Things are about to get tougher for the St. Joseph High School girls basketball team.
The Wildcats (7-0) are unbeaten and have become a legitimate contender in the Cape-Atlantic League National Conference. But St. Joseph's schedule is about to become much more grueling.
"I thought we could get off to a strong start," Wildcats coach Dan McGettigan said Tuesday. "But we haven't beaten anybody I didn't think we could beat."
By the end of January, St. Joseph will have played Holy Spirit (6-1), Middle Township (4-2) and two games against Sacred Heart (6-1).
With that upcoming schedule, it would be understandable for the Wildcats to feel a little intimidated. But senior guard Melissa Senese has faith in her team's capabilities.
"We still have a strong part of our team from last year, where some other teams have lost some people," Senese, who lives in Mullica Township, said. "We can definitely compete with everyone."
One of St. Joseph's biggest challenges thus far came when the Wildcats traveled to Our Lady of Mercy Academy. St. Joseph won 50-33. McGettigan said it showed that his players could handle the test.
"We had a lapse where we lost our composure, and it hurt us," he said. "But last year if we lost our composure, we couldn't get it back."
The Wildcats' defensive prowess helps them maintain composure and control. St. Joseph, which relies heavily on verbal communication between players on the court, has held its opponents to less than 35 points in every game.
"It's what we're best at," Senese said.
Dedication to improving has helped the Wildcats get over some of their issues. McGettigan said he had trouble getting the girls to talk to each other a year ago, but he watched it progress over the course of the season.
Now, the girls are not only communicating better but playing tougher, too.
"They work hard at it. Defense isn't fun to play," McGettigan said. "Most players like to play offense and score points, and they take their rest on the defensive end. We put it in their minds every day that they can't do that."
St. Joseph also has gotten through the transitional period since McGettigan took over as coach at the beginning of last season.
"We had some growing pains last year, but they adjusted well. It was tough for my kids because everything they were taught before was thrown out the window," McGettigan said. "They got a lot better individually and as a team. I think you're seeing a lot of that this year."
For the seniors who are in their fourth season at St. Joseph, finally becoming a contender is especially meaningful.
"We came here when the program wasn't even making the playoffs," Senese said. "To go from the bottom to working our way up to the top means a lot to us."
Southern coach near 500th win
Southern Regional coach Kathy Snyder is three wins away from her 500th career victory.
The Rams (9-2), No. 9 in The Press' Elite 11, could help Snyder reach that milestone with games today at Toms River North, Tuesday vs. Jackson Memorial and next Thursday at Brick Township.
Southern reached the South Jersey Group IV final last year and still has several key players from that roster, including Kristen Sharkey and Avery Hodgson.
Snyder, in her 32nd season at Southern, is 497-256.
Contact Brittany Grugan: