JACKSON TWP. - Jackson Liberty senior Daniel Sofield entered Thursday night's game against Pinelands leading the Shore Conference in scoring and while the Lions have needed every point Sofield has been able to give them, it had not resulted in wins.

On Thursday night, against an unbeaten, first-place team in the Shore Conference Class B South division, Sofield scaled back his scoring, helped his teammates step up theirs and led Jackson Liberty to a huge victory.

Sofield scored 21 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and handed out six assists to lead the Lions over the previously-unbeaten Wildcats, 56-51, to snap a three-game skid and give his team a win it needed in the worst way.

Jackson Liberty (2-5, 2-2) entered Thursday with a 1-5 record despite Sofield leading the Shore at 30.8 points per game. The program's all-time leading scorer threw up a career-high 59 in his team's only win - a 90-81 overtime win over Lacey - and poured in 46 in an 81-74 loss to a Wall squad currently ranked No. 8 in the Shore Sports Network Top 10.

Jackson Liberty senior Daniel Sofield goes up for a dunk vs. Pinelands. (Photo by Matt Manley)

"We know, as a team, we can compete with anyone, especially in our division," Sofield said. "We started off slow but we know if we play the way we are capable of playing, we can make a run at this division (title)."

A different approach from Sofield on Thursday paid off. The 6-foot-6 swingman shot 8-for-13 from the field and got plenty of help from his supporting cast, led by senior Miles Neal. The senior guard scored 12 of his 14 points in the first half, combing with Sofield to score 24 of his team's 29 points before the break to stake Jackson Liberty to a 29-19 lead.

Sofield and Neal have accounted for the vast majority of Jackson Liberty's offense this season but the rest of the lineup gave the Lions a total of 21 points to help the cause. Sophomore Carl Barth came off the bench to score eight points and junior Tim Gjonballa contributed four points, six rebounds and three blocks off the bench as well.

"We have guys who were playing for us to start the year who are on jayvee and brought some guys up," Jackson Liberty coach Mike Antenucci said. "Barth is a a guy who really stepped up - he plays hard, he rebounds, he can score around the basket. A game like tonight is big because we're starting to find some guys who look like that can really help us."

Sofield set up junior Jake Bosco for four of his five points and junior starting guard Manny Clay also added four for Jackson Liberty, which rode a more balanced scoring attack in the second half, with Sofield scoring nine of the 27 points after halftime and Barth scoring all eight of his.

"I love setting people up," Sofield said. "If the defense is focusing on me, I have no issue passing the ball. I'm glad to see some of the younger kids stepping up and making the most of their opportunity."

After a sluggish first half on both ends, Pinelands (5-1, 3-1) made its move in the third quarter by converting its first five shots of the half - including three three-pointers and the front end of a three-point play by senior Luke Wiatrowski.

Wiatrowski later hit a corner three-pointer that cut Jackson Liberty's lead to 39-37, but that was as close as the Wildcats would come to tying the game. Jackson Liberty led wire-to-wire, storming out to a 9-2 lead in the first quarter, with Sofield dropping five quick points to open the scoring.

Senior Andrew Schulz led Pinelands with a game-high 22 points, including 11 in each half. Senior Anthony Diaz added 11 and senior Garrett Brown contributed six points and six assists for the Wildcats.

"(Schulz and Diaz) are going to account for about 80-to-90 percent of their scoring on most nights," Antenucci said. "We thought if we could contain them - and we did a good job in the first half - we would be okay. They made some adjustments, as good players do, but we were able to withstand them in the second half."

Despite still sporting an unsightly 2-5 overall record, Jackson Liberty is now 2-2 in Class B South play with home wins over first-place Pinelands and 4-3 Lacey - two teams that figure to be in the division-title hunt. Meanwhile, the two divisional losses are on the road to Point Pleasant Boro and Barnegat - the only two B South teams with a sub-.500 divisional record after Thursday night.

"Our aspirations coming into the season were to make noise in B South," Antenucci said. "With them (Pinelands) being 3-0 and us being behind the eight-ball at 1-2, losing to them on our home floor would have made things real tough. So I felt like it was a must-win."

The Lions have also played most of the season without injured senior point guard Takai Anderson, who has played in only two games thus far.

In Sofield's four varsity seasons, Jackson Liberty has yet to qualify for the Shore Conference Tournament and has appeared in only one NJSIAA Tournament game. That does not lay at the feet of Sofield, according to Antenucci.

"This kids here is the most unselfish basketball player you could ever find," Antenucci said of Sofield. "When he is scoring 59 and averaging 30 a game, you might think a player like that might be a selfish basketball player. This kid is not. Next to shooting the ball, the thing he probably does best is pass the ball. He's a great passer and that's what school's at the next level really like about him."

Sofield currently has scholarship offers from Colgate, Stony Brook, Columbia and NJIT and has recently received interest from Furman, Central Michigan, East Carolina and Bucknell.

"He is loyal," Antenucci said of Sofield. "He was loyal to this place by staying, because he could have left for another program. He was loyal to the baseball team - they needed him and they had a really good year with him. Then, his July was not typical of Daniel Sofield, so some coaches got a little itchy, but now they are starting to see what he is all about again.

"When a school like Furman calls after they beat the defending national champs (Villanova) and two days before beat another Final Four team from last year in Loyola-Chicago, and they are high on him - that tells you something. That speaks volumes to me."

 

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