Alicia Cox remembers watching the Vineland High School girls basketball team play while she was in middle school.

She recalls seeing the Fighting Clan consistently lose to city rival Sacred Heart, which has been one of the area's top girls basketball programs for the last decade. The Lions always seemed to have Vineland's number.

As an eighth-grade student preparing to play at Vineland, she wanted to see that streak come to an end.

"I told (Vineland coach Rick Baruffi) then that we'd beat them when I played for him," said Cox, who is now a senior.

Cox and her teammates saw that promise come true in her final meeting with Sacred Heart.

The 5-foot-3 guard scored 21 points as Vineland beat Sacred Heart 51-48 in overtime on Jan. 29 in the Lions' packed gym. Cox scored 14 points in the final seven minutes of the game to make the difference.

It was the first time the Fighting Clan defeated the Lions since 1998.

Cox's late-game surge was one of many stellar performances this season. She averaged 17.1 points and 4.7 assists. Cox was also one of southern New Jersey's best defensive guards with 6.5 steals per game.

Cox is The Press' 2010-11 Girls Basketball Player of the Year.

Cox began her career at Vineland as a talented freshman eager to show off her basketball skills. She developed into a true team player whose primary goal was to see the Fighting Clan succeed.

"We spoke a lot about how you not only have to be good yourself, you have to make your teammates better as well. I think she really listened," Baruffi said.

Cox led the Fighting Clan (23-5) to the most wins in school history. Vineland also won its first Cape-Atlantic League championship since 1998.

She turned out another star performance in the CAL title game with 24 points, seven steals, six rebounds and five assists in Vineland's 62-46 win over Middle Township.

Whenever Cox was on fire, her teammates also stepped up their game, making Vineland difficult to outplay.

"She always continued to get better and made the kids around her better," Baruffi said.

Cox wants to play basketball in college but as of now is uncertain where she will end up. She has been scouted by several schools and among those is considering Wilmington University. Cox said she will make her decision by the end of the school year.

In middle school, Cox never envisioned herself receiving so many accolades as a high school senior.

"I didn't think I would ever win things like Player of the Year," Cox said. "I just wanted to help take the team to a championship."

Coach of the Year

Vineland was expected to be one of the area's top teams. Many were surprised by the Fighting Clan's shaky start.

Vineland dropped three of its first five games and faced numerous issues that affected the team on the court, including injury and eligibility problems.

Coach Rick Baruffi knew his team could do better. He also knew the factors contributing to Vineland's early-season struggles were avoidable.

"We can beat ourselves, and that's what happened early in the season," Baruffi said. "I would harp on that all through the beginning of the season."

His persistence motivated Vineland to turn its season around. The Fighting Clan rebounded with a school-record 17 consecutive wins and a Cape-Atlantic League title.

Baruffi is The Press' Girls Basketball Coach of the Year.

In his 13th season as head coach, Baruffi saw his players' potential and forced them to realize it.

"I've never had a coach believe in me, and in all the girls, the way he did," Cox said. "He's honest, and he tells us what we need to do in order to win games."

Team of the Year

Although Vineland's South Jersey Group IV playoff run ended abruptly with an upset in the quarterfinal round, the Fighting Clan had one its best seasons in recent memory.

Vineland proved it was much deeper than just Cox and the Fighting Clan dominated the Cape-Atlantic League. Its only league losses were to Middle Township and Ocean City early in the season.

Vineland avenged both of those losses, beating Ocean City in a critical American Conference game a month later and defeating Middle in the Cape-Atlantic League championship on Feb. 26.

"The (CAL) is no joke. To win it, we had to play well. We couldn't afford to slip up at all," Baruffi said.

Contact Brittany Grugan:

609-272-7210