The Holy Spirit High School girls basketball team's storied season came to an end Thursday.
The Spartans fell behind St. John Vianney by double digits in the second quarter and could never catch up. St. John Vianney beat Holy Spirit 64-41 in a South Jersey Non-Public A quarterfinal game.
The loss was tough for coach Dennis Smith, who took over the program three years ago. He loses six seniors, including starting forwards Gina Lewis and Annie Wenz and point guard Valerie Garofalo.
The trio were the heart of the team, along with standout junior guard Summer Crilley and senior Emily Higbee, who missed the season with an injury but was a constant presence on the Holy Spirit sidelines.
It was one of Holy Spirit's best seasons. The Spartans won 21 games and took home their first Cape-Atlantic League championship in seven years.
However, the season ended too early for the Spartans' liking.
"Our theme was to be banner changers, and we did that," Smith said. "But it's not what we wanted to be satisfied with."
Holy Spirit (21-6), the fourth seed and No. 6 in The Press Elite 11, closely contested the No. 4 Lancers (18-10), the fifth seed, in the first quarter, which ended in a 17-all tie. St. John Vianney ripped off a 10-0 run to start the second quarter that set the tone for the rest of the game.
Kelly Campbell scored eight of those 10 unanswered points. Like several of her St. John Vianney teammates, she posed an outside threat but also sank contested layups.
The Lancers utilized a tight full-court press, but that wasn't what stopped Holy Spirit. The Lancers managed to pull back and set up their defense seemingly before the Spartans brought the ball over half court.
"Once we broke their press, their speed to recover wasn't something we've ever seen," Smith said.
In the second half, Spirit never saw its deficit drop below 12 points. The Spartans looked worn down by St. John Vianney's smothering pressure. They dropped passes and missed open shots.
It was a disheartening end for Holy Spirit. Still, the Spartans exited the locker room - some for the final time - smiling.
"It's been great these past four years," Garofalo said. "We built lots of chemistry and really became sisters."
The Spartans' charismatic and energetic team gave fans plenty to cheer for throughout the season.
Holy Spirit's chemistry was tough to match. The players are extremely close and their off-court connection benefited them on the floor. The Spartans had fun playing each game.
However, their lighthearted attitude did not reflect a careless approach to the game. The Spartans gave their most passionate efforts with their backs against the wall.
Twice they rattled off come-from-behind victories en route to winning the CAL championship.
Even though their bid for a sectional title fell short, the Spartans do have one title to share with each other.
"They're all my best friends," said Crilley, who scored 11 points and had three assists. "Even the ones I didn't grow up with. Every day, we got closer."
The Holy Spirit players filed out of the locker room after a farewell speech from their coaches. The Spartans were greeted by family members and friends who had feelings just as bittersweet.
An emotional Smith exited last and looked out at his players. The loss marked the end of an era at Holy Spirit, but the Spartans have built the framework for the program to flourish in the future.
"I love them," Smith said. "They've helped us rebuild this program and put it where it belongs in the CAL, and they've put us in the position to one day become recognized among the state's best."
Contact Brittany Grugan:
St. John Vianney 17 20 19 8-64
Holy Spirit 17 6 10 8-41
SJVTotals-26 6-8 64.HSTotals-16 9-12 41.3-pointersRecords