The sound of a bouncing basketball or of a shot clanging off the rim reverberated around the gym when the Millville High School girls basketball team played at home from 2008 to 2010.
Few fans sat in the stands. Silence dominated. Teams on 55-game losing streaks don't draw big, enthusiastic crowds.
"It was kind of boring," said Ashli Weems, a senior center and a four-year starter for Millville.
Three years after the Thunderbolts struggled to be competitive, the atmosphere at home games has changed.
Millville hosted Holy Spirit in a matchup of Cape-Atlantic League American Division contenders on Jan. 29. Fans packed the stands. The crowd roared with each basket. Players had to shout to communicate with each other. Millville won 46-43.
"It was like an NBA game," Weems said. "I didn't want it to end."
The Thunderbolts' girls basketball team is one of the best stories of the winter season. Millville (14-6) has won 12 of its last 13 games. The Thunderbolts are the No. 10 seed in the South Jersey Group IV playoffs and a contender to make the CAL Tournament.
The Thunderbolts feature balanced scoring with sophomore guard Amanda Smith (14.6 points per game), Weems (13.0 ppg) and junior guard Lexi Bruno (13.5 ppg). Forward Krysten Woods is a four-year varsity player.
It would have been difficult for even the most optimistic Thunderbolt to imagine this success when the team was mired in a 55-game losing streak that began in January 2007.
Coach Jason Kessler, a 2003 Millville graduate, took over the program in 2008-09. He was more or less drafted into the position. A health and physical education teacher, he was an assistant coach in football, swimming and track and field.
"If you knew Jason five years ago, coaching basketball probably would have been the last thing on his mind," Millville athletic director Dave LaGamba said. "But he's a good coach, period. He wanted a four- or five-year plan. He laid it out for me, and he's followed his plan."
Kessler went to clinics. He studied and researched the game. He wanted to bring discipline to the program and develop young talent.
"I'm a pretty stubborn person," Kessler said. "I'm only going to take beatings for so long. I have picked the brains of many basketball brains in the area. I surrounded myself with knowledgeable assistant coaches. I've tried to do anything and everything to do the right thing by the girls."
What Kessler did best was motivate the Thunderbolts to play with passion no matter what their record was.
"He always told us to go out there and play our hearts out like it's our last game," Weems said. "I always took that to heart."
The losing streak ended when Millville beat Schalick 51-35 on Feb. 23, 2009. It was the Thunderbolts' only win that season.
Millville won two games in 2009-10 but the program began to turn around in 2010-11 when the Thunderbolts finished 10-14. Millville finished 9-16 last season.
The Thunderbolts were expected to be even better this season as Weems and Smith continued to develop their talents. But Millville received a boost when Bruno, one of the region's top players, transferred from Sacred Heart. Bruno, who led Sacred Heart to the CAL championship last season, played with the Thunderbolts in summer and fall leagues.
Bruno became eligible on Jan. 14 after sitting the first 30 days of the season as per the transfer rules of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association. The Thunderbolts are 10-1 with her in the lineup. Bruno has wowed fans and her teammates with her no-look passes.
"Lexi opened up our whole offense," Weems said. "We have her as a threat. Now, girls just can't collapse on me and Amanda can do her thing, too. Teams have to worry about everybody on the court now."
Millville's success has changed the way opponents perceive the Thunderbolts. Millville went from being an afterthought on the schedule to being a big game.
No matter what happens the rest of this season, these Thunderbolts have changed the culture of Millville girls basketball and with Bruno and Smith the team should again be one of the CAL's best next season.
"We all worked hard to get to this point," Weems said. "From where I started as a freshman, I see a great improvement. It was a team effort. It took everyone from the coaches down to the managers to do it."
But Kessler doesn't want to ever lose that underdog edge. The Thunderbolts haven't gotten carried away with their newfound success.
"We try to take the mentality that we haven't proven anything to anybody yet," Kessler said. "I'll never forget getting (beat) every game my first year. I'll never let anyone forget it."
Apparently, a 55-game losing streak can provide plenty of motivation.
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