Grace Sacco’s high school basketball career began in Our Lady of Mercy Academy’s tiny gym in Newfield four years ago.
It ended Sunday at Pine Belt Arena in Toms River.(tncms-asset)3c268418-0437-11e7-91a0-00163ec2aa77(/tncms-asset)
In between, the point guard dribbled the ball upcourt on just about every possession for the Ocean City High School girls basketball team.
Saco led the Red Raiders to a 30-2 record and the South Jersey Group III and Cape-Atlantic League titles this season. She is The Press Player of the Year.
“It’s crazy to think I’m 18 years old, and I’m going off to college soon,” Sacco said. “My dad always said, ‘It goes by fast — don’t blink.’ It definitely went by faster than I would have hoped, but it was a great four years.”
Sacco averaged 8.8 points and 5.6 assists this season. She finished her career with 953 points and 505 assists. But numbers do not tell how much she meant to Ocean City. The Red Raiders went 96-18 in her four seasons.
She was a calming presence on the court. Her ball-handling abilities prevented teams from consistently pressing the Red Raiders or forcing them into multiple turnovers. Sacco’s passes led to layups for her teammates.(tncms-asset)b5060bc6-0b4c-11e7-95e7-00163ec2aa77(/tncms-asset)
“When she came in as a freshman, we put the ball in her hands and said, ‘You’re going to run this team,’ ” coach Paul Baruffi said. “I think she got better and better every year, and as a result, our team got better and better every year.”
Sacco grew up as a point guard, attending basketball camps in Margate.(tncms-asset)6c716f8c-03a8-11e7-bb3a-00163ec2aa77(/tncms-asset)
“Ball-handling was my thing,” Sacco said. “The ball-handling weeks at basketball camp were always my favorite.”
Sacco remembers several details from her first varsity game, mostly being very nervous on the bus ride to OLMA. A couple of older teammates told her she would be just fine.
“I had no idea what to expect,” Sacco said.
Sacco scored 13 points and had six assists as Ocean City won 41-13.
“I do remember it,” she said with a laugh. “OLMA’s gym was freezing.”(tncms-asset)692b6acc-039d-11e7-86a8-00163ec2aa77(/tncms-asset)
Sacco had several memorable moments this season. Ocean City lost to Pascack Valley 48-45 in Sunday’s state Group III final.
But Sacco sank the winning basket in overtime to give the Red Raiders a 39-37 win over Middle Township in the CAL Tournament final.
She had eight assists as Ocean City beat rival Mainland Regional in the S.J. Group III final. Sacco scored 13 points and had 10 assists and seven steals to lead the Red Raiders to a dramatic 58-57 overtime win over Ewing in the state semifinal.
Sacco plans to play college basketball but has yet to pick a school. Several schools from NCAA Division I to Division III levels are interested in her.
But as Sacco prepares for her basketball future, this season’s memories will stay with her.
“We had a close group of girls,” Sacco said. “We made it to the state championship. We were successful along the way. The whole season was pretty unforgettable. They were four of the best years of my life.”
Team of the Year
Baruffi saw Ocean City’s potential at the start of the season.
The Red Raiders lived up to his optimism.
They won a school-record 30 games and the CAL and S.J. Group III titles. Ocean City finished ranked No. 1 in The Press Elite 11 and is The Press Team of the Year.
“I had a very strong feeling that we were going to have a good year coming out of last summer,” Baruffi said. “I didn’t say a whole lot. I wanted to let it play out. But to win 30 games is something I never thought would happen.”
Sacco led Ocean City, but the Red Raiders featured other standouts.
Senior guard Alexis Paone sank key perimeter shots and led the team in scoring with an 11.1 average.
Senior forward Rosalia Daddi was a force inside, and senior forward Sadie Ford seem to come up with every loose ball.
Ocean City trailed Pascack Valley by 10 points in the fourth quarter of the state title game but rallied and nearly forced overtime.
“I think they showed their character in that game and what this team was made of,” Baruffi said. “It was a real team.”
Coach of the Year
Baruffi doesn’t hide his feelings during a game. His players, spectators and even the occasional referee know exactly what he is thinking.
His intensity is what helps him motivate the Red Raiders. Baruffi is The Press Coach of the Year.
“He’s very high energy,” Sacco said. “If he’s yelling at you, it’s for a reason.”
Baruffi is 355-100 in 16 seasons.
“He yells a lot,” Sacco said, “but it’s with a purpose. At halftime, if we’re not doing something right, he lets us know. At practices, every drill is for a purpose. He knows what he’s doing.”