No arguments over best team: Willingboro is tops

Posted: March 24, 2002

This was a season in which there was little debate in South Jersey girls' basketball. That's because most of the top teams played one another and decided things on the court.

Willingboro, ranked No. 1 in South Jersey by The Inquirer, beat No. 2 Wildwood in the Tournament of Champions semifinals. Wildwood beat No. 3 Holy Spirit in the regular season, and No. 4 Highland lost two of its three games to Willingboro.

No. 5 Haddon Township lost to No. 6 Haddonfield twice in the regular season but beat the Bulldogs in the South Jersey Group 2 final. The only question is whether any team will be able to challenge Willingboro during the next two seasons.

Team of the year. Willingboro is playing in today's Tournament of Champions title game against Trenton. The Chimeras are at least a year ahead of schedule. With two sophomores and two freshmen among coach Guy Fowler's top seven, Willingboro figures to be battling for state supremacy at least for the next two seasons. The two leading scorers are sophomores: 6-foot-2 Crystal Langhorne (26.2 points per game) and 5-9 Lateisha Wade (14.6 ppg.). Freshman guards Tammy Meyers and Nicole Trawick are also in the regular rotation. Willingboro's only loss was a 64-58 defeat on Feb. 18 to the Peddie School. Among the impressive wins were Tuesday's 73-62 triumph over No. 2 Wildwood, two victories by a total of 10 points against Highland, and a 77-47 victory over No. 10 Shawnee, the Olympic American champion. Outside of the area, Willingboro beat defending South Jersey Group 3 champion Toms River South, 63-58, and North Jersey power Shabazz, 51-50, in the state Group 3 final. While the young players have received their due, the Chimeras' true leader is 5-8 Gabrielle Ratliff, the only senior starter. Other veterans such as senior Robyn Leach, who would start for many teams, and 6-2 junior Shanna Oaddams were major contributors.

Coach of the year. In only his second year as head coach, Guy Fowler of Willingboro took a young team and molded it into a state champion. Everybody knows that Langhorne is the focal point of the offense, but Fowler has done a good job making sure the other players have been heavily involved. In addition, he has had to make a series of adjustments, none better than during Tuesday's 73-62 Tournament of Champions win over Wildwood. Seeing that Wildwood was scorching his 2-3 zone defense, Fowler went to a man-to-man late in the first quarter. After facing a 31-24 halftime deficit, the Chimeras were a different team in the second half.

Newcomer of the year. This is split between Willingboro's Meyers and Glassboro's Sakera Young. Statistically, the 5-6 Young had the better season, averaging 16.9 points and helping the Bulldogs earn a Group 1 playoff berth during a 12-9 season. Young has the ability to get her jump shot off against even the tightest defenses, and her pull-up jumper is deadly. Meyers averaged 8.8 points on a Willingboro team that did not need her to be a double-figure scorer. She immediately fit in on a talented team. At 5-10, Meyers is also a tenacious defender who has often drawn the assignment of guarding the toughest opposing offensive player.

Game of the year. Cherokee had lost twice to rival Shawnee during the regular season. In the South Jersey Group 4 semifinals, Cherokee got revenge in a 58-52 overtime victory. In the waning seconds of regulation, with Cherokee leading 44-41, Shawnee's Jessica Vogel was fouled and awarded three free throws. She made just one of three, but teammate Amanda Freeman tied the score on a follow off a missed foul shot with just a few seconds remaining. That sent the game into overtime. Cherokee could have been demoralized, but the Chiefs outscored Shawnee, 14-8, in the extra period.

Most improbable victory. Cherokee again was involved. The Chiefs trailed Toms River East, 36-35, in the South Jersey Group 4 final, and its hopes for a first sectional title were fading. With five seconds left, Cherokee's Becky Scott had the ball deflected by East's Kaelin Ainley and Megan Wagenblast. An East player retrieved the loose ball and, thinking the game was over, went running down the court. The only problem was that 2.73 seconds remained, so Cherokee was awarded the ball under its basket. The Chiefs inbounded the ball to center Ariel Davis, who was fouled with 1.38 seconds left. Davis later said she was scared to death going to the line. It did not show as she sank both free throws for a 37-36 victory over a stunned Toms River East squad.

Reason for future excitement. The sophomore class is it. Besides all-South Jersey players such as Langhorne and Highland's Lisa Steele, a number of other sophomores figured prominently. They included Pennsville forward Katie Kline (22.0 ppg.), Highland's Danielle Hemerka (16.7), Willingboro's Wade (14.6), and Moorestown's Maudess Fulton (17.5).

Contact Marc Narducci at 856-779-3225 or mnarducci@phillynews.com.

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