Cedar Creek girls capture Group 1 state title

Posted: March 12, 2012

TOMS RIVER, N.J. - There was a moment during pregame warm-ups when the Cedar Creek girls' basketball team collectively paused and smiled.

"We are," a voice yelled through the relatively quiet Pine Belt Arena stands, catching the team's attention.

"Cedar Creek," was the emphatic response from the sizable student section in the bleachers behind the basket.

And so it went - four times - a rally cry for a program still in its infancy. A tone-setter, a symbol of the atmosphere the Pirates (26-4) say helped carry them to a 50-38 win over Whippany Park (25-6) Sunday in the Group 1 state title game. The win marked the first state championship in any sport for the school that opened its doors in 2010.

"It just means everything to us," said 5-foot-11 forward Kristine Miller, a junior who overwhelmed an undersized Whippany Park frontcourt, striking for 22 points and 13 rebounds. "And to have practically the whole school here means so much to us."

The win appeared to be more than just a state title for the team; it was a unifying event, helping to establish an identity for the young school.

"It's the heart," sophomore guard Mercina Stefanski said. "Our team has the heart, and our fans have the heart, and our school has it.

"It means so much to win our first state title. I started bawling when the game ended. It's history."

Cedar Creek built an early, comfortable lead on ball movement and solid defense, particularly against Whippany Parks' 2,000-point scorer, Olivia Dudley (16 points).

The senior did not score in the first quarter, and recorded her team's only points in the second quarter - a straightaway three-pointer to make the score 17-11.

Stefanski and Miller were largely charged with containing Dudley.

"We wanted to keep her as close to 2,000 points as possible," Miller said with a laugh.

One of Whippany Park's only bright spots was its outside shooting.

The team converted eight three-pointers. It hit threes on consecutive possessions midway through the fourth quarter, making the score 39-35 - it was the closest the game had been since the first quarter, prompting a timeout by Cedar Creek.

"I always tell the team it's a long game," Cedar Creek coach Francine Raph said. "Everyone is going to make runs, especially great teams. We just had to be ready, prepared, settled down, and just do our thing. And that's what we did."

After the timeout, Cedar Creek went on an 11-3 run to end the game, due largely to a 9-for-10 performance from the line in the fourth quarter.

"We've been shooting big foul shots for, like, two weeks now, so I wasn't nervous down the stretch," said Miller, who was 6 for 6 from the line in the fourth quarter. "I kind of just shoot it like it's practice."

The win capped an authoritative run through the Group 1 playoffs in which Cedar Creek outscored its six opponents by an average of almost 30 points.

The team moves on to the Tournament of Champions, in which it will be a heavy underdog against Group 3 champion Manasquan at 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Pine Belt Arena.

Win or lose, it won't change the history that Cedar Creek made, and the legacy it's established.

"I'm just so proud of the whole team," Raph said. "We knew we could be a good team this season, but we didn't know we would be a great team. But we proved, once again, tonight, that these girls are amazing."

Cedar Creek 11 8 13 18 - 50

Whippany Park 8 3 16 11 - 38

CC: Mikila Stefanski 7, Michelina Hessi 6, Mercina Stefanski 3, Morgan Stefanski 12, Kristine Miller 22.

WP: Courtney Simon 5, Alana Dudley 10, Olivia Dudley 16, Lauren O'Connor 7.


Contact Chris Melchiorre

at rallysports@phillynews.com

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