The Ocean City High School girls basketball team will play for its fourth South Jersey Group III championship in six years today.
The top-seeded Red Raiders (23-4) will host No. 6 Timber Creek (13-13) in the sectional final at 6 p.m. The winner will advance to a state semifinal Wednesday against the winner of the Central Jersey championship game between Freehold Borough and Neptune.
The stresses of planning for a game such as tonight's hasn't eased for coach Paul Baruffi, though.
"They're excited," Baruffi said of his players following Saturday's semifinal win over Delsea Regional. "I probably won't sleep for two days."
Baruffi is one of the Cape-Atlantic League's most successful coaches. In his 12th season, he has a career record of 256-81. His first S.J. Group III title came in 2008 and the most recent in 2011.
Ocean City, which is ranked No. 10 in The Press Elite 11, is considered the favorite against Timber Creek. But the Chargers already have two upset wins during the playoffs. They defeated second-seeded Woodrow Wilson on the road before defeating Seneca, an exceptionally strong seventh seed, in the semifinals.
While Ocean City easily won its way to the sectional final, Timber Creek pulled off two one-possession wins in a row. The Chargers beat Woodrow Wilson 44-43 in the quarterfinals and Seneca 46-44 in the semifinals.
The Red Raiders won't take Timber Creek lightly. They want another S.J. title.
"It's one of the goals I had for this year," Ocean City senior Julia Duggan said.
Duggan, the Red Raiders' 6-foot-2 center, is headed to Rider University on a basketball scholarship. She averages 16.7 points per game and 11.0 rebounds.
Duggan is one of five seniors on Ocean City's roster, along with starters Katie Johnson, Natalie Landi and Mary Kate Mateer and reserve Tess Solazzo.
The girls were sophomores when the Red Raiders won their last South Jersey title. Duggan was the only one who saw significant playing time.
Complementing Ocean City's veteran team are two talented freshmen, Nicole Piergross and Olivia Briggs, and junior Taylor Price. Piergross became a starting guard when sophomore Karissa Bourbeau suffered a season-ending knee injury early in the season.
Piergross is a legitimate scoring threat with a knack for shooting outside. She's averaged 7.0 points through the playoffs.
Ocean City's underclassmen are thrilled to compete today. Their goal is to send their seniors out with a championship.
"It's for them," Piergross said. "I'm just really excited to be a part of it and to play with all of them."
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