No place like home for Haddonfield basketball

After two years on the road, Haddonfield’s basketball teams are back at home following renovations to their gym.

Haddonfield juniors Emily Smart, Keegan Douglas and Jenna Walls got the opportunity to play travel basketball inside Haddonfield Memorial High School’s gym prior to high school. After two seasons on the road, the juniors finally got to play their first high school game in the gym on Dec. 19.

Haddonfield girls basketball’s home opener against Colonial Conference-rival Collingswood was a game the team’s players had been anticipating for more than two years.

After renovations to the school’s B Gym forced the school’s basketball teams to hit the road for two seasons, the Bulldawgs’ girls basketball team took the court on Dec. 19 in the first high school basketball game at Haddonfield Memorial High School since March 3, 2017.

It was a special event for the girls team as none of the players were a part of the program the last time the Bulldawgs played at home. Most of them, including juniors Keegan Douglas, Emily Smart and Jenna Walls, were still in middle school the last time the gym was open, though some of them got the chance to play there with their travel team.

“When I was a little girl practicing and playing games here, I’d always imagine playing here in a high school game,” Douglas said. “Freshman year, we didn’t get to do that and sophomore year, it was definitely crushing, but it was special (this year) to play on it for our first game.”

“I think it fueled our fire a little bit,” Smart said of Haddonfield’s home opener, a 44-16 win for the Bulldawgs. “We came out so strong in that game … We knew this was our home court and we were defending our home court.”

Eight days after the girls made their home debut, the boys followed with their home opener on day one of the Haddons Invitational holiday tournament. Haddonfield defeated Egg Harbor Township, 49-39, to give both basketball teams a victory in their return home.

Ben Cerrato is introduced during Haddonfield boys basketball’s home opener against Egg Harbor Township on Dec. 27. The game was the Bulldawgs’ first since March 3, 2017.

“It means so much to the program to have this gym back,” senior Ben Cerrato said. “Playing the games in our own town, we get a lot of support from the locals. It means so much to us.”

Haddonfield basketball’s return home marks the end of two years where Haddonfield’s athletic teams had to work around construction as renovation projects took place at the school’s stadium, gymnasium and the athletic wing of the school, among other areas. While Haddonfield football had to play the 2017 season on the road (due to renovations at its home stadium) and the wrestling team was forced to host matches in the school’s smaller A Gym, the basketball teams may have faced the toughest challenge of all: two consecutive seasons where all of the team’s practices and games took place away from the high school.

“Traveling to a different gym was tough,” said Douglas, who was part of Haddonfield’s varsity team in each of her first two seasons. “It felt like home, but also it wasn’t really our home. It was tough just practicing in the middle school gym and not being able to practice here was really frustrating. But we made it work.”

Cerrato and fellow senior Andrew Gostovich were appreciative to be back home after two seasons practicing at Haddonfield Middle School and traveling to Cherry Hill East for “home” games.

“We get to shoot on our rims this time,” Gostovich said. “The commute is obviously a lot easier.”

Andrew Gostovich looks up to the hoop during Haddonfield boys basketball’s home opener against Egg Harbor Township on Dec. 27.

“It’s also much easier school-wise because if we need to see a teacher after school for something, all you have to do is walk down here to get to practice,” Cerrato added.

The challenges the boys team faced were shared by the girls team. Walls reflected on the constant travel the girls had to face the past two seasons.

“We don’t have to run out to the parking lot to get into our cars or take the bus after school for every single game because we had to bus to East,” Walls said. “It was a lot.”

The change in venue didn’t affect Haddonfield basketball’s fortunes on the court the last two seasons. The girls team lost just two games in two years at their “home away from home,” Cherry Hill East. Meanwhile, the boys team made history with back-to-back state championship seasons in 2018 and 2019. Cherry Hill East was the site of two South Jersey Group 2 championship triumphs for the boys team, including a thrilling, overtime victory over Camden in last year’s sectional final.

“No matter where we’re playing, we’re still going to be giving 110 percent effort,” senior Alex Kadar said. “We’re going to be hitting the floor, we’re going to be trying to do everything we can to win the game.”

Alex Kadar goes up for a shot during Haddonfield boys basketball’s home opener against Egg Harbor Township on Dec. 27.

Despite the success on the road, both basketball teams were thrilled to finally play a game back at home. Walls said the energy for the girls team’s home opener was “so much better” than in the previous two years and noted how having games back in Haddonfield will make it easier for the team to fill the gym with fans.

“We’ve been playing with each other for so long and we’ve been equally waiting, we wanted to be in here so badly together,” Walls said. “To come together, with four of our five starters juniors, it was really special.”

Cerrato feels Haddonfield’s gym provides an intimate setting unlike any other in the region. While renovations to the gym led to exterior wall repairs, a new floor and a fresh coat of paint, most of the unique features of the original gym still remain, including the bleachers running right up against the sidelines and the low hanging lights and speakers that sometimes interfere with high-arching, desperation shots at the buzzer.

“I think it’s key,” Cerrato said of the home court advantage. “There’s a lot of people cheering us on, our parents, friends, family and obviously the student section. It really helps us when we’re in the game and also before the game knowing that they’re there supporting us.”

Haddonfield is hoping to make more memories this season. It’s fitting for Haddonfield’s basketball teams to move back home as both teams lost multiple key players to graduation and feature young rosters who are eager to etch their own place in the school’s storied history.

Haddonfield girls basketball head coach Jackie Mulligan talks to her team following a practice last Monday in Haddonfield’s newly renovated gym.

“They’re starting here,” Smart said of the girls team’s underclassmen. “This is their starting point. It’s just about growing onto that history and keeping that history going.”

“A lot of great players have come through here,” Kadar added. “We want to show what we can do. We’re just trying to win another state championship.”