South Jersey Sports Zone (SJSZ) was co-founded by Kevin Emmons in 2017. The brand covers high school sports and promotes South Jersey pride. If you’d like to keep up with SJSZ, find them on Facebook and Twitter.
High school basketball season is upon us in South Jersey and SJ Sports Zone has you covered with the best regional basketball coverage of the seven-county (Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem) area. The abbreviated season will begin on January 26 and conclude on March 6. There will be no postseason tournaments this season and teams are allowed a maximum of 15 regular season games due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. However, there will still be plenty of elite basketball going on, so you don’t want to miss a beat!
Below is the South Jersey Sports Zone Preseason Top 15 for girls basketball:
1. Paul VI (24-3 record last season): The Eagles return a strong core from last season’s team that won 24 games and reached the South Jersey Non-Public A quarterfinals. Paul VI fell to perennial Shore Conference power St. Rose, 90-80, in double overtime. Sophomore sensation Hannah Hidalgo is back and was named a Preseason All-South Jersey Second Team selection. Hidalgo averaged more than 17.2 points per game as a freshman. Transfer Veyoni Davis joins the Eagles this season after averaging just shy of 20 points per game as a sophomore at Moorestown Friends last season. Davis, a Preseason All-South Jersey First Team selection, and Hidalgo form one of the best backcourt duos in the state. Paul VI also returns its top four rebounders from a season ago. Seniors Eleanor Robinson, Janice Ashong and juniors Sara McShea and Nile Miller provide the Eagles with consistent rebounding and can all contribute offensively. Robinson averaged just shy of 10.3 points per game in 2019-2020 and Miller averaged over 8.4 per game. The latter of the two was recently named a Preseason All-South Jersey Third Team selection. McShea also contributed over 7.6 points per game last season. With an abundance of talent and experience, Lisa Steele’s squad will be the team to beat in South Jersey in 2021.
2. Cherokee (30-1): The Chiefs qualified for the NJSIAA Group 4 state championship last season before the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown the season. Cherokee won 30 games, including a South Jersey Group 4 sectional title, last season and has four returning starters on its current roster. Forward Alexa Therien, a Boston University commit, is an early SJ Sports Zone Player of the Year candidate and averaged just shy of 15.4 points per game last year. The Preseason All-South Jersey First Team selection is joined by Preseason All-South Jersey Third Team selection Katie Fricker and Preseason All-South Jersey honorable mention Gabby Recinto. Fricker, a junior, and Recinto, a sophomore, played big roles in the Chiefs’ improbable run last season. Both players will be even better this season. Junior CJ Apistar returns as the Chiefs’ primary ball-handler. Expect Ron Powell’s team to pick up from where they left off in 2020 and contend for the top spot in South Jersey.
3. Wildwood Catholic (22-5): The Crusaders experienced roster will be headlined by University of Pennsylvania commit Marianna Papazoglou. The senior averaged slightly over 17.5 points per game and was named a Preseason All-South Jersey First Team selection. Papazoglou was also Wildwood Catholic’s assists, rebounds and steals leader. The senior will be in the Player of the Year conversation. The Penn recruit will be joined by fellow seniors Alyia Grey-Rivera and Lauren McCallion. Grey-Rivera averaged over five points per game and was a key distributor on offense. McCallion averaged over 4.5 points per game. The senior trio will be joined by junior Kimmy Casiello. As a sophomore, Casiello averaged just shy of 6.5 points per game and could emerge as a scoring threat opposite of Papazoglou this season. Wildwood Catholic won 22 games a season ago and dropped a 57-54 heartbreaker to Gill St. Bernard’s in the South Jersey Non-Public B quarterfinals. The Crusaders will be one of the best teams, if not the best team, in the Cape-Atlantic League in 2021.
4. Haddonfield (24-4): Haddonfield won 24 games last season behind the prolific play of Keegan Douglas. Douglas, a Loyola (MD) commit, averaged over 20.1 points per game and was named a Preseason All-South Jersey First Team selection. Douglas is a major threat from beyond-the-arc. The Bulldogs won 13 straight games in 2020 before dropping a 36-26 decision to Middle Township in the South Jersey Group 2 semifinals. Douglas will be joined by fellow senior Emma Garris. Garris, a Florida Southern commit, averaged around eight points per game last season and helped bolster Haddonfield’s offense. The senior complements Douglas perfectly. Junior Sara Smith is another under-the-radar player that can contribute consistently on offense. Senior Emily Smart is another experienced player with long-range scoring abilities. The Bulldogs wealth of experience will lead to a significant amount of victories in 2021.
5. Camden Catholic (13-14): South Jersey Sports Zone may be the only media outlet to have Camden Catholic ranked in the top 10 of any preliminary rankings. We have a message for you: don’t underestimate the Irish. Camden Catholic added two of the best sophomores in the state this offseason in Aaryn Battle and Kassidy Thompson. As freshmen, Battle and Thompson helped Clearview win 22 games and reach the South Jersey Invitational Basketball Tournament final. Battle averaged just shy of 11.9 points per game and Thompson contributed over 12.4 points per game. The sophomore duo can rebound and distribute the ball very well and have excellent chemistry with one another. That experience will help as the two move to the Olympic Conference. Both were named Preseason All-South Jersey Second Team selections. The Irish also return their leading scorer and rebounder from a season ago, senior Annaliah Maldonado. Maldonado averaged just shy of 12.3 points per game and was named a Preseason All-South Jersey honorable mention. Juniors Lindsay Bednarek and Sarah both notched 130 or more total points scored a season ago, and the Irish also brought back sophomore Dillan Sorino. Sorino averaged over five points per game as a freshman and led the team in assists. Camden Catholic’s added talent, along with the experience of its returning group, should reach new heights in 2021. The Irish are arguably the most underrated team in South Jersey.
6. Lenape (22-7): The Indians return an experienced core from last season’s team that won 22 games, despite the loss of Regan King to graduation. Senior Olivia Johnstone returns as Lenape’s top overall player after averaging over 8.3 points per game and sinking 31 three-pointers in 2019-2020. Johnstone will be continuing her academic and athletic career at Ramapo College after this season. The Indians also return two terrific sophomores in Kaitlyn King and Kristen Cortese. King averaged just shy of seven points per game and Cortese connected on 31 three-pointers. As a freshman, Cortese notched a career high of 14 points (twice) in key wins against Eastern and Toms River North. King posted double-digit scoring figures in seven games last season. Lenape also welcomes back senior Dyonna Wess. Wess was a member of the 2019 Lenape team that reached the NJSIAA Group 4 state championship. The experience of the Inidans’ returning core will help them emerge as one of the best teams in South Jersey in 2021.
7. Glassboro (25-4): The Bulldogs won 25 games and reached the South Jersey Group 1 semifinals a season ago. Glassboro was in the driver’s seat and appeared to be the favorite to bring home the sectional crown before being stunned by Woodbury, 45-44, in the tournament’s semifinals. However, the Bulldogs return their top three scorers from a season ago. The trio is headlined by sophomore sensation Alexis Davis. Davis averaged just shy of 21.2 points per game, over 11.8 rebounds per game and recorded 70 total blocks and 70 steals. The sophomore was named a Preseason All-South Jersey First Team selection and will be in the Player of the Year discussion. Davis is joined by senior Trinee Gadson. The Preseason All-South Jersey honorable mention averaged over 15 points per game and 7.6 rebounds per game last season. Gadson knocked down a team-high 32 three-pointers in 2019-2020. Sophomore Karma Payne notched over 10.9 points per game and 3.6 rebounds per game last season as a freshman. Senior Hannah Shieffield is another key player with experience. The strength of Glassboro’s returning core makes it the team to beat in the Tri-County Conference. In a traditional year, the Bulldogs would’ve been the favorite to win the South Jersey Group 1 title and would have emerged as a legitimate Group 1 state championship contender.
8. Shawnee (13-16): Shawnee turned heads last season when it rallied to the South Jersey Group 4 final as a 14-seed. The Renegades stunned third-seeded Clearview, sixth-seeded Jackson Memorial and second-seeded Lenape before falling to district rival Cherokee, 45-34, in the sectional championship. The Renegades lost their top player, Ciana Viccharelli, to graduation, but aren’t in panic mode. Shawnee is always a competitive program under the direction of coach Chrissy McGovern and has learned to overcome adversity time and time again. Shawnee will be led by sophomore Nia Scott. Scott averaged just shy of 9 points per game and over 6.3 rebounds per game as a freshman. In 2019-2020, Scott notched numerous double-doubles and emerged as one of the best up-and-coming interior players in South Jersey. The sophomore was recently named a Preseason All-South Jersey Second Team selection. Senior Megan Heine is a key returner for the Renegades after leading the team in three-pointers made (22) last season. Heine’s ability to score from long distance will help alleviate the losses of 2020 graduates Viccharelli, Gia Flamini and Erin Florio. Shawnee’s biggest offseason addition was the arrival of sophomore Avery Kessler. Kessler, a Cherokee transfer, gained valuable experience as a freshman on the Chiefs’ 30-win team. After a productive offseason, Kessler is expected to take a huge leap this year and could emerge as one of the most improved players in South Jersey. Sophomore Kaylan Deveney is another developing player that could see an increase in production this season. Kaylan’s older brothers, Dylan and Connor, helped the Shawnee boys basketball program win a Group 4 state championship in 2018. The Renegades girls basketball program could be one of the most improved programs in South Jersey this season.
9. Eastern (16-10): Despite the graduation of 1,000-point scorer Kelli McGroarty, the Vikings return a lot of experience in 2021. Senior Giana Rullo averaged over eight points per game and was recently named a Preseason All-South Jersey honorable mention. Rullo also connected on a team-high 24 three-pointers. Junior Mia Robbins was Eastern’s leading rebounder and averaged 6.8 points per game while junior Maya Edwards averaged 5.4 points per game and ranked second on the team in three-pointers made (22). Senior Kaitlyn Henry is another key returner who averaged just shy of 4.3 points per game and 5.2 rebounds per game. Juniors Sanaa Thorne and Jane Trauger could see increased roles this season. The Vikings have enough skill and experience to be among the best teams in the Olympic Conference this season.
10. Atlantic City (20-8): The Vikings return a strong core from last year’s team that won 20 games and captured the Cape-Atlantic League Tournament title. Atlantic City will look to overcome the loss of leading scorer Ciani Redd-Howard to graduation. The return of Preseason All-South Jersey honorable mention Sanai Garrison-Macon should help offset that loss. Garrison-Macon averaged 9.6 points per game and ranked second on the team in three-point field goals (15). The junior also led the team in assists per game. Sophomore Quanirah Cherry-Montague averaged just shy of 7.9 points per game and over eight rebounds per game. The sophomore also led the team in blocks as a freshman and will provide the Vikings with a strong interior threat. Senior Cornysha Davis was another efficient contributor on both ends of the floor. Davis averaged over 6.6 points and 6.4 rebounds per game. Junior guard Naysha Suarez-Rivera (5.8 points per game) is another offensive contributor that joins Garrison-Macon in the backcourt. Senior Jakeemah Bright could see an increased role this season. Atlantic City’s experience and athleticism should help it rise to the top of the Cape-Atlantic League standings in 2021.
11. Ocean City (23-8): The Red Raiders overcame a 1-5 start last season to reach the NJSIAA Group 3 state championship before COVID-19 abruptly ended the season. Ocean City defeated Cape-Atlantic League rival Mainland 32-29 in the South Jersey Group 3 final before surprising Westampton Tech 50-38 in the Group 3 state semifinals. The Red Raiders were hit hard by graduation, but return a significant number of key players and remain a well-coached program. Junior Marin Panico, a Preseason All-South Jersey honorable mention, averaged over 6.6 points a game and could emerge as Ocean City’s leader this season. Senior Marlee Brestle averaged just shy of 5.5 points per game and sophomore Avery Jackson (4.3 points per game) could see increased scoring averages this season. The Red Raiders will be among the best teams in the Cape-Atlantic League in 2021.
12. Burlington Township (21-8): The Falcons return three starters from last year’s 21-win team that reached the Central Jersey Group 3 semifinals. It was the girls basketball program’s lengthiest playoff run in school history. Senior guard Jaylyn James just below 13.6 points per game and was named a Preseason All-South Jersey Third Team selection. James led the team with 33 three-pointers made and was the Falcons’ best overall player. Speedy guard Kalyn Byrd returns after missing a few games last season due to a wrist injury. Byrd is capable of handling the ball on offense and averaged over 6.4 points per game in 21 games last season. Burlington Township’s third returning starter, Francine Bacon, is ferocious on both ends of the floor. The senior averaged just shy of 5.8 points per game and was a key component in the Falcons’ playoff run last season. All three seniors are high IQ players in coach Jason Williams’ system. Senior Jessica Morris could emerge with a larger role this season, too. Morris averaged over 4.8 points per game in 2019-2020. Burlington Township has the potential to be the best team in Burlington County this season.
13. Mainland (21-7): The Mustangs won 21 games a season ago and qualified for the South Jersey Group 3 final. Mainland lost Oregon commit Kylee Watson to graduation, but returns a plethora of experience. Junior Kaitlyn Boggs and Cadence Fitzgerald are ready to take on larger roles and lead a balanced approach. Senior Lila Schoen averaged double-digits and could be the Mustangs’ leading scorer this season. Mainland will also benefit from the return of junior Camryn Dirkes. Dirkes missed last season due to injury and provides the Mustangs with depth. The Mustangs could be a sneaky team that surprises a lot of people in 2021. If they are able to stay healthy and roles are established, Mainland will be one of the best teams in the Cape-Atlantic League this season.
14. Wildwood (24-6): The Warriors bring back an abundance of talent highlighted by Preseason All-South Jersey Third Team selection Imene Fathi. The junior averaged over 11 points per game with 3.4 rebounds and over 3.5 rebounds. Fathi is joined by senior Jenna Hans. Hans was named a Preseason All-South Jersey honorable mention after averaging just below 11 points per game. Senior Leah Benichou is another significant contributor who averaged over 8.3 points per game. Benichou (46), Fathi (40) and Hans (34) combined for 120 three-pointers made last season. Sophomore Maya Benichou and juniors Ava Triano and Torence Gallo could see an uptick in production this winter. Wildwood reached the South Jersey Group 1 final last season and fell to Woodbury, 38-32. The Warriors prove to be among the top Group 1 schools in the state.
15. Cinnaminson (21-7): The Pirates lost their two top scorers to graduation — Emily Mulligan and Kayla Caban — but return an experienced group that won 21 games a season ago. Cinnaminson has a strong sophomore class that features Rhocelle Johnson, Katie Ambos and Brooke Sztenderowicz. As a freshman, Johnson provided the Pirates with an interior presence off the bench, averaging just shy of 5.3 points per game. Ambos and Sztenderowicz scored 121 and 100 total points, respectively, as freshmen and could be even better this season. Emily’s younger sister, Kaitlyn, showed flashes of potential as a junior a season ago. Kaitlyn scored a season-high 15 points in a first round playoff win over Pennsauken Tech in the South Jersey Group 2 playoffs. The senior has the ability to keep the family tradition going with strong statistical outings this season. Senior Bella Morgan provides Cinnaminson with the ability to score long distance. Morgan connected on 25 three-pointers last season — the most by any returning Cinnaminson player. Junior Kelly Bleistine is another key returner. The Pirates’ experience could have them ascending in the Burlington County Scholastic League rankings.
Others under consideration (listed alphabetically): Absegami, Atlantic Tech, Bishop Eustace, Clearview, Delran, Florence, Gloucester Catholic, Haddon Heights, Haddon Township, Kingsway, Middle Township, Palmyra, Rancocas Valley, Sterling, Washington Township, West Deptford.
(Cover Photo: USA TODAY High School Sports)