NEWARK – As the minutes dwindled down and the outcome of the girls’ state basketball championship game was no longer in doubt, they started to rise. One by one, Ursuline’s reserves tapped the scorer’s table and waited for a whistle, and their names would be added to the scoresheet signifying that, yes, they had appeared in the final.
Raiders coach John Noonan said it was very important for him to get as many girls into the game as he could, and this year that meant the entire roster. Last season, he said, he was unable to get one of his seniors into the lineup. She had been injured during the playoffs, but that should not have made a difference, he added.
It bothered Noonan a great deal.
“I felt really, really guilty. I should have put her on the floor. I made a monumental mistake, and I don’t plan on making that mistake again,” he said.
“You learn lessons in life, and I definitely did.”
So, with 1:54 to go, senior Kiara Stovall came in. Twenty-one seconds later, she was at the free-throw line, where she connected on a pair of shots. She will graduate this spring as part of three state champions, but that is only part of what she will remember about Ursuline.
“I love it here at Ursuline. I love the girls,” she said. “We all support one another and encourage one another. Everything is a family at Ursuline. I love this program. Everybody welcomed me, motivated me in practice and in games and cheered me on. I think that really helps this program.”
Abby Rzucidlo was next in, along with Allie Olmstead. For Olmstead, a junior, it was her third state title in three seasons, but, she said, her first appearance in a final.
“I like it. It feels great. It’s such a different atmosphere,” she said.
Just as the starters are quick to recognize the contributions of everyone on the roster, Olmstead returned the praise.
“We put in a lot of effort and work, and we all get better individually because there’s so much talent. They just make us better and make the team better as a whole,” she said.
Her classmate, Val Cradler, replaced Kryshell Gordy with 1:18 to go. Like Olmstead, this was her first appearance in a final. She also has three titles to her name.
Cradler said she watches how hard everyone works at practice no matter what their pedigree is or what their future holds, and that makes her work just as much.
“Start, for example, with Maggie Connolly, who’s in the gym every single day grinding and doing her best. It’s so worthwhile for me to see them so happy. I love it,” she said.
Courtney Brown and Ana Olszewski checked in, followed by two freshmen, Maxine String and Whitney Grinnage-Cassidy, who got on the board with two free throws for Ursuline’s final points of the night. Every one of them is important, Noonan said.
“They work hard, and they happen to be on a team that has some talent, so they’re behind some other kids. But without them, we’re not where we are today,” he said.
The feeling is mutual, Cradler noted. “It’s absolutely a special program, and John mentions it all the time that we’re so lucky and blessed with so many great fans that support us. It’s a great group of girls who are so interlocked. I love it. I wouldn’t change it for anything.”