The turning point of the Washington Township girls basketball season came in the most heartbreaking moment of the season.
About four weeks after being blown out by undefeated Cherokee on Jan. 3, the Minutemaids were on the verge of shocking the Chiefs at home on Jan. 30. With Washington Township leading by one with just six seconds left, Cherokee’s Amani Reed stole a Washington Township inbound pass. A desperation shot by the Chiefs came up short, but Cherokee’s Kennedy Wilburn managed to get to the rebound and tip it up into the basket just before the buzzer sounded. The tip-in gave the Chiefs a 28-27 win and kept their undefeated season alive.
“We know Cherokee is the No. 1 team in South Jersey,” Washington Township head coach Jenn Natale said. “They’re in our division. We have so much respect for them and I think when the kids saw that we ran with them … I think that’s where our mentality changed.”
Since that Cherokee loss, Washington Township has picked up a number of quality wins over conference opponents. The Minutemaids’ 38-23 win over Eastern last Tuesday was the team’s sixth victory in its last eight games. All six of Washington Township’s wins in that stretch were by 14 or more points, and their only two losses were a two-point defeat against defending South Jersey Group 4 champion Lenape and an 11-point loss to one of the top Non-Public teams in the region, Paul VI.
“Our team chemistry has just been on point every game,” senior Julia Marino said about the team’s improvement. “Playing together for so long, we just know each other’s movements and passes and that is definitely going to help us in the state tournament, knowing each other’s every move.”
Washington Township’s senior-heavy roster is playing well at the right time. The No. 5 seeded Minutemaids are scheduled to open the South Jersey Group 4 playoffs at home against No. 12 Hammonton next Tuesday, and the seniors are determined to lead the team on its first long playoff run in seven years. The last time Washington Township advanced past the second round of the playoffs was 2013, the year of the Minutemaids’ last sectional title.
“We’ve had a goal since the beginning of the season,” senior Emily Johns said. “We’re going to continue to fight to reach that goal.”
The Minutemaids’ recent improvement is evident in a number of areas. The team’s defense has been stellar as of late, holding the majority of opponents in the last 10 games to 30 or fewer points. In the loss to Cherokee, the Minutemaids held the Chiefs to a season-low 28 points. Last Tuesday against Eastern, the story was similar: Washington Township held the Vikings to a season-low 23 points. This came about a month after Eastern scored 60 on the Minutemaids in a nine-point victory over Washington Township in Voorhees.
“We knew the first time we didn’t have our best game,” Johns said of the first game against Eastern. “Collectively, it didn’t fall our way. We’ve come together as a team and as a family.”
“We’re just gritty too,” Marino added. “A (defensive) stop is as good as a basket and with that mentality, we have great success.”
Johns and Marino are four-year varsity players who have left a lasting mark on the Minutemaids’ program. Johns has led Washington Township in scoring all four of her years with the team and is averaging 16 points per game in 2019-20, while Marino has been a leader at the point guard position and is third on the team in scoring this season.
The improvement of two juniors also has helped Washington Township take a step forward. One year after scoring just 61 points for the entire season. Jessica Lee has emerged as a solid secondary scoring option, averaging 8.5 points per game in 2019-20. Taylor Attanasi has also earned more playing time for Washington Township this year on the back of her solid instincts and ball-handling skills. The two complement a senior core led by Johns, Marino, Katie McCusker and Rachel Roda.
“Kids like Jess and Taylor, they get to work with (the seniors) in practice and they just feed off of them,” Natale said. “They feed off of their energy and knowledge and leadership. Jess and Taylor, we’ve asked them to step up this year for us. Moving forward, their contributions are so important.”
Washington Township will play in a South Jersey Group 4 tournament loaded with talented teams. In addition to undefeated No. 1 seed Cherokee, the bracket includes defending sectional champion Lenape as the No. 2 seed and SJIBT-finalist Clearview as the No. 3 seed. The Minutemaids believe they’re flying under the radar and it’s a position they want to be in.
“We know we don’t get the recognition,” Natale said. “That doesn’t mean anything to these kids. They just enjoy playing together. They’ve looked forward to this opportunity for so long and they don’t want to let it pass them by.”