Camden Catholic primed for this matchup

Camden Catholic's Sierra Taylor (left) drives against Gloucester Catholic's Maggie McIntyre.
Camden Catholic's Sierra Taylor (left) drives against Gloucester Catholic's Maggie McIntyre. (CHARLES FOX / Staff)
Posted: February 13, 2014

A year ago, they might have shrugged this game off as a loss.

There might not have been that glint of confidence in their eyes. There certainly wouldn't have been quite as much anticipation or buildup.

But last year, they were different players.

"Last year, we were freshmen," Sierra Taylor said. "We weren't used to these kinds of experiences. But now we know the atmosphere. We know what we have to do. We have a year under our belt. We're ready."

Taylor is one of three starting sophomore guards on the Camden Catholic girls' basketball team.

Twice this year, the Irish have knocked off the team ranked No. 2 in The Inquirer's South Jersey Top 10, beating Gloucester Catholic on Jan. 22 and Washington Township on Feb. 6.

Now they are faced with their toughest test, on the biggest stage the team has been on in years.

On Friday night at 6:30 at Eastern High School, Camden Catholic will play No. 1 Rancocas Valley in the semifinals of the fifth annual South Jersey Invitational Basketball Tournament.

The game is followed by the other semifinal matchup, Gloucester Catholic vs. Woodrow Wilson.

In a tournament that annually showcases an increasingly stronger field, the four teams form the top four in the Inquirer rankings, with RV at No. 1, Gloucester Catholic at No. 2, Camden Catholic at No. 3, and Woodrow Wilson at No. 4.

It's new territory for a Camden Catholic team that has consistently improved since the first week of last season.

The Irish started last season with a 5-6 record before winning seven of their last eight.

This season, they have looked like one of the area's elite teams from the start - and it's largely because of the progress of the team's three young guards: Taylor, Julia Braungart, and Tialah Thorton.

"They played varsity last year as freshmen, and this year, I don't even think of them as being young anymore," Camden Catholic coach Chris Palladino said.

"They all have different strengths; they all pick each other up. And gaining that experience and that maturity was big for them last year."

All three are athletic, gifted players. But their combined scrappiness stands out most, and it has helped carry them through the toughest tests of their careers.

On Sunday, the Irish trailed Williamstown for much of the first half during their SJIBT quarterfinal, until taking the lead back thanks to an incensed defensive effort - some of the most smothering, physical full-court defense you will see at the high school level.

It's a style Palladino has always preached to her teams, and the type that transcends the pressure of a big game or a strong opponent.

"You just have to play," Palladino said. "You have to approach every game the same way. I don't want to make a big thing of the fact that we're going up against RV - you just have to play.

"If there's a loose ball, you have to be on the ground. If there's a rebound, you have to box out. That's our style. That's what we preach. And it's fun because the team has bought into that."

While Camden Catholic certainly won't be the favorite on Friday night, even by its own assessment, the team is looking forward to the challenge.

"Our chemistry has improved so much this year," Braungart said. "It all comes down to the work we've put in."

Added Thorton: "We feel like we've been working so well together, especially over the last several games. And we think we can keep getting better."

Final Four Matchups

The semifinals of the South Jersey Invitational Basketball Tournament are scheduled for Friday night at Eastern.

Camden Catholic (16-2) vs. Rancocas Valley (13-2), 6:30 p.m.

Gloucester Catholic (13-2) vs. Woodrow Wilson (12-3), 8:15 p.m.

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