There is nothing like the Shore Conference basketball tournament. You get the best players, fans, and venues in the state. Everyone is always full of excitement. Brookdale is a fantastic place to host the Quarterfinals. Even the snack bar is one of the best. The environment is always electric and a lot of fun.
If one thing can be said about the Middletown South Girls Basketball team this season, it has been their ability to overcome adversity. Coming off their first Central Jersey Group III championship since 1979, expectations were very high for Tom Brennan’s team. When everything was all set for the Eagles to start the 2014-15 campaign, Senior Center and St Francis commit Jill Falvey went down with an ACL injury. If that was not enough, sophomore superstar Haley Dalonzo also spent some time out with an ankle injury. Dalonzo has not been healthy all season. Both Falvey and Dalonzo were instrumental in the Eagles 2014 run. South has had to rely on young players like Alexandra Balsamo and Julia Valkos. Both have contributed in a major way this season. Balsamo has provided a strong presence underneath the glass, while Valkos has not been shy about driving in the lane. Despite all the challenges, Junior superstar Stephanie Karcz has had a tremendous season leading her team in scoring with 16.5 points per game. The Eagles finished the regular season with a 19-4 record, won the Class A North title and were seeded 5th by the committee in the Shore Conference Tournament.
On Saturday, the Eagles faced a Rumson Fair Haven team that has been battle tested. They are the No 7 team in the state and had only lost to Manasquan, St John Vianney, and Paterson Eastside ( 3 of the top 5 teams in the state). The Bulldogs are led by Senior Forward and Villanova commit, Grace Stant. The Bulldogs also have great shooters with Nicole Morris, Sam Sabino, and Stephanie Lesko. After talking to many people all week, no one had given the Eagles a chance, except for Tom Brennan and his kids. Three words to describe Ton Brennan in every situation, cool, calm, and collected. This is the same type of demeanor he has demonstrated in every situation for years.
The game started with the Bulldogs running. Rumson can be one of the fastest teams in the league. Grace Stant hit two threes early on, and it looked like RFH would make it their type of game, but something happened Saturday to change the momentum. The Eagles not only ran right back, but used a powerful zone to keep RFH out of the paint. Midd South were right there with a 17-16 advantage after one, and trailed by only 2 at the half, 31-29. When I watched the second half, I was just waiting for the Rumson run, but the closest they got was pulling to within 1 as South was in front 46-45. I said before the game that Middletown South can win, but 2 things needed to happen, 1. South must win the rebounding war, and 2. Stephanie Karcz must get offensive help from her teammates. Everything fell into place for the Eagles as they finished off the Bulldogs 55-48. Middletown South outrebounded Rumson 30-25. Junior Julia Valkos and Senior Angela DeBartolome were instrumental in the win with 2 break away layups at the end. The place went absolutely crazy as the Eagles moved on to the SCT semifinals. They will advance to play No 1 seeded and undefeated St Rose. It will be a tough matchup, but Tom Brennan will have his team ready. Tom Brennan vs Joe Whalen is a chess match that will have everyone excited at the Shore. They are two of the best in the business.
Junior Wing Stephanie Karcz was a player on a mission. She attacked the glass constantly, fought for every rebound, and was picking up steals. She was giving direction to her teammates on the run. She made sure that Rumson knew they were going to be in for a fight. Karcz would finish the game with 15 points and 10 rebounds. On one of the best plays of the day, I witnessed Karcz drive past two defenders, lose her balance, and still manage to go up toward the basket and score. That was just pure athleticism and one of the greatest plays I’ve ever seen!
Sophomore star Haley Dalonzo was phenomenal for the Eagles on Saturday. She finished with 10 points and 11 rebounds, and scored 6 of her 10 in the second half, including a three pointer. Folks, Dalonzo is healthy and that could be scary for anyone playing Middletown South in the state tournament. She plays with a lot of fire and continues to improve.
Julia Valkos was a huge contributor for the Eagles. She finished tied for the team high of 15 points, and really gave her team another scoring option. Valkos was hitting shots, drawing fouls, and also very consistent on defense.
It was a great day for Middletown South and Shore Conference basketball. I will say this, it could not have happened to a nicer group of kids! These girls compete hard, but are as classy on the court as you can get. Good luck to the Eagles as they take on St Rose this Tuesday night!