TOP OF THE HEAP: After enduring COVID-19 protocols and returning to action just a week or so before the NJSIAA South Jersey Group II, then losing three of four matches to end the regular season, the Pinelands Regional girls volleyball team ran off four straight wins to capture its first-ever sectional title in April. (Photo by David Biggy)
While 2021 wasn’t quite as wild and wacky as 2020 with regard to the local sports scene, it hiccuped along for a few months before things largely returned to some sense of normalcy. For the most part, what was lost during the latter half of 2020 had come back to order, and 2021 turned out to be a great year for local athletic teams and individuals.
No need for more commentary. Here are The SandPaper’s Top 20 Sports Stories of 2021:
20. Still Hanging Around – In 2020, COVID-19 wreaked havoc on all things, especially local sports. And while that impact stretched into 2021, it was lessened to a large degree, as most sports returned to normal once the spring arrived. Still, until about the end of April, the pandemic had a significant presence.
With a need for shorter seasons, most of the standard winter sports didn’t start until at least mid-January. Girls volleyball and gymnastics, which had been pushed back from the fall season by the NJSIAA along with wrestling, didn’t get their seasons underway until March, and all “Season 2, 2A and 3” schedules were limited to a mere six weeks. However, even though all the teams had to deal with a COVID-19 impact of some kind, the seasons were completed and the spring sports season, played in its entirety, came back under more normal circumstances, as did the fall season.
19. Don’t Call It a Comeback – Anybody driving along Hilliard Boulevard in Manahawkin during the summer would have seen how hard the Southern Regional boys cross-country runners were working. They logged a lot of miles, and it translated into a great season, especially considering the team consisted of an entirely new top-five following the graduations of some great runners, including former star Jackson Braddock.
BEAST MODE: As a sophomore, Southern’s Fabian Gonzalez arrived to the track and field scene during the spring and simply lit it up, winning the sectional and group discus titles before snatching the Meet of Champions crown and placing fourth in the Outdoor Nationals competition in June. (Photo by David Biggy)
Nonetheless, the Rams reloaded the guns and ran some awesome races. Fabian Ramales, Levi Miller, Santino D’Amelio, Andrew Bowker, Kyle Skiendzielewski and Christian Schiattarella – the oldest among them being juniors – all finished among the top 13 to cruise to the Ocean County championship, then two weeks later finished second right behind a strong Cherokee squad in the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV meet. The team finished seventh in the Group IV meet and ended the season in the Meet of Champions.
18. Perfect Again – Coming off the previous season, there was no doubt about the strength of both the Southern Regional boys and girls swim teams. Coach Bill Entrikin’s girls had more experience with a bunch of seniors, while coach Patrick Craig’s boys had just one senior. Still, the Rams were stacked with depth, talent and largely at full strength throughout the short season.
And what a season it was, again! Both teams went into their final meet of the season, against Toms River South, with undefeated records and simply threw down the hammer against the Indians, also undefeated heading into the season finale. Led by seniors Kaylyn Iusan, Mya Pierson and Phoebe Sprague, the Southern girls won, 107-63, to cap their 6-0 season. The boys, led by senior Beck Jaffe, scored a 100-70 victory, also to finish perfect. It was the second straight year both teams won the Shore Conference Class A South division while going undefeated for the regular season.
17. Southern Sailors Win Big – After Brielle Willoughby graduated the year before, senior sailor Bridget Green had new teammates for the 2021 spring season, Chloe Witt and Natalie Shaw, and the trio had to get acclimated to each other. Of course, Green, a seasoned and talented sailor, had little trouble skippering them, and it showed during a second-place finish in the New Jersey Interscholastic Sailing Association Girls Championship regatta in May.
SHE REPRESENTS: Valarie Allman may call Barnegat Light home for short periods throughout a year, but that makes her a local to us, and her gold medal performance in the discus during the Tokyo Olympics gave us a reason to cheer. (Supplied Photo)
However, just days later, the Rams went a notch higher, by outracing not just Jersey champ Ranney, but 13 other teams to capture the Mid-Atlantic championship, a mammoth 18-race competition in Oyster Bay, N.Y. Combining Witt or Shaw with Green for certain sets, coach Steve Warren’s group swiped first during the final two races of the first day, then scored three victories during the first five races of the second day to take enough of a lead to hold off Ranney later in the regatta.
16. At the Top of Her Game – Southern gymnast Ava Kelly has been great for years, starting straight out of the gate with her freshman season a few years back. But Kelly had a different kind of year in 2021. Yes, she continued to be a leader and the Rams’ best overall competitor, but all the shifting caused by the pandemic cut down her opportunities against the Shore Conference’s and state’s best – mainly because her junior season, contested over a brief six weeks in March and April, had only a handful of meets and nothing beyond a regular season.
Nonetheless, as the situation returned to a more normal routine for the fall season, Kelly remained at the top of her game and led an almost entirely new crew of gymnasts at Southern (more on their accomplishments as a team a bit later). Kelly capped her stellar career by winning the floor exercise title at the NJSIAA South Jersey meet, scoring a 9.5 to edge Washington Township’s Isabella Nelli, took fifth on the vault, sixth on the uneven bars, and placed seventh overall with an all-around score of 36.65.
15. Vikings Still Reign – There’s no question lifeguard tournaments were missed in 2020, and heading into the summer of 2021 the one question on many minds was whether the Harvey Cedars Beach Patrol could continue its run as the best competition squad on Long Beach Island. The dynamics of all the beach patrols changed during the pandemic, and whether Cedars had been hurt by the hiatus still had to be determined.
GREAT FINISH: Southern Regional wrestler Eddie Hummel had reason to celebrate early in the spring. He ended his great career by reaching the 138-pound state final and finished as the runner-up by falling short in a four-overtime contest to three-time champ Joey Olivieri. (File photo by David Biggy)
In short, it hadn’t. The Vikings were as powerful as ever, as they won tournament after tournament leading up to the big event – the Island Championship, which they had won for five straight years before 2020’s competition season was buried in the sand by COVID-19. Still, no other patrol on LBI was going to roll over for Cedars, particularly Barnegat Light, which held a one-point lead going into the final event. It took a comeback win by Ryan Corcoran, Shane Stauffer and Pat Stasio in the Surf Dash Relay to give HCBP its sixth straight Island tourney title, tying it with The Light for the longest win streak in tournament history.
14. Fire on the Links – Without a spring season the year before, the Southern Regional girls golf team had done a lot of work on its own to get better, but Jeff Reilly, taking the reins of the girls program for the first time, wasn’t quite sure how that would translate in 2021. Turns out it translated very well. Perfectly, in fact.
Mary Kate Reilly, Julie Simms, Julia Joannides, Megan Caputo, Erica Scheinberg and Madelyn Beirne first captured the Ocean County championship for the first time in program history. A week later, the Rams tied for fourth in the Shore Conference Tournament – the team’s best finish ever against the conference’s best. Later in the season, Southern won the Shore Conference Class A South title for the first time, finished 10th overall in the NJSIAA South Jersey sectional and finished undefeated at 13-0.
13. Wildcats Do Damage – Two years ago, the Pinelands Regional boys tennis team made this list for reaching the NJSIAA South Jersey Group II final. Of course, the Wildcats didn’t have the opportunity to get back to the sectional championship last year because of COVID-19, which forced all spring sports into exile. But heading into the 2021 season, coach Brian Jones wasn’t sure how the chips would fall, whether his team was good enough to get back to that level yet again.
GOING FAR: Southern wrestler Conor Collins made the most of an abbreviated season in 2021, reaching the 113-pound state final before falling in overtime to Brick Memorial’s Evan Tallmadge. (Photo by David Biggy)
The answer arrived later in May when the Wildcats – who had placed second in the Ocean County Championships after sending two singles players and both doubles teams to their respective finals – knocked off Lacey, scored an upset of second-seeded West Deptford and bounced Seneca in the sectional semifinals to reach the championship for a second straight season. The difference this time was the Wildcats had an almost entirely different group of starters, save first singles player Brian Delbury, who was in that position as a freshman in 2019.
12. Southern Gymnasts Go Higher – As we’ll see going forward, 2021 was a great year for many local teams and individuals. It was no different for the Southern Regional gymnastics squad. Earlier in the year, seniors Maria Mezzo, Hailey Klimas, Ali English and crew had a very good season, albeit short. After the Rams graduated a large senior class, Ava Kelly and Emma Wasacz were left in the fall to lead a largely new varsity squad.
Fortunately, Liliana Foote, a senior who hadn’t competed in high school due to a loaded club schedule in previous years, joined the team, giving the Rams some veteran clout. But new coach Paige Peragine also had a slew of incoming freshmen expected to make impacts. Those impacts were immense, and the Rams ended up having their best season ever. Not only did they win the division for the first time since 2003, but the Rams defeated longtime nemesis Brick Memorial in the process and finished undefeated with a 10-0 record. Oh, and they also tallied their highest team score in program history – a 111.025 against Toms River East to secure the Class A South crown.
HISTORIC MOMENT: The Barnegat girls volleyball team in the fall captured the NJSIAA South Jersey Group II championship, making it just the second sectional title in school history and first by a girls athletic program. (Photo by David Biggy)
11. Back Near the Top – For four of the previous five years, Stafford Township native Martin Truex Jr. had been among the top drivers in the NASCAR Cup Series. Following last season, when he didn’t reach the Championship 4, the question heading into this year was whether Truex could climb back to pre-COVID status. At the outset of the 2021 season, it didn’t look too promising. However, after a bit of a slow start, Truex picked up steam and grabbed a few victories by the end of September, gaining enough points to make the Cup Series playoffs with relative ease.
From there, Truex did enough to stay in contention through each of the early rounds – first by winning the Federated Auto Parts 400 in Richmond, then squeezing out enough points and grabbing fourth in the final race of the third playoff round to qualify for the finale in Phoenix. Unfortunately, a bad pit stop late in the championship race allowed Kyle Larson to get to the front and remain there, Truex finishing as the runner-up for a third time in four years.
10. Defining “Normal,” as Usual – Two years ago, it was fairly big news that the Southern Regional boys volleyball team didn’t reach the NJSIAA state championship match after 10 straight trips, and last year the spring season was canceled due to the pandemic. So, when the 2021 season arrived, it seemed the only goal for the Rams was to get back to the title match, especially given the number of seniors on the squad.
Well, let’s make this easy. Southern buried Shore Conference Class A South rival Jackson Memorial – the third victory of the season against the Jaguars – to capture its 11th sectional crown, then scored a 2-1 win over Fair Lawn to reach the final against a familiar foe in Old Bridge. Unfortunately, Tommy Deakyne, Dylan Lockwood, Ethan Case, C.J. Schmidt and crew weren’t able to thwart the Knights, losing a tight, 2-1 battle, and finished the season with a 30-2 record.
DOMINANT: After getting by three foes during the first three rounds of the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV tournament, the Southern Regional boys lacrosse team manhandled Monroe to capture the sectional title in June. (Photo by David Biggy)
Still, the fact the Rams made it back to the final match of the season – for an 11th time in their history, by the way – meant coach Eric Maxwell’s program was back to “normal.” A fitting theme for the spring season, really.
9. Overcoming Setbacks to Capture Crown – The Southern Regional girls volleyball team already had suffered a setback, having its 2020 fall season erased in lieu of an early spring campaign in 2021, which was limited to a mere 14 regular-season contests – far fewer than the Rams are used to playing in a season – before the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV tournament concluded it, again not typical.
But in the sectional tourney championship, the Rams faced another setback. Not only were they down by a game to host Cherokee, but they faced match point in the second game, down 24-22. In short, Southern needed some big plays from its veteran crew to swing the momentum. Well, it was junior Hailea Krause who delivered the next two points, before senior Emma Gildea gave the Rams the lead to stay.
After winning the second game, Southern senior setter Stephanie Soares went to the big gun, Rachael Pharo, who drilled three kills to launch the Rams into a third-game victory. Of course, Pharo finished off the Chiefs with a kill to the back left corner, giving the Rams, who finished 16-1, the sectional title.
8. Championship Efforts – The Southern Regional boys track and field team, as we’ll address in the next position, was stacked with talented athletes during the spring season. But except for one guy – senior distance star Jackson Braddock – it was a bit of an unknown how far the team had come in its development, considering the Rams didn’t have a spring season the year before.
SIMPLY AWESOME: Jackson Braddock (center, holding trophy) and Jaiden Brown (second from left) were among the big winners during the NJSIAA Group IV Championships, as they led the Southern boys track and field to the team title in June. (Photo by David Biggy)
By the time the NJSIAA Group IV Championships rolled around, it was clear the Rams were a contender for a team title. They just needed everybody to do his part. Braddock did his part extremely well, blazing through the 3,200-meter run in a meet record 8:48.64, finishing about 50 meters ahead of Ridge’s Jackson Barna – who ultimately exacted his revenge on Braddock a week later at the Meet of Champions – to win his first group title.
Meanwhile, elsewhere within the Franklin High School complex, junior Jaiden Brown, mostly known for his prowess from the backfield of the Southern football team in the fall, powered his way to a first group championship by making his first toss of 55 feet, 4½ inches in the shot put stick, beating out Westfield’s Braden Stryker by nearly 3 feet. Those two group-title efforts, helped lead to …
7. Southern Boys Light Up Group IV – In addition to the individual titles won by Braddock and Brown, coach Scott Baker’s Southern boys track and field received plenty more outstanding efforts as it captured the Group IV team title – a first for the program – ahead of East Brunswick and Ridge.
Sophomore Fabian Gonzalez (more on him later) won the group championship in the discus with a top throw of 183 feet – also beating Stryker from Westfield – while senior Angel Santiago cleared a personal-best 14 feet in the pole vault for third place and the foursome of Mike Chanda, Jake Harrison, Andrew Bowker and Tim Sincavage grabbed second place in the 4×800-meter relay.
A week earlier, the Rams swiped the top spot in the South Jersey sectional meet, ahead of Rancocas Valley, as Gonzalez won both the discus and shot put titles, Santiago won the pole vault and Braddock won the 3,200 title, Brown took second in the shot put, and the 4×800 crew also snagged second. Harrison, Chanda, Andy Falletta and Dom Plesniarski finished third in the 4×400-meter relay, while Hank Gallacher and Gavin Lum scored fourth-place points in the javelin and 400-meter hurdles, respectively, and Nick Fabrizio took fifth in the javelin. The Rams also won the Ocean County title.
PULLING IT OFF: Facing match point twice, the Southern Regional girls volleyball team in April not only thwarted Cherokee, but ended up taking home the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV championship. (Photo by David Biggy)
6. Pamp’s Troops Prove Themselves – Heading into the spring, Southern Regional boys lacrosse coach John Pampalone reported his squad had a little experience, a lot of talent and a couple new dudes who transferred into the program and would be impact players. Of course, without a spring season the year before, it was hard to know exactly how the 2021 crew would respond to pressure situations, since many of them were new to the varsity level.
As the season moved along, the Rams showed flashes of brilliance and handled some of their tougher tests well. After being eliminated in the Shore Conference Tournament quarterfinals, a couple of bigger tests arrived, and that’s when Southern showed how much it had grown in just weeks. Anchored by a solid defense, the Rams cruised past Eastern and Howell during the first two rounds of the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV tourney, then bounced top-seeded Montgomery in the semifinals.
Up against a high-powered Monroe squad in the final, the Rams simply annihilated the Falcons in every facet of the game, scoring a 14-4 victory, as senior Luke Bruther and junior Ryan Sininsky each scored four times to lead a balanced offensive attack that buried eight goals during the second half while limiting Monroe to just one. Southern ended up falling to Hunterdon Central in the Group IV semifinals but finished with an excellent 16-5 record – all their losses to teams outside Ocean County.
5. Bengals Bring Home the Crown – Coming out of the spring, when the Barnegat girls volleyball squad had a limited but successful season – falling short against Pinelands (more on this team a bit later) in the state sectional tournament – it was clear the Bengals were on their way up as the fall season drew closer. Once there, the more experienced Bengals had a full schedule to further develop their chemistry.
Ultimately, that extra development proved to be the component the Bengals needed later in the fall when the state tournament rolled around again. As the second seed behind Pinelands, Barnegat went into the NJSIAA South Jersey Group II tourney with a chip on its shoulder and reached the final with a 2-0 victory over third-seeded Sterling in the semifinals.
ADD ANOTHER ONE: After the Southern Regional boys volleyball team captured an 11th NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV sectional championship, the Rams returned to the state final and ended up as the runner-up to Old Bridge. (Photo by David Biggy)
After fifth-seeded Wall upended Pinelands, the Bengals ended up on their home court playing for a sectional crown. The Crimson Knights took it to the Bengals in the first game, winning 25-17. However, behind the play of Patria Moreno, Robbiann Erskine, Valencia Gosser, Ashley Berger, Avery O’Cone, Gianna Gerckens, Nina Soberano and Cassadi VanHorn, the Bengals rebounded to win the second game, 25-14, then finished off the Knights with another 25-14 score in the third game to capture the program’s first sectional title. It also was Barnegat High School’s second sectional crown in school history and the first by a girls athletic program.
4. Rams End as State Runners-up – Let’s face it, the wrestling season of 2021 was just weird. Not only did it start in mid-March – when during typical years it already would have been completed – it was highly limited in terms of dual-match competition, and the state tournaments were not so much watered down, but restricted in all kinds of ways, with limited fields due to the pandemic.
On top of that, the NJSIAA individual state championships weren’t in Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall, and fan attendance was restricted as well, kind of sucking the atmosphere out of the event. Nonetheless, even with a tight field – no doubt limited to the best of the best in each weight class (on paper, anyway) – competing in the state championship tourney is a big deal for every wrestler, and such was the case for Southern senior Eddie Hummel and sophomore Conor Collins.
After winning a region title, Hummel, considered all season to be a state-title contender at 138 pounds, scored three straight victories, all by decision, to reach the final against Hanover Park’s Joey Olivieri, who won a four-overtime decision, 3-2. Collins, a region champ at 113 pounds, also won his first three bouts by decision, then faced Brick Memorial’s Evan Tallmadge, who won an 8-7, overtime contest. Of course, given the season as it was and the ever-present unknowns of COVID’s impact, the fact the two Rams reached the state finals was an accomplishment in itself.
3. Striking Gold in Tokyo – Sure, the summer season turned out to be a fairly normal one in 2021. Lifeguard tournaments returned. Sailors were back in action. Swim teams were together again. And the Olympics … well, the Games returned as well, after being postponed in 2020 because of (what else?) the pandemic.
Now, Valarie Allman isn’t a full-time resident of Southern Ocean County, but her family owns property in Barnegat Light, and she and her family have frequented Long Beach Island for decades. So, from our standpoint at The SandPaper, Allman’s a local, and that boded well for us when it came to the Olympics because we had a reason to follow the women’s discus competition on Aug. 2, when Allman became only the third U.S. woman to win a gold medal in the event.
The only U.S. female to throw the discus more than 70 meters, the 26-year-old Stanford University graduate won with a top mark of 68.98 meters, or 226 feet, 3 inches, on her first throw of the finals during the evening session inside Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium. None among her competition, including defending Olympic champion Sandra Perkovic of Croatia, were close – Germany’s Kristin Pudenz took silver with a high mark of 66.86 meters.
2. Sophomore’s Sensational Spring – So what, or more accurately who, beats out an Olympic gold medalist in these Top 20? Well, obviously, there are two more spots to our countdown, but let’s stick with track and field throwers for the moment and talk about Fabian Gonzalez. The Southern Regional sophomore didn’t simply throw well for the boys track and field squad during the spring; he tore it up at the highest levels.
After not competing last year (by now, we all know why, yes?), Gonzalez showed up to the track in the spring in great physical condition, but he still needed some work on his technique, which, of course, he did with the help of throws coach Dylan Larson. Around midseason, we started to see the potential as Gonzalez first broke the school record in a dual meet before placing second in the Shore Conference Championships. But he wasn’t done.
Gonzalez continued his rise to bigger heights when he doubled in the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV meet, capturing both the discus and shot put titles, then went on to smoke the discus field in the Group IV meet with a throw of 183 feet – resetting his school record, of course, until the following week, when he not only topped out at 184 feet, 9 inches, but snatched the state title at the Meet of Champions by more than 4 feet.
Oh, but there’s more! Gonzalez placed fourth in the National Scholastic Athletics Foundation Outdoor Nationals, held inside Hayward Field Stadium in Eugene, Ore. He went to Eugene on June 30 and topped out at 56.82 meters, or 186 feet, 5 inches – his first throw of the meet and a personal best (and another school record) for the event. And remember, this kid didn’t have a freshman season. Boom!
1. Perfect Start, Perfect Finish for Pinelands – With three weeks to go in the abbreviated season – already pushed back from the fall to early in the spring by the NJSIAA – the Pinelands Regional girls volleyball team wasn’t even sure it was going to play another match. After going undefeated during the first week of the season, the Wildcats were sent into exile for two weeks because of COVID-19 protocols.
Fortunately, Pinelands returned to action with roughly nine days left to the regular season, but the Wildcats lost a couple of players along the way and ended up losing three of their last four contests, including a 2-1 defeat at the hands of nearby Shore Conference Class B South rival Barnegat, with the South Jersey Group II tournament looming. Things didn’t look good. With the sectional tournament condensed into about eight days, the Wildcats, with their 6-3 record, went in as the fifth seed and had to turn things around in a hurry.
After defeating Middle Township in the first round, Pinelands knocked off fourth-seeded Sterling on the road. Next up was eighth-seeded Barnegat, which had bumped off top-seeded Oakcrest in the quarterfinals. A 2-1 victory over the Bengals secured for the Wildcats a championship opportunity – the program’s first time playing for a sectional crown. Interestingly, Pinelands’ opponent was division rival Jackson Liberty, which the Wildcats defeated twice during the regular season.
Liberty jumped out to a 3-1 lead in the first game, but Molly Quigley-Sanborn, Olivia Anderson, Carly Brunke, Abigale Wood, Ciara Rheiner, Morgan Muller, Jayne Wilkinson and Bailey Lawrence turned things around and delivered a 25-18 win in the first game, followed by a 25-19 second game. Muller tallied three aces on four service points to finish off the Lions to capture the team’s first sectional championship.
The Wildcats had had a perfect start. They were knocked on their collective keister by COVID-19. Minus players, they limped into the state tournament, then mustered the perfect finish to make history. That’s how No. 1 is earned.