Less than a week after Mainland Regional High School competed in the New Jersey Drama and Forensics League state championships, senior captains, Hanna Anderson, 17, Mario Gambino, 18, and Ashley Jackson, 18, reminisced about their time on stage.

"We lost many seniors last year, and we worried, 'Can we keep up?" Anderson recalled thinking at the beginning of her final season with the group.

On Feb. 23, the anxiety was behind her and her other 28 qualifying teammates, as Mainland took its second first-place title at Raritan High School. The Linwood school beat out nine competing teams, taking four of the top five slots for top scorers.

"I think it took four years to figure out the stuff I like to do," said Anderson, who was named the NJDFL MVP for accumulating the most individual points.

Performers were able to compete in any number of 12 categories, ranging from comedy monologue to impromptu speaking.

Anderson and Gambino took first place in the dramatic pair category in which performers were asked to present a cut from a published play, with no scripts or prompters.

The two seniors convinced the judges with their rendition of "Danny and the Deep Blue Sea" by John Patrick Shanley - a tale of two characters who struggle to make connections with the outside world.

"We developed a chemistry," said Gambino, who also competed in nine other categories, placing in six of them.

"For high school performers, we get to do pieces and play characters that we wouldn't normally get to play," Anderson added.

Coach and former NJDFL performer Philip Hopf agreed that although it's a competition for high school students, the range of work goes beyond their age.

"It is a high school competition," said the 2003 Mainland graduate, who advises the group alongside performing arts teacher Becky Sannino. "But we don't limit content. … They're doing college level work."

Members of Mainland's NJDFL team began developing piece ideas at the start of the school year, crediting several of their category wins to Hopf for his helpful suggestions.

"I picked pieces that I knew that they could rise up to," Hopf said.

The team competed in seven regular tournaments before taking the Looby Cup, ending the seniors' season.

"Last year was a really sad departure from NJDFL," said, Jackson, who took second for her impromptu speech. "(We were) tearing up seeing seniors go. This year was way more communal in the way that we appreciated the win."

The three captains agreed that they hope to come back as judges, to see the competition from an entirely new perspective.

"I think we're just really excited to grow and move on," Jackson said.

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