Most teams look for an inspirational slogan that acts as a rallying cry for their season.
The Millville High School girls’ basketball squad proudly boasts its motto right on the player’s warmup jerseys — N. O. W.
“Never out-worked,” Thunderbolt coach Jason Kessler said. “You’ve got to be able to outwork your opponent on the court and in practice. That’s what we preach everyday.”
Kessler was pleased with the work his players did in the offseason, especially sophomore guard Amanda Smith and junior guard/forward Katrina Gaskins.
Smith has continued to establish herself as a potent go-to scorer. Her scoring average of 16.0 points currently ranks second in the area and includes an area-best and career-high 27-point effort so far this winter.
Gaskins has been one of the bigger surprises for the Thunderbolts, giving the team a lot of different options with her ability to play a number of different positions. After seeing limited time last season, the junior has compiled some hefty minutes thanks to her better conditioning, according to Kessler.
“Both Amanda and Katrina worked extremely hard in the offseason,” he said. “Amanda went out for the track team to help with her cardio and played fall basketball. Katrina has worked herself into better shape and you can see it in the way she plays on the court now.”
Smith says the increased offseason training regiment played a part in her improved skill set, but it’s something else that has helped polish those skills.
“Just playing with a lot more confidence has been important,” she said. “I feel like I’ve matured a lot as a player. I’m more confident on the court.”
Millville hasn’t gotten off to a blazing start. Since a 67-42 victory at Vineland to open the season, the Thunderbolts have lost four straight, three by 10 or fewer points, including a 53-51 defeat at Atlantic City.
Help will be on the way in two weeks when Lexi Bruno is eligible after she had to sit out the first 30 days because of NJSIAA transfer rules.
Kessler isn’t ready to push the panic button. He knows the majority of the schedule is still to be played and he believes the team can work itself into position to qualify for the Cape-Atlantic League tournament and make some serious noise in the Group IV South playoffs.
That’s when the slogan will still be the same, but with a different meaning — win NOW.
December wasn’t exactly kind to area teams as the 10 programs went a combined 17-37 over the stretch.
Sacred Heart (5-1) was the lone team to log a winning record while Buena (3-3) and Cumberland Christian (3-3) were the only squads to hit the .500 mark.
Three teams — Vineland, Millville and Delsea — went winless in a combined six games at the Boardwalk Classic in Wildwood. An injury-riddled Our Lady of Mercy squad started 1-4 with a schedule that included a team ranked in the top 10 in the nation, a defending national champion and an international squad from Australia
All are hoping for a more cheery, and successful, new year.
Dribbling around the area
Delsea’s Nicole Carney is expected to be back in the lineup when the Crusaders host Clearview tonight in a key Tri-County Conference Royal Division game. The senior spark plug hasn’t played since injuring her knee against Gloucester on Dec. 18. She returned to practice for the first time on New Year’s Eve.
Sacred Heart freshman Kaila Smith has fit very nicely into the Lions’ starting lineup, a feat that isn’t easy to accomplish. Smith is the first full-time freshman starter for the program since Alex Matthews in 2005-06. Other freshmen who broke the Lions’ starting lineup in recent years were Lauren Howell (2003-04), Adrienne Rochetti (1999-2000), Maureen Shincarick (1998-99) and Chrissy Nessell (1997-98). The program’s all-time leading scorer Ashley Durham started several games as a freshman, but her role was mainly to come off the bench.
Smith, a 6-foot, 1-inch, power forward, scored a season-high 12 points against Atlantic County Tech and notched six points in each of the Lions’ last three games.
Vineland has benefited from two transfers, but the players didn’t need any introductions to their teammates. Tanasia Russell and Ariana Stokes are back with the Fighting Clan after re-enrolling at VHS. Russell spent time at Sacred Heart while Stokes had gone to Williamstown. Since neither had played with their new schools, they didn’t miss any time after transferring back. Russell, a raw talent who is getting better each time she takes the court, is averaging 15.4 points per game. Stokes, a great leader, delivered 20 points in her season debut against Wildwood Catholic.
Games to Watch
Sacred Heart at St. Joseph, tonight, 7 p.m. — Always a heated rival, this matchup features two solid centers in the Lions’ Kennedy Johnson and the Wildcats’ Sammi Wetzel.
Clearview at Delsea, tonight, 7 p.m. — It might be early, but the Crusaders need a win here if they don’t want to fall two games back in the rough-and-tumble Tri-County Conference Royal Division race.
Hammonton vs. OLMA, at St. Augustine, Friday, 5:30 p.m. — The Villagers travel down the road for their annual “home game” at the Prep. The Hermits’ bigger court has provided an extra challenge for the Villagers in the past.
Vineland at Sacred Heart, Saturday, 5:30 p.m. — The City Series is back. The last time the Fighting Clan entered Jim Mogan Auditorium, they registered a thrilling overtime win over the Lions.
Tom’s Super Six*
1. Sacred Heart (5-1) — Some things never change, like the Lions’ standing in this poll. The perennial power finds itself back on top thanks to a strong start, which included a revenge win over Sanford, Del.
2. Millville (1-4) — Not the kind of start the Thunderbolts expected, but the team could be in position for a long winning streak in January.
3. Delsea (1-4) — The Crusaders have been banged up with injuries. A tough schedule hasn’t help ease the pain either.
4. OLMA (1-4) — The Villagers have limped through the most difficult part of their schedule. They hope the stretch will produce strong muscle for end of the year.
5. Buena (3-3) — After an 0-3 start, the Chiefs have won three straight, the longest current win streak in the area.
6. Bridgeton (2-4) — The Bulldogs appear to be getting better each game, just what coach Audrey Carter was hoping for.