Cougars winners out of the gate on hardwood

By tim morris

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Kim Wild of Colts Neck High School looks to get a shot off against South Amboy’s Reyon Rone in the first quarter of a Central Jersey Group I tournament game last week.

"At first, teams took us lightly; they didn’t think we’d amount to much," said Colts Neck High School junior Kelly Cardamone. "Then we started winning games and teams took notice of us."

When the Colts Neck girls’ basketball season ended in the Central Jersey Group I semifinals at the hands of Rumson-Fair Haven, teams were indeed taking notice of what the first-year Cougars were doing.

With everyone from the coaching staff down uncertain what to expect, the Cougars went 15-7 in their first varsity season and won two games in the state playoffs. A remarkable beginning.

"No one ever expected this including myself," said Coach Bill Shaughnessy. "We’re still on cloud nine. The kids were just happy to get as far as they did.

"What was so great was to hear them on the bus ride back to school saying they can’t wait until next year," he added. "They’re already looking ahead. They are very competitive kids."

And after what the Cougars did in March, why not?

It was achievement enough for Colts Neck to qualify for the state playoffs, but add two big wins and a trip to the sectional semifinals and the Cougars went far beyond expectations.

Colts Neck gave its fans (and there were plenty) an exciting ride last week beginning with the Feb. 29 home game against Middlesex. A buzzer-beater by Becky Piper was the difference in a 51-49 win. In their first game, the Cougars gave supporters the kind of win some programs take years to get.

What made the win so satisfying for the Cougars was the way they came back after surrendering a 12-point first-half lead.

Amy Kolasa’s basket put Colts Neck up 49-47, but Middlesex would come back to tie the game with 21.8 seconds left on Rachel Ryan’s two free throws.

In the final seconds of the game, Kolasa pulled down the rebound of a missed free throw and headed up court where she found a wide open Piper under the basket. Kolasa beat the Middlesex defense with her perfect pass and Piper laid the ball in off the glass just before the buzzer, setting off a celebration in Colts Neck.

"We were all so happy," said Cardamone, who led the Cougars with 11 points. "We’ve gotten a lot of support from the students and parents and that helped us a lot."

Shaughnessy appreciated the resolve his Cougars had shown after falling behind 35-34 in the fourth quarter.

"I thought the kids showed a lot for a first-year team," said Shaughnessy. "Our kids really reached down deep inside and pulled it out themselves."

It was fitting, he added, that Kolasa made the big play.

"She’s our emotional leader on the court and she made the right play," he noted.

Kolasa added 10 points, eight rebounds and five assists to the Cougar cause while Alana Nikola had 10 points and nine rebounds.

From the buzzer-beater against Middlesex, the Cougars took to the road, backed by two bus loads of Colts Neck fans, where the sixth seed took on No. 3 South Amboy on Thursday. It was never a contest.

"We played a near-perfect game," Shaughnessy said of Colts Neck’s 60-18 win.

Cardamone (15) and Kolasa (12) teamed up for 27 in the romp as Shaughnessy got to play everyone often.

That set up the semifinal with Rumson-Fair Haven, one of the Top 10 teams in the state. The Bulldogs showed the Cougars what it’s like at the next level.

"Our lack of experience showed," said Shaughnessy. "The girls never saw that kind of pressure before. Rumson is a superior team."

The 51-18 loss to Rumson did not spoil what Colts Neck accomplished this winter.

"The way the kids responded from the first day has been exciting," said Shaughnessy. "We really didn’t know who we were when the season started.

"After we beat Howell, the ball started rolling," he added. "It woke them up as to how good they can be. They are a great group of kids."

Cardamone, a junior, is a clear leader in that group.

"We kept working hard on defense all year," she said. "Coach Shaughnessy worked us hard. He’s really into it. He had us watching tapes to prepare for teams.

"We all worked pretty well together as a team," she added. "We rebounded well, shot the ball well and pushed it up the floor when we could."

Cardamone and Nikola gave the Cougars two players who were among the leaders in the Shore.

Cardamone led the team, averaging better than 14 points a game, while Nikola averaged 10 rebounds per contest.

Cardamone, a junior who plays soccer, basketball and softball, saw playing time as a freshman at Marlboro before moving to Colts Neck for her sophomore year. She is enjoying the experience.

"We have gotten so much support from the school, parents and the students," she explained. "That has given us a big boost. It’s been great being able to start a tradition and be the first do things."

The Cougars have raised the bar high and will no doubt have the attention of the Shore Conference when they join it next year.

Freehold Township, which has been the standard by which all Freehold District teams have been measured, was the only other district team to enjoy a state playoff win last week.

The Lady Patriots began the Central Jersey Group IV playoffs on the road at Hillsborough where they overcame an 18-12 halftime deficit, to score a 41-36 win. Sophomore Melissa Elsbree led the Pats with 16 points including nine in the fourth quarter when Township outscored Hillsborough 16-8 to grab the win.

Freehold Township’s reward for that first-round win was a date in the semifinals with the No. 1 seed, Trenton Central. The Pats (13-13) hung tough with the 22-3 Tornadoes, trailing by just 25-22 at intermission. Trenton would pull away to a 56-39 win in the second half.

Jackie Reiman led the Pats with 16 points.

Manalapan and Marlboro lost first-round games on the road.

Ashley Silsbe, one of the new members of the 1,000 career point club, added 19 points to her total in Manalapan’s 44-34 loss at Edison. The Braves closed their best season in five years at 12-9.

West-Windsor Plainsboro beat Marlboro, 67-47. Seniors Trish Grohowski (18) and Nicki Adornetto (15) went out with strong games. Marlboro finished the year at 9-14, slumping after qualifying for the postseason in early February.