No stranger to a state tournament run, the Middletown South girls basketball team downed Trenton Central, 38-37, in an NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV quarterfinal last season at Tornado Alley, regarded as one of the state’s toughest venues to capture a victory.
A date at defending Group IV champion Rancocas Valley was up next in the semifinals and while the Eagles put together a credible effort during the final three quarters, an 18-4 first quarter deficit against a big and physical Red Devils team resulted in a 62-44 loss.
The way last season ended, specifically not being able to handle Rancocas Valley, left a bad taste with everyone.
“They did not go out in a way they were comfortable with,” Eagles head coach Tom Brennan said. “They felt they got pushed around a little bit. We told them going they (Rancocas Valley) would be big and strong and I just don’t think they matched that strength. They were bigger and faster.”
Speed ahead to now and all five starters return from that 18-6 team, which won Class A North, return for another go at it and a chance to get that game back. Four of those starters, Kiera Gannon, Carissa Gray, Jackie Dluhi and Lauren Van Exter are seniors, while Christiana Rutkowski is a junior.
Those four seniors have been on the varsity since they were freshmen and are no strangers to big games it February and March.
The roster hasn’t drastically changed and neither has what the Eagles do. They will be solid defensively behind a long and athletic core that boasts four of five starters at 5-foot-8 or better. The scoring and rebounding at Middletown South is generally a collective effort and this season will be no different.
Brennan is adding two new key pieces of the puzzle that figure to see the floor immediately in junior guard Olivia Liskowitz and freshman guard Stephanie Karcz. Liskowitz is a transfer from St. John Vianney and will sit 30 days per the NJSIAA’s transfer rules, while Karcz will begin her high school career with some fanfare after a strong summer.
“She has incredible innate basketball ability,” Brennan said of Karcz. “She makes plays and not necessarily the way it’s designed. We’re not running the easiest stuff in the world and because of the innate skill set she has, she’ll pick it up pretty quickly.”
Middletown South has advanced to at least the sectional semifinals each season since 2005-06. The Eagles are rarely, if ever, mentioned along with the traditional Shore Conference powers, but that streak is proof of steady progress during the years. It is also a testament to Brennan, who is a sorely underrated taskmaster and is probably lacking respect as one of the area’s elite coaches.
“I think what we’re starting to do now is get just a little bit of recognition,” Brennan said. “I’ve been blessed with the kids that I’ve been handed. This group now, these seniors, what they have done is set aside the ‘me’ stuff. These kids said program first, have some success, set a standard and it has set a standard. They’re seeing there’s a pedigree.”