The Middle Township High School girls basketball team played an arduous regular-season schedule.
Middle Township came across some of the state's best teams. Some games ended in victory, others in defeat. The Panthers are thankful for all those tough games now.
Middle Township (19-9) will play at top-seeded Willingboro for the South Jersey Group II championship at 5 p.m. today. The No. 2-seeded Panthers are the defending champions.
The winner will advance to Thursday's state semifinal against the winner of today's Central Jersey final between Point Pleasant Borough and Rumson-Fair Haven.
Middle Township surprised many observers by winning last year's sectional title, the program's first since 1995. The Panthers would make school history with a repeat.
"It feels so good to get here two years in a row," junior point guard Lauryn Fields said.
The Panthers have had plenty of preparation. Middle has played six different teams that are No. 1 seeds in their respective playoff brackets, including the Chimeras (22-4), who are ranked No. 3 in The Press Elite 11.
Middle Township also played regular-season games against Lenape (the top seed in South Jersey Group IV), Randolph (North Jersey 1 Group IV), Shabazz (North Jersey 2 Group II), Roselle Catholic (Non-Public B South) and two games against Cape-Atlantic League National Division rival Ocean City (South Jersey Group III).
"We've played as tough a schedule as anyone," Panthers coach John Leahy said after Friday's semifinal win over Cinnaminson. "We're battle tested."
Willingboro is a senior-laden team that features Michaya Owens, a 5-foot-11 guard/forward who plans to play for La Salle University. Five-foot-10 forward Olivia Schwartz is the lone senior for Middle Township.
The last time these teams met was Dec. 15 in an Ocean City PBA Tip Off Weekend contest. Middle won in overtime.
Schwartz hit two free throws in the final seconds of regulation to force the extra period. Fields scored 22 points for Middle in the 53-49 win.
It was one of the Panthers' toughest battles to date.
"They're a very good team. We know how they play," Fields said. "I wouldn't take anything away from them."
That victory has the Panthers heading into the final with confidence. However, Middle is aware that Decem-ber was a long time ago.
Teams transform over the course of a season. Both Middle and Willingboro have come a long way since the season's opening weekend. The Chimeras have won 14 of their last 15 games.
"At that stage, nobody has everything put together," Leahy said.
Tonight's game will decide which team has come further.
Contact Brittany Grugan:
South Jersey Group II title game
Who: Second-seeded Middle Township (19-9) vs. top-seeded Willingboro (22-4)
When/where: 5 p.m. today at Willingboro
Tickets: $3 adults and $2 students and senior citizens
What's next: Winner advances to the state semifinal Thursday against the winner of tonight's Central Jersey final between Point Pleasant Borough and Rumson-Fair Haven.
Key players - Middle Township: Lauryn Fields, 5-5, Jr., G, 16.2 ppg; Olivia Schwartz, 5-10, Sr., F, 8.5 ppg; Lauren Legler, 5-9, Jr., G, 12.2 ppg; Holly McKaig, 5-11, Jr., F, 4.6 ppg; Julianna Riggitano, 5-6, Jr., G, .8 ppg; Marinna Peterson, 5-5, Jr., 1.7 ppg.
Willingboro: Micahya Owens, 5-10, Sr., G, 16.7 ppg; Aaliyah Saud-Lewis, 5-6, Sr., G, 9.4 ppg; Imani Stepney, 5-11, Sr., F, 97 ppg; Gabriella Bennett, 5-11, Sr., F, 8.2; Vanessa Francis, Jr., G, 5.5 ppg, Maya Mosley, 5-4, Jr., G, 7.2 ppg.
Keys to victory: Willingboro utilizes a stifling full-court press. The Chimeras specialize in forcing turnovers and scoring in transition. Controlling the ball and minimizing errors are essential for Middle's chances at an upset.