Following an exceptional 2020-’21 season that saw the Haddonfield girls basketball team defend their Colonial Conference title, during a season in which the Bulldawgs went 14-1 while also going undefeated in conference play, much of the credit was due to a senior-heavy and experienced varsity lineup.
Now, one year later, Haddonfield finds themselves more so on the rebuilding side of things.
“We were very fortunate to have seven great senior leaders last year,” head coach Jackie Mulligan said. “I think the unfortunate thing is that, due to COVID the past two years, some of our younger kids didn’t get a full season with them but they were around them long enough to understand the expectations this program has for them.”
Coming into the season, senior Sara Smith entered as the lone girl on the roster with a sizable chunk of varsity experience, having averaged approximately six points per game over the past two years while playing in nearly all of the teams 43 games during the seasons in which Haddonfield was back-to-back Colonial Conference champions.
Through the team’s first six games of this season, juniors Riley Mulligan and Brynn Bickel have come up big thus far in being the team’s leading scorers while also continuing to grow into larger leadership positions, despite seeing limited time on the floor coming into the season, according to their coach. Both Mulligan and Bickel played in parts of just four of the team’s 15 games last season.
“I think I’ve seen a lot of things from a lot of the girls early on, and in those two especially, in terms of on the court leadership and overall gameplay that hadn’t really ever been their role up until this point,” coach Jackie Mulligan said. “The expectations were for us to just work on the fundamentals and to continue to build on that with what we know is a young team right now.”
Smith — a standout athlete at Haddonfield for the girls soccer team — has plenty of experience playing in big games over the past three years, whether in basketball or soccer, and was looking forward to serving in more of a leadership role this season to a squad of mostly younger teammates.
“We kind of knew it was a turnaround season coming in and having had the chance to play closely with so many seniors last year, it kind of feels like they handed the leadership role down to me and I was looking forward to being there for them,” Smith said. “A lot of it is being there for them and making sure to lift each other up, on and off the court, while making sure we’re comfortable and confident and motivated out there. That will ultimately make us play our game better.”
Despite the obvious challenges it presents at first, with a largely new group finally getting their shot at the high school level, such an opportunity also presents a special chance for the next group to take over the program.
“It was definitely very different at first just because it was difficult getting in as many games as we could last year for Brynn and I with all the seniors that we had last year,” Riley Mulligan said. “I’ve known all these girls since we were little with all of us growing up together so it feels special for us to get our chance at this and to find our team chemistry out there together … we’ve been waiting for this exact moment for so long.”
The early part of this season has been a learning experience, according to the eighth year head coach, with the team lacking the varsity experience to take over in crunch time when the game reaches its final minutes. But exceptional defense and strong fundamentals has kept Haddonfield in all of their games thus far.
With this year’s experience, coupled with the leadership of players like Smith, Jackie Mulligan believes the new group of Haddonfield girls can be special if they continue to grow and work towards upholding the standard their once-teammates did before them not too long ago.
“I’ve seen this group’s leadership and basketball knowledge grow quite a bit in just the first six games, and with them knowing how successful we’ve been in the past, they don’t want to lose, and are doing what’s in their capacity to contribute,” Jackie Mulligan said. “Hopefully after this season they’re able to look back and see the things we might need a little more work on to motivate us to be even better moving forward.”