Toms River, NJ- The NJSIAA Group III Championship game between Middletown South and Old Tappan turned out to be the game of the weekend for Group finals. After consecutive blowouts in earlier group finals the Eagles and Knights seemed destined for the same outcome. Middletown South made a fourth quarter run before falling to Old Tappan 47-36.

Old Tappan came into this contest with a bitter taste in their mouth from last year’s loss to Middletown South in the Group final 50-42. Last year it was the Knights who started out of the gate slow finishing the first quarter 8-1 and at half 25-11. This year they were determined to flip the script and did so in convincing fashion.

The Knights held the Eagles to a first quarter deficit of 11-5 and then out muscled, out rebounded and got a little bit of luck on missed shots to lead South 23-5 at the half.

Defensive pressure got the Eagles back into the game against Old Tappan (photo Eric Braun)

Afterwards Coach Keith Jefferson from Old Tappan told his team at half “we are not going to keep them to 5 points again this half, they are to good a team…we need to stay the course and stay aggressive on every possession.”

The second half Middletown South got back to work and chipped away at the deficit and by the end of the third quarter had cut the lead to 36-20. This is an Eagles team that has rode the emotional rollercoaster all season long from injuries to junior Haley Dalonzo and senior Julia Valkos, and rallied around coach Tom Brennan, who missed most of the year for health-related reasons and only recently returned to the bench to support acting head coach Jessie Chalmers.

This time however the “Heart of a Champion” could not recover from the early hole and falter late in the fourth quarter following a tremendous comeback. The comeback was started when Alexandra Balsamo hit on a rebound and putback then Stephanie Karcz stole the inbounds pass and hit for an easy jumper to cut the lead to 36-24.

After the game an emotional Stephanie Karcz reflected on her time at South “we gave it our all and nothing to be upset about, I thought we had enough in us to get back into this one but today was just not our day…we accomplished a lot as a group with adversity over the years and it shows the strength we have together and years to come the Eagles will continue to fly.”

Alexandra Balsamo drives the basket under pressure from Old Tappin (photo Ray Richardson)

Karcz also added about the impact Coach Brennan has had in her life, “Coach Tom has been there for me both as a player, coach, father figure and friend, it is hard for teenagers to relate to adult figures, but coach hold a special place in my heart and we will continue to have a bond after Middletown South…he came through a difficult time and we were hoping to make him proud and I think we did this year.”

The momentum definitely started to shift for the Eagles who in the first half went twelve minutes without a basket to trail at half by 18. Now trailing by 12, the veteran leadership of Karcz and Balsamo took over and got the Eagles to within seven points with less than five minutes to play.

South turned up the defensive pressure and started getting rebounds and steals that led to their comeback, but the first half hole was just to much to overcome. Trailing by seven and a steal by Balsamo stole the ball on the defensive end of the court and drove the floor before stepping out of bounds on the pass. This was the mistake senior Old Tappan guard Emily Crevani was pushing for.

After the turnover, Cervani settled the offense that went on a late run that ended the Eagles comeback bid. Cervani finished of the Eagles season going 6-for-6 from the line in the final minute and a half.

South senior Stephanie Karcz who entered the game with 19 points per game finished her high school career with 8 points, 5 assists and 4 rebounds. But most importantly the senior leaves behind a legacy that only a few high school athletes can dream of having.

Coach Tom Brennan and Stephanie Karcz talk during a timeout on the floor against Old Tappan (photo Eric Braun)

Coach Tom Brennan afterwards commented on the impact of Stephanie over her four seasons at South “When we found out she was coming to south we knew we were getting an elite player but we did not know impact player and person were going to get. Not only is she a special player but also an incredible person that has meant so much to me personally.”

Coach Brennan additionally commented about how proud he was of the effort the girls showed coming back today when he add “the entire season we show a lot of passion, bravery and heart…its been an inspirational season with everything that I went through and win or lose it does matter but what they have put on display has been so inspirational and meaningful.”


5 ISLA BRENNAN 13 5 2 4 2
12 STEPHANIE KARCZ 8 5 5 2 4
13 JULIA VALKOS 3 3 0 3 0
42 GABBY COOK 0 0 0 0 0
22 EMILY MCCARTHY 0 3 1 0 2
33 EVE PIRIE 0 4 0 0 0
TOTALS 36 28 8 12 10
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