Middletown High School South’s girls’ basketball team has picked up where it left off with four starters back from its NJSIAA Group III championship team (26-6), rolling convincingly past its first four opponents and holding two of them under 20 points.
This year’s Eagles advanced into the WOBM Christmas Classic semifinals Dec. 27 with a 76-49 victory over Wall High School to join Sayreville War Memorial High School, Red Bank Catholic High School and Manasquan High School in the tournament’s final four. Middletown South was scheduled to meet Manasquan Dec. 29, and the finals were slated for Dec. 30.
“We have four returning starters and a couple of kids who played significant minutes and then five freshmen, which is a dramatic dropoff of experience,” coach Tom Brennan said, as Angela DeBartolome, a team leader last season’s championship run, is the lone graduate. “What’s really amazing is watching the juniors and seniors nurture the young players along. It’s really an interesting process seeing how they work with the influx of newcomers. A lot [this year] has to do with how the younger kids come up to speed.” Their development was needed quickly, as Julia Valkos, a 5-foot-9 senior who can sink 3-pointers and has strong leadership qualities, has not played this season and will be out until early January with a stress fracture. Brennan is touting Stephanie Karcz, who averaged 17 points for last year’s team, as a leading candidate for Shore Conference Player of the Year before she embarks on a college career at Loyola University in Baltimore next year.
“I never saw a player of her caliber who can control a game defensively as she does,” Brennan said.
He also said 5-foot-8 senior forward/center Brianna Naughton has a high basketball IQ.
“She does a really good job directing things on the offensive side and shows how tough she is on defense,” the coach said.
“We have a great connection most teams don’t have,” Valkos said. “We have juniors now who are great leaders with the seniors, and our upperclassmen have great communication with younger players.”
Karcz, a 1,000-point career scorer, does not have many goals that she has not reached aside from a repeat state championship and going a little further in the Tournament of Champions, she said. Her team lost its Tournament of Champions opener to Franklin High School, 66-38, last March. Valkos sat out that game after playing the Group III semifinals and finals with a broken finger before the pain became too much for the Tournament of Champions game.
“We want to end it with a bang,” Naughton said. “All three of us seniors will do what we can. We’re building chemistry as the season goes along and want to finish the season as strongly as we can, to reach our potential.”
“We definitely have a bigger target on our backs, which is forcing us to work harder,” Valkos said.
They’ve been working hard on their individual talents to do their part.
The 5-foot-8 Karcz said she has been working a lot on her shooting, especially from long range and at the foul line.
“I’m doing pretty well with it,” she said. “My arm was too high when I was shooting, and I lowered it a lot.”
Karcz admits that getting the first quaddouble of her high school career is in the back of her mind after she came close in the season-opening, 59-19 win over Howell High School Dec. 18, when she had seven assists and seven steals to go with 19 points and 14 rebounds. It was followed by a 66- 17 WOBM Christmas Classic opening victory over Point Pleasant Borough High School, as juniors Alexandra Balsamo and Haley Dalonzo led four players in double figures with 13 points each, and a 94-57 rout of Manalapan High School. Karcz led five players in double figures that game with 22 points.
“I’m happy to see how much I’ve improved with hard work and doing well on defense,” Naughton said.
Brennan said he sees Balsamo shooting more comfortably from the outside after working hard on that part of her game in the offseason.
Dalonzo blends a point guard’s mentality with a shooting guard’s touch, Brennan said. Freshman point guard Isla Brennan also has emerged quickly, scoring 10 points against Manalapan.
Balsamo led the way against Wall with 19 points, and Karcz scored 18. Dalonzo and Brennan added 13 and 12, respectively.
Athletic 5-foot-9 sophomore Gabby Cook can clear a lot of rebounds, and 5- foot-6 freshman guard Emily McCarthy forces opposing players to get away from what they want to do when she’s on defense, Brennan said.
Eve Pirie, a 6-foot freshman, shows the team a lot, the coach said.
“Her game has developed greatly,” he said.
Freshmen Sam Keenan, a 5-foot-9 forward, can shoot and pass the ball well, and Grace Curtis — younger sister of former Eagles player Madison Curtis — is a 5- foot-10 player who can post or shoot consistently well.
It has all blended into a deep lineup that will be needed over the long haul and demanding postseason run.