KSA Tournament showcase at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Disney Resorts in Orlando, Florida, winning the first two games and losing the finale to North Marion High School of West Virginia, 70-54. The Eagles then lost in their first game of 2017 to No. 1-ranked Manasquan High School, 73-46, Jan. 5 before knocking off Marlboro High School, 35-30, Jan. 7 behind Alexandra Balsamo’s 12 points.
After playing Middletown South, the Lions host No. 1-ranked Manasquan (9-0) at 5:15 p.m. Jan. 13 and travel to high-powered Wall High School, which has a misleading 3-5 record on an extremely tough schedule, Jan. 17 and No. 5-ranked Red Bank Catholic High School (6-1) Jan. 19.
On the same day that Middletown North plays Manasquan, Middletown South plays at Red Bank Catholic.
All three ranked opponents compete with Middletown North in the Shore Conference B North Division.
“Middletown South has two seniors leading them in Balsamo and [Haley] Dalonzo, who are four-year starters and great for their leadership, and the sophomore point guard who is coach Tom Brennan’s daughter and pretty experienced from last year,” Jones said, referring to the Eagles’ run to the NJSIAA Group III state championship game for a second straight year. “For Manasquan, their coach talks about basketball IQ, and you see it because they seem to know what to do every second of the game. As for Red Bank Catholic, they’re one of the best shooting teams I’ve ever seen.”
The key to competing against those teams, Jones said, is to keep composure during the tough times in games and to play good defense, as his team has often shown early in the season.
“When we hold teams to 40 points, we have a chance to win,” Jones said.
His team showed the down side of that in a season-opening loss, 81-46, to Red Bank Catholic and a 57-43 loss to host Roselle Catholic High School in the championship game of Roselle Catholic’s holiday tournament. Middletown North rolled by Jackson Memorial High School in the semifinals of that tournament.
Jones feels playing those teams will help his own team better prepare for the Shore Conference and state tournaments later in the season.
“We won’t be playing many better teams than those three,” Jones said. “No matter what the result is, they’ll learn from those games.”
The Lions have settled down since that season-opening blowout loss, as Jones has his own scoring machine in Hallard, who averages 25.3 points and has sunk 11 3-point shots.
“She’s a 3-point shooter, but she also goes to the basket and draws fouls, which gets her to the line,” the coach said.
Hallard has made 45 free throws this season.
Hallard comes off back-to-back 30-point games, nearly single-handedly outscoring Long Branch High School Jan. 5 with 37 points in a 58-44 victory and putting in 33 points against Mater Dei. She’ll need much stronger offensive support from her teammates in the days ahead.
Dani Tollevsen, a 5-foot-6 senior forward, also started last season and is more of a defensive stalwart, while the other starters include junior Kiera Williams, a 5-foot-9 center who has been the No. 2 scorer this season with 6.6 points per game, and sophomore guards Caleigh McAnuff and Melissa Golembieski.
Kamani Williams, a 5-foot-7 inch senior who is Kiera’s older sister, started last season before she suffered a season-ending knee injury last January and has been working her way back very slowly while playing as the first substitute coming off the bench.
“She’s still not 100 percent, so we’re working her back carefully,” said Jones, who has a new assistant coach in Chris Hoffman, who is a former Robbinsville High School head coach.
Bayley Padla, a 6-foot junior center, is the only other player in the tight rotation.
Sophomore forward Gina Palladino and freshmen Lauren Holt and Olivia Cerbo complete the team. Palladino and Cerbo are 5-foot-7 forwards, and Holt is a guard.
Jones has been able to build solid, competitive teams over the years and feels this team will compete and contend well as the season unfolds. He said the offseason commitment of his players in this and past years have prepared them well for the seasons. Of his 450 victories and coaching career at Middletown North, he says he remembers most the first two games: a loss in overtime to Monmouth Regional High School and a victory over Long Branch, which had two NCAA Division I recruits, on a buzzer-beating basket off a short jumper from the left by Debbie Collins.
After its brutal 10-day stretch, Middletown North has a game Jan. 28 against Allentown High School — the team it knocked out of the state tournament last season that comes into the week 7-0 — in a benefit showcase for the nationwide Leukemia Association. Assistant coach Hoffman ran the showcase while coaching at Robbinsville and has brought it over to Middletown, as 14 teams will play in seven games in the final weekend of the month, including Marlboro, Neptune High School and Colts Neck High School.
Middletown South, meanwhile, will look to regain its momentum behind Balsamo, who averages 17 points, and Dalonzo, who scores 10 points a game.
After this week, the Eagles get a little breather with home games against Ocean Township High School Jan. 17 and Long Branch Jan. 19.