TOMS RIVER –  Inspired by the work ethic and loyalty of 13 players willing to sweat and grind in the name of Marlboro girls basketball, coach Brad Hagensen was compelled to think outside the box in his search to install a diplomatic scheme that would best reward all for their tireless commitment.

“I realized this summer we had 13 kids that all deserved to play,” Hagensen said. “They play so hard, they listen and they’re great kids with great attitudes. I tried to install something new because playing conventional basketball, it’s hard to find minutes for all of them. We had to try something a little different.”

As hard as his players worked for him, Hagensen reciprocated accordingly, burning data on the cell phone by calling various sources around the country to get acquainted with the nuances of an entirely new style. One that demands ceaseless energy in order to sustain the required, rapid tempo at both ends of the court and - above all else - depth.

In accordance with the season of giving, Hagensen presented his Mustangs with “The System”, a hyper-active brand of what can best be described as controlled chaos. When executed properly, the pace of play and sequence of actions is non-stop defensive mayhem triggered through presses and traps intended to translate the turnovers reaped into fast-break points. And, when halfcourt sets are the only recourse, everyone must pose as a shooter, especially from long range, all playing on high octane with the caveat that five fresh legs are waiting at the scorer’s table to spell weary teammates in two-minute intervals while continuing the frenetic work rate.

There truly is a method to the desired madness and what the the Mustangs have given Hagensen in return is an instant connection to what’s been implemented, finding their identity as an indefatigueable unit eager to push opponents into a games predicated on useful speed to see if it can weather the 32-minute onslaught.

Seventh-seeded Marlboro executed its system at the highest level on Thursday, blitzing second-seeded Middletown South with a second-quarter ambush that built a sizable cushion and the Mustangs needed every bit of it to ward off a late-game surge and secure a 66-60 triumph in the quarterfinal round of the WOBM Christmas Classic at the RWJBArnabas Health Arena.

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For their work, the unbeaten Mustangs (5-0) advanced to the semifinal round on Saturday where they’ll face third-seeded Toms River North at 6:15.

Before this story leads the reader to believe it’s a tale entirely coated in stardust, it should be noted that Hagensen’s introduction of his plans wasn’t initially embraced by all.

“He told me and (fellow senior captain) Theresa Besso about it before the season,” said senior point guard Gisella Romeo. “I had my doubts and I wasn’t on board at first. But, after a couple of practice, I had a change of mind and saw we could definitely do this.”

What helped convince Romeo was how the system seemed ideally suited for Marlboro. The Mustangs don’t have an abundance of size but they are blessed with elusive, quick athletes, headlined by Romeo and sophomore guard Sammy Jay. Both are is exploratory by nature, talented penetrators with a knack for getting into seams and attacking the rim but with a sense of balance for what is offered behind the arc.

Striking equivalence between drives and long-range jumpers promotes offensive diversity, a point that resonates with Marlboro. The Mustangs are averaging 11 3-pointers a game as a team and, despite being limited to a season-low eight against Middletown South, were able to utilize other means like putting the ball on the floor and venturing into the lane.

When it all comes together, a masterpiece like the one Marlboro framed in the second quarter are the byproduct. Leading, 17-15, after one quarter, the Mustangs ran off 20 unanswered points in the second period to open a stunning 37-15 advantage.

Within the tear, sophomore Jessica Riepe drained a pair of triples and Romeo converted three steals into layups as Middletown South endured a spell of eight successive turnovers that put it in a hole that proved too great to dig out off.

However, the Eagles gave it their best shot. A three-point play by Emily McCarthy closed the third, got Middletown South (3-1) to within a manageable 52-41 deficit and triggered a 20-8 revival that narrowed the gap to 60-56 a minute left in the contest.

Yet the energy exerted while trying to stem the Marlboro onrush in the second quarter, coupled with the amount used to forge a comeback, took its inevitable toll. Jay sank 6 of 8 foul shots over the final 48.5 seconds to put Middletown South away.

“We all have to have faith in the system,” said Jay, a beneficiary for sure with a career-high 22 points, including a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to end the first quarter. “The way we are playing right now, I love it. It’s a lot of fun. We had to put in a lot of work to get here and we’re still working to our goal. This was a huge game and you have to make plays to finish off a great team and everyone participated.”

“It takes a lot of discipline for this to flow and come together,” added Romeo.

What’s perceived as fun from the Marlboro perspective isn’t exactly the sentiment of those who come face to face with it. It took a veteran-laden and proud Middletown South to find some flaws through second-half adjustments to make the Mustangs a little squirmy down the stretch.

“The first thing we said coming out of the locker room at halftime is we have to kind of put on a poker face,” said Middletown South coach Tom Brennan. “We certainly weren’t feeling good about ourselves. So, we had to trick ourselves and the girls did a good job of convincing themselves they were still in it. We had more energy and, if we extended our defense a little bit, we could maybe make them a little uncomfortable. We got more aggressive and it snowballed but we couldn’t get that snowball all the way down the hill.”

McCarthy was instrumental in the Middletown South comeback, depositing all 10 of her points in the second half and junior guard Stephanie Mayerhofer was consistent throughout, netting a team-high 15 points for the Eagles.

Marlboro (5-0)                         17           24           11           14 --- 66
Middletown South (3-1)           15           07           19           19 --- 60

Marlboro: Alexandra O’Hare 0-0-0-0; Gisella Romeo 6-0-1-13; Sam Nocco 1-1-0-5; Meghan Gill 0-0-0-0; Kathy Sanchez 0-0-0-0; Ashley Horowitz 0-0-0-0; Sammy Jay 3-2-10-22; Danielle Schlesinger 1-0-0-2; Samantha Slofkiss 0-0-0-0; Theresa Besso 0-1-0-3; Laura Morehead 1-0-0-2; Brianna Diaz 1-0-3-5; Jessica Riepe 1-4-0-14.

Middletown South: Sadyann Fahey 3-0-0-6; Isla Brennan 0-1-3-6; Kayla Richardson 4-0-0-8; Madison Szabo 1-0-0-2; Emily McCarthy 4-0-2-10; Samantha Keenan 1-0-3-5; Eve Pirie 4-0-0-8; Stephanie Mayerhofer 5-1-2-15.

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