TOMS RIVER - Ocean City High School has produced some great girls basketball teams.
Memorable players and exciting games decorate the program's history. The current group of players, however, will stand out among the rest. They did something no other Ocean City team could.
The Red Raiders are state champions.
Ocean City defeated Jefferson Township 50-37 at Pine Belt Arena to win the Group III championship for the first time in school history. The Red Raiders (26-4) will play Red Bank Catholic in the first round of the Tournament of Champions at 6 p.m. Tuesday, also at Pine Belt Arena.
Ocean City lost in its only other state title appearances - Group II in 1979 and Group III in 2008.
"I have so many emotions running through me right now," senior center Julia Duggan said. "We just made history for Ocean City basketball. That's more than I could ever ask for."
Duggan, the Red Raiders' 6-foot-2 center who will attend Rider University, scored 12 points and grabbed six rebounds despite having missed nearly the entire first half due to foul trouble.
For Ocean City coach Paul Baruffi, the win was a long time coming. Baruffi took over the program 12 years ago and steadily built it into a perennial contender.
Usually all business on the court, Baruffi was all smiles after the victory he waited more than a decade to get.
"I'm on top of the world," Baruffi said. "I know that's kind of a corny statement, but it's true."
Baruffi leaves a lasting impact on players. Many seats in the designated Ocean City spectator sections were filled with former players and their families.
Baruffi glanced up at the clock on the overhead scoreboard nearly every time play stopped. He paced up and down the sidelines and shouted instructions over the noise of the packed stands.
"He's a great coach. … He really knows what he's doing and he has a lot of confidence in us, and he reminds us of that," said senior forward Natalie Landi, who had 10 points and 10 rebounds. "He's hard on us, but its only for the better."
Ocean City (26-4) never surrendered its lead. Baruffi finally stopped checking the clock with 57 seconds left. Duggan sank two free throws with Ocean City in the double bonus to put the Red Raiders up by 13 on Jefferson (23-8).
The Red Raiders generally rely on Duggan to supply much of their offense. However, the Falcons drew two quick fouls from her in the first three minutes of the game. She was pulled from the floor midway through the first quarter and did not return til the second half.
But with her out of the equation, Ocean City simply played harder.
Senior forward Mary Kate Mateer had a stellar game, scoring nine of her team-high 14 points in the first half. She hit a baseline jumper and was 3-for-4 from the foul line in the second quarter to keep Ocean City ahead by eight at halftime.
"I told them before the game, (the Falcons) will do what they do to Julia," Baruffi said. "You guys have to be ready to shoot. If you're open, let it go. And they really took it to heart."
Landi and Duggan sparked a 16-9 third quarter run that cushioned Ocean City's lead. The two combined for 11 points, capped off by an uncharacteristic and long 3-pointer by Landi as time expired.
Ocean City survived an outstanding fourth quarter effort by Jefferson junior Imani Brown, who led all scorers with 22 points. She had eight in the fourth quarter, including back-to-back 3-pointers less than a minute apart.
In the end, the Red Raiders' chemistry was too great to break. An outstanding presence on the boards - O.C. outrebounded Jefferson 40-25 - kept the ball in the Red Raiders' possession.
"It's just a special group," Baruffi said. "They are just a unique bunch. They really support each other, and they really support the younger girls on the team. It shows."
Ocean City's veteran roster has come a long way in four years. The five seniors - Duggan, Mateer, Landi, point guard Katie Johnson and reserve guard Tess Solazzo have won two South Jersey titles and now, a state championship.
They also share the best season ever by an Ocean City girls basketball team.
"We're the first team in Ocean City history to ever do this," Mateer said. "I couldn't think of a better team to share this with. It's so special."
Contact Brittany Grugan:
Ocean City 15 8 16 11-50
Jefferson Township 4 11 9 13-37
OC-Johnson 1 4-6 6, Mateer 5 4-5 14, Piergross 1 2-2 5, Landi 4 1-2 10, Duggan 4 4-6 12, Solazzo 1 1-1 3. Totals-16 16-22 50.
JT-Brown 8 3-4 22, Lopez 1 0-0 3, Swerzenski 3 2-4 8, Tietz 1 0-0 2, Murawinski 1 0-0 2. Totals-14 5-10 37.
3-pointers-Piergross, Landi OC; Brown (3), Lopez JT.
Records-O.C. 26-4; Jefferson 23-8.