Jackson Memorial High School has won nine of its last 10 games in girls’ basketball.
At 14-6, the Jaguars are the No. 10 seed in the NJSIAA South Jersey, Group 4 sectional tournament. They will play seventh-seeded Atlantic City High School in the first round on Feb. 25.
Jackson Memorial has developed from an early identity crisis into a well rounded squad.
“We went to Florida over Christmas break and got manhandled by some powerhouse teams. Then we didn’t have a game for 10 days, so we had to think about it,” said Jackson Memorial coach Rachel Goodale. “But then we figured out our defensive strategy, the intensity picked up and we started to jell.”
In December, Goodale tried to mold the Jaguars into a team that pressed all game, forced turnovers and ran. Jackson Memorial’s top scorer, Kristina Donza, put up gaudy numbers, scoring more than 17 points per game.
But that was about the only positive.
Through the identity crisis, though, Goodale noticed a couple things.
First, she had a rotation of players who could defend and score in half court sets.
Second, the Jaguars did not have the depth to run all game. They were tiring out in second halves.
The coach responded by slowing the game down. She taught Jackson Memorial a zone defense to confuse opponents in the half court game. Now, Jackson Memorial switches between man and zone, sometimes from possession to possession.
“We found who we were as a defensive unit. It allowed us to have chemistry on that end,” Goodale said. “And since we weren’t pressing as much in the game, and weren’t as tired, our shooting percentage went up.”
“We are just more of a half court team,” she added.
The Jaguars are gobbling up defensive rebounds and walking the ball up the floor. They are also bringing the same deliberate intensity to the offensive side of the ball.
Donza’s scoring average has dropped to 16.5, but that’s a good thing. The Jaguars are working the ball around, creating more open shots and forcing opponents to respect everybody.
Rachel Capua and Dani Evans have emerged as versatile complements to Donza. Both players are scoring more than 12 points per contest and have drilled at least 30 three pointers.
Point guard Bianca Giordano, a pass-first player, is recording 7.2 assists per game.
“Rachel and Dani are very consistent players,” Goodale said. “Then you have Bianca, who makes everyone around her better.”
Behind her top four, Goodale has a trio of glue girls who are competent on both ends, too. Mackenzie Dakin is the fifth starter. Ally Vella and Zoe Holmes come off the bench.
“Having the fifth guy on the court who can score is big. Last year our fifth guy just defended,” Goodale said. “And having three guys that can play that role is a big reason we’re on this win streak. If teams forget about them, they step up.”
These Jaguars are peaking at the right time, though they did not benefit from the NJSIAA’s seeding system. Teams can only earn power points in the first 16 games of their seasons. So, three of Jackson Memorial’s victories did not count toward its state sectional tournament seed.
That is why the Jaguars got the No. 10 seed and will likely have to play on the road for the entire tournament. Goodale, though, is not complaining about the system. She is just playing her hand.
“We definitely have the potential to make a run,” she said. “My girls like playing on the road. We play well on the road. We’re not bothered by it at all.”