The leaders of the Mainland Regional High School girls basketball team first faced adversity together 10 years ago as little girls in the Linwood living room of Madi Hafetz.
There they gathered gathered to help then-7-year-old Hafetz persevere through her weekly treatments for Common Variable Immune Deficiency (CVID).
The treatments were tough. Hafetz had two needles inserted into her stomach to pump medicine into her system for an hour.
Hafetz is afraid of needles. The medicine would sometimes make her stomach burn.
When the pain became too much, the Mustangs would scream with Hafetz.
To distract her, the girls ate homemade soft pretzels together.
They watched the scary television show “Stalker”
And they forged a friendship that is one of the biggest reasons why the Mustangs will play for a state title Sunday.
Mainland (27-3) faces Chatham (23-6) for the Group III championship at noon at RWJ Barnabas Arena in Toms River.
“We’ve had some tough times,” Hafetz said, “but I really only remember the better parts. Honestly, I don’t know how I would be able to get through it without them. I was diagnosed at such a young age, and they were there right away.”
The Mustangs are talented. Junior forward Kylee Watson is one of the country’s top college recruits. Senior guard Claudia Mairone is the school’s career 3-point leader with more than 160 baskets from beyond the arc. Point guard Camryn Dirkes is one of South Jersey’s best freshmen.
But it is the Mustangs’ chemistry on and off the court that sets them apart.
Fans sometimes assume players on all teams love each other. But in the 2019 world of high school sports where everybody seemingly plays for multiple coaches and has multiple agendas, the Mustangs are the exception.
“We see each other in school, and we’re always talking,” senior Taylor Dalzell said. “Basketball brings us even closer together. It helps us on the roller coaster ride. We always know we’re there to support each other bad or good.”
Most of the Mustangs first met as 7- and 8-year-olds in local basketball leagues and camps, including one run by Mainland athletic director Mike Gatley.
Dalzell, who also lives in Linwood, met Hafetz at Gatley’s camp.
When she learned that Hafetz was diagnosed with CVID, she visited Hafetz’s house to help her deal with the treatments. Soon, Watson, Mairone, Jillian Gatley joined. Later, Lauren Toner became part of the crew.
Hafetz would sometimes take the soft pretzels and twist them into the letters “BFF” — best friends forever.
CVID impairs the immune system and makes people highly susceptible to infections in their lungs, sinuses and ears. There is no cure. Hafetz still undergoes treatments every two weeks and probably will have to do so for the rest of her life.
But she is a standout basketball and tennis player. The junior guard’s perimeter shooting helps keep defenses from focusing solely on Watson.
“I’m technically sick,” Hafetz said, “but I never define myself as that. I’m playing basketball seven days a week.”
Mainland coach Scott Betson says the team’s chemistry makes a difference on and off the court.
“They grew up playing together. They all know where each other is going to be. They make instinctive plays,” he said. “In terms of the interpersonal side, it’s hard to describe. Winter season can be a grind. You’re coming (to practice) on a grey Sunday morning in February. It can be tough, but they genuinely like being around each other.”
The Mustangs girls basketball program has never won a state title. Mainland’s only state final appearance came in 1989, when it lost to Pascack Valley.
The current Mustangs are thrilled with their chance to make history.
“We’ve worked hard for this moment,” Dalzell said. “It’s here now. We’re pumped up — no nerves. It’s a cool story — all of us together.”
That togetherness makes Sunday’s game even bigger. The Mustangs won’t forget Sunday, just like they’ll always remember their time in Hafetz’s living room.
“We’re a family,” Hafetz said. “When we look back on it, we all see how there’s some adversity you have to push through. It will stay with us forever.”