Kristine Miller doesn't like to think of herself of as a leader.
The label implies a lot of pressure. Miller never felt that during the Cedar Creek High School girls basketball team's historic season. Still, on a team filled with sophomores and a handful of freshmen, the 6-foot junior fell into the role.
"I play my game, and I feel like by playing my game, I naturally help my teammates," the 16-year-old forward said. "I want to do whatever has to be done to win."
It's undeniable that Miller guided the Pirates (26-5) on their magical playoff run through her play and calm on-court demeanor. In the postseason, Miller averaged 23.3 points and 9.3 rebounds. Cedar Creek won the state Group I championship in the program's second varsity season.
Miller is The Press' Girls Basketball Player of the Year.
Miller, who averaged 18 points per game for the season, is a captain along with Cedar Creek's only other junior, Michelina Hesse. Both also were captains during Cedar Creek's inaugural season.
"As young as we were, I couldn't ask for better leaders," Cedar Creek coach Francine Raph said. "(Miller) handles that role really well. They all respect her. They all like her."
Throughout Cedar Creek's thrilling season, Miller played with composed maturity. Expectations were extraordinarily high for such a new team. She encouraged teammates along the way with high fives and reassured them through hugs and pats on the back.
Her poise kept things under control in some of the Pirates' most important moments.
In the final 30 seconds of the state semifinal, Miller scored on a spin move and completed a 3-point play at the foul line to put away Metuchen. Three days later, Miller scored six points during a key 8-0 fourth-quarter run that secured a 50-38 win over Whippany Park in the state championship.
When Miller was at her best, her teammates stepped up as well. The result was the Pirates becoming the first area girls basketball team to win a state championship since Absegami won Group IV titles in 2005 and '06.
"We put our hearts out on the floor every game," said Miller, who lives in the Laureldale section of Mays Landing. "Seeing the improvements we made from last year to this year is amazing."
That includes Miller. She was a good post player last season and as a freshman at Oakcrest. This season, she became a game-changer.
It started with taking chances.
Raph pleaded with Miller for two seasons to step out of her comfort zone into the wing and drive to the basket. Most of Miller's points come from high passes to the post. Raph's wish came to fruition at the most critical time.
Several of Miller's game-high 22 points in the state championship came on baseline drives or jumpers outside of the paint.
"She has tremendous potential, and we knew that," Raph said.
Miller was virtually unstoppable in the South Jersey Group I playoff bracket. In four games in front of packed gyms, she scored on a variety of moves, outrebounded opponents and denied multiple shots. Opposing teams had no match for Miller's combination of size and speed.
Even during the regular season, Miller's consistency became something the Pirates relied on.
Cedar Creek's fairytale run through the playoffs has generated lots of buzz around the team and especially Miller. She has visited several colleges and hopes to get some more looks now that she has a state championship on her resume.
For now, Miller can relax. With the craziness surrounding Cedar Creek's season quieting, Miller can start to look back on what she accomplished with her teammates.
"It's kind of surreal now," she said. "Now that it's over, (the Pirates) are thinking about all the practices we've been through and all the tough games we played. We're looking back with little to no regrets."
Team of the Year
Sacred Heart didn't get the state Non-Public B championship it wanted.
But the Lions (25-2) accomplished something they never had before this season. Sacred Heart won its first-ever Cape-Atlantic League championship with a dramatic 44-43 victory over Ocean City.
Sacred Heart is The Press' Girls Basketball Team of the Year.
The Lions dominated local teams, going 19-0 in the CAL. They were unstoppable even through adversity. On Jan. 20, the Diocese of Camden announced Sacred Heart would close at the end of the school year.
Sacred Heart rallied around the girls basketball team, one of the region's best teams regardless of sport.
Winning the inaugural CAL tournament capped off a week of excellent news. One month after the announcement was made, the decision to close to the school was reversed.
The Lions' storied season came to an abrupt end when they lost to Gill St. Bernard's in the South Jersey Non-Public B semifinals. Gill St. Bernard's rallied from a 13-point halftime deficit. The Knights went on to the win the state title and reach the Tournament of Champions final.
"We wanted to get a state championship. Obviously that didn't happen, but we achieved everything else along the way that we possibly could," Sacred Heart coach Steve DiPatri said. "To deal with the adversity that we had to deal with and achieve what we achieved is a remarkable feat."
Coach of the Year
Francine Raph saw the potential in her current Cedar Creek players while they were still in middle school.
She saw the raw talent. She knew having quadruplets (Mikila, Morgan, Mercina and Monique Stefanski) would help bind the team together.
It didn't make the young Pirates' state Group I championship any less like a dream.
"It's been a ride that most coaches can only hope for. You spend your whole life coaching because you love the game," said Raph, who also coaches softball at Oakcrest. "To have that much success, especially as early as we have, is amazing."
Raph is The Press' Girls Basketball Coach of the Year.
Raph became the first woman to coach a CAL basketball team to a state title. She was responsible for molding an inexperienced, sophomore-laden team into contenders to win it all.
Raph was most excited to see how much her players - not just Miller - grew in one short year.
"To see them find their own as sophomores was amazing," she said.
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