Cedar Creek faces familiar foe in Wednesday's state semifinal

Cedar Creek’s Mikila Stefanski goes up for a shot during the South Jersey Group II final against Middle Township on Monday. Cedar Creek plays tonight in the state semifinals against Manasquan at Williamstown High School.

The Cedar Creek High School girls basketball team won the state championship in 2012.

Manasquan ended the Pirates playoff run that season in the Tournament Champions.

Now, Cedar Creek finds itself in the middle of another successful March.

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And again the Pirates will face Manasquan.

Cedar Creek (24-4) and Manasquan (24-5) meet tonight in a state Group II semifinal at 7 p.m. at Williamstown. The winner advances to the state final at the Poland Springs Arena in Toms River on Sunday. Manasquan won the 2012 TOC and is again one of the state's top teams.

"We've gotten this far, and we might as well keep going," Cedar Creek coach Fran Raph said after Tuesday's practice. "We've watched a lot of tape on Manasquan. We're going out to win."

Cedar Creek won the South Jersey Group II title with a 56-50 win over Middle Township on Monday. The Pirates are No. 11 in The Press Elite 11.

"We're humbled and focused," Cedar Creek point guard Mercina Stefanski said "We've been here before. But the first time we really didn't know what we were doing."

Manasquan beat Holmdel 68-49 to win the Central Jersey championship as junior Marina Mabrey sank five 3-pointers and scored 30 points.

Manasquan beat Cedar Creek 69-45 on March 12, 2012, in a TOC quarterfinal. Cedar Creek won the state Group I title that season, while Manasquan was the Group III winner. More than a few of the players involved in tonight's game played in that 2012 contest.

Mabrey, then a freshman, scored 25 points. Mercina Stefanski scored nine points for Cedar Creek, while her sister Mikila scored six. The 2012 Manasquan team also featured Mabrey's older sister Michaela, who was one of the nation's top high school players and now stars for Notre Dame. Manasquan also featured Katelynn Flaherty, who is now a senior Metuchen High School and has commited to Michigan. Cedar Creek didn't have a senior on the floor that night.

"We were a little intimidated because Manasquan was so good then," Raph said. "We've matured. They were little sophomores at the time getting beat up by an All-American."

After beating Cedar Creek, Manasquan went on to beat Gill St. Bernard 67-55 to win the 2012 TOC. This season's Manasquan team is again a top TOC contender. The Big Blue Warriors defeated St. Rose 61-41 on March 1 to win the Shore Conference title. St. Rose is No. 1 in The Press Elite 11.

Cedar Creek has relied on balanced scoring in its four state tournaments wins. The Pirates are strong inside with 6-foot sophomore Casey Thomas and 6-2 sophomore Fatimah Blackwell, who have averaged 13.3 points and 9 points in the playoffs, respectively. Mikila complements those two inside with perimeter shooting. She is averaging 13.5 points in the playoffs. Mercina is the point guard and averages 7.5 points in the postseason.

"We've gotten balanced scoring all season," Raph said. "Every night someone different steps up. There's no All State player on our team. It's truly been a team effort."

The Pirates need strong efforts from Thomas and Blackwell inside tonight. They also need to sink timely perimeter shots.

"We need to shoot it well," Raph said, "to keep us in the game."

Cedar Creek opened in Egg Harbor City in 2010. The girls basketball program has accomplished things in four seasons that many schools wait years to happen.

The school plans to send buses full of "Creek Crazies" to tonight's game. Cedar Creek is the only Cape-Atlantic League boys or girls team still playing.

"It's all about the kids. It's all about the excitement of the school," Raph said. "We want to keep it going. We're going to do the best we can and come out and play our guts out."

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