The SandPaper’s Top 20 Sports Stories of 2016, Part 1

By DAVID BIGGY | Dec 28, 2016
Courtesy of: Michelle Green The Southern Regional sailing team, which this past fall included (from left) Emily and Dana Haig, Emily Micciche, Paul Reiff and Tommy Green, had a phenomenal season, winning the New Jersey Fall Fleet title and finishing sixth in the Atlantic Coast Championship.

Wow! What a sports year in Southern Ocean County!

At the outset of developing The SandPaper’s Top 20 Sports Stories of 2016, it seemed there might not have been enough to fill the entire lineup. But as the review of what had occurred throughout the year continued for a few days, it was obvious – when considering some of the big stories surrounding both teams and individuals, at so many varying levels of sports – it was an outstanding year and we had far more than needed to fill the spots.

Of course, then we had to narrow the field to 20, which was a bit of a chore. However, we’re comfortable with our list, and we hope you are, too. No need to bore you with any further details. Let’s get right to the action and give you the second half of the Top-20:

20. Big Season on the Tennis Court – Heading into the spring scholastic sports season, most who knew anything about the local boys tennis squads probably could have guessed with some legitimacy that Pinelands Regional was going to have a good season. But how good was the bigger guess.

Well, the Wildcats sure made a lot of noise in April and May, racking up 20 victories. But they really rattled some cages during the NJSIAA South Jersey Group II tournament, when they knocked off three opponents and reached the sectional final. After capturing the Shore Conference Class B South division title, Pinelands started off its run in the state tourney with a 4-1 win over Deptford in the first round, followed by a 5-0 victory against Cedar Creek in the quarterfinals.

In the semifinals, Delran won the first two singles matches, but third singles player Jordon Humphreys, along with the doubles teams of Austin Hart and Donny Roberts and Michael LaRoche and Adam Raynor, scored victories to send the Wildcats to the final with a 3-2 win. Against perennial powerhouse Haddonfield, Pinelands finally got knocked off. But finishing with 20 wins is most teams’ dream season on the tennis court. The following week, Pinelands took third in the Ocean County Tournament as well.

19. Turnaround Season for Football Team – As the football season got underway, it was no secret that Pinelands Regional had hit a lull during recent years. But this season, head coach Brian Wilkinson was expecting to see some sort of a turnaround with his Wildcats, and even more so after nearly losing his position as coach during the summer.

With losses to Point Pleasant Borough, Marlboro and Lacey, the Wildcats started off 0-3. But Pinelands scored a 36-12 victory over Keansburg during Week 4 and then ran off three more victories – a 22-20 win over Donovan Catholic, a 20-15 win over Manchester and a 21-0 shutout of Jackson Liberty – to go above the .500 mark for the first time in a long time.

However, the winning streak was ended by Lakewood in a 22-13 contest, and the Wildcats then lost their last two games of the season, including an overtime loss to Steinert in an NJSIAA regional crossover game and the annual Thanksgiving game against Barnegat, a 29-28, come-from-behind win for the Bengals. Still, with a record of 4-6, there’s no doubt the Wildcats returned to a level of respectability that could breathe some new life into the program.

18. Career Season for Former Star Gesicki – The Penn State University football team has become a top-10 squad again, and the Nittany Lions are even going to the Rose Bowl to cap a tremendous season. And regardless of what occurs against USC on Jan. 2, former Southern star Mike Gesicki may have solidified his chances of a professional career following his collegiate stint.

Heading into the Rose Bowl, Gesicki has tallied 47 receptions for 668 yards, an average of 14.2 yards per catch, and four touchdowns, which is a career season for the junior tight end from Manahawkin. What’s more, his 47 snags set a single-season record for a tight end at PSU, and his 668 yards also made a single-season mark.

Not only has Gesicki helped fortify the passing attack at Penn State, but he was instrumental in helping the Nittany Lions capture the Big Ten championship during a 38-31 win over Wisconsin on Dec. 3. Late in the first quarter, Gesicki caught a 33-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Trace McSorley to cut the Badgers’ lead to 14-7. He ended up with three receptions for 58 yards.

17. Soccer Success in Southern Ocean County – Last season, the only boys soccer team in Southern Ocean County that had any amount of success resided at Pinelands Regional High School. But heading into this season, it had been a really long time since two boys squads were good. Too long, in fact.

But all that changed this past fall, when the Wildcats had their best season in school history and Southern Regional had its best season in nearly three decades. Pinelands ended up 16-5 after falling, 1-0, against Central Regional – which had defeated Southern twice during the regular season in Shore Conference Class A South play – in the NJSIAA South Jersey Group III quarterfinals, but its 16 victories were a single-season record. Meanwhile, the Rams went 11-8, eclipsing the 10-win mark for the first time since 1989, when new head coach Guy Lockwood was a senior.

And even better, also for the first time in several decades, Southern Ocean County had two representatives in the Shore Conference Tournament, since both teams were above the .500 mark as of this year’s eligibility cutoff date. We’re hoping that’s a good sign for next year, too.

16. Southern Girls Continue Winning Tradition – Some things are simply made to go together. Peanut butter and jelly. Oreos and milk. Kramden and Norton (you Honeymooners fans will get it). The same goes for the word “winning” and Southern Regional girls basketball – they just belong in the same sentence.

Of course, head coach Tom Bucci, like his mentor and predecessor Kathy Snyder, expects nothing less of his squad from one season to the next. And once again, the 2016 season was a winning one. The Rams first captured the Shore Conference Class A South division title for a second straight year, going 13-1, and then scored a victory in the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV tournament before having their season ended by Rancocas Valley.

Led throughout the season by seniors Bianca Nicolini and Morgan Henderson, along with receiving some big games from Shauna McHale down the stretch, the Rams finished with a 19-8 record.

15. Another Solid Hockey Season for Wildcats – In 2015, the Pinelands Regional field hockey team needed a victory over Jackson Liberty in its last Shore Conference Class B South contest of the season just to share the division crown. Almost a year later, on Oct. 20, the Wildcats and Lions met yet again with the division title on the line.

The difference this past fall was a Pinelands victory meant an outright division championship, since Liberty had both a loss and a tie on its record heading into the contest. Chloe Schulze scored the only goal, assisted by Brianna Suralik, during the game’s 60 minutes, giving Pinelands its second straight division title.

But the season didn’t end with the division crown. The Wildcats ended up winning a Shore Conference Tournament preliminary-round contest as the 12th seed before getting bounced and, as the third seed, reached the NJSIAA South Jersey Group II semifinals before being knocked off by defending champ West Deptford, finishing 13-6.

14. Local Softball Team Has Big Finish – Often, when a team is comprised of players who had never played together, a season becomes a bit of a roller coaster ride. But the Stafford Stingrays 12-and-under softball squad had quite a lot of success during the summer, and literally saved their best for last.

Heading into the USSSA Fastpitch Northeast “C” World Series in late July, the young Stingrays were an unknown crew from the Jersey Shore, embarking on uncharted waters for them. But manager Mike Sarnoski’s “purple team from Jersey” turned some heads in Sterling, Va., going 1-1 in pool play before buzzing through four opponents en route to the championship series, where they faced off against the Mount Laurel Storm and lost the first two of a possible three-game series.

Coached by Howie Greenblatt, Tom Michaels, Steve Lally and Rich Tunney, the squad was comprised of Sarah Lally, Gianna Carmen, Cristina Barbella, Arianna Loftus, Abigail Tunney, Makayla Alessi, Kristen McConekey, Annika Asuncion, Abby Bopp, Arden Greenblatt, Kristen McConekey, Erin Magsamen and Jenna Sarnoski.

13. Cheer Squads’ Success at Nationals – Reaching a national tournament in any sport is a worthy accomplishment. Doing well and placing high amid the best competition in the country is another matter altogether. And for several Southern Ocean County cheer squads in 2016, the UCA National Championships was their stage on which to shine.

At Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando, Fla., both the Pinelands Regional and Barnegat cheer squads made the most of their visits during late February. In the Medium Varsity Non-Tumbling division, the Wildcat cheerleaders placed third, while the Bengal cheerleaders snagged a fifth-place finish in the Medium Varsity Division II.

Pinelands’ squad was led by seniors Madison Dean, Kayla Ricthings, Rosie Mick, Nicole Benya, Shelby Craig, Ashley Lambert and Kyrstin Cirulli. Ashleigh Schnelker, Makenna Thomas and Erin Lucas were juniors, while sophomores included Jade Rhodes, Emily Ruehle, Haley Jackson, Hailey Thurston, Haley Jeannotte, Melissa Sikora, Brielle Paino and Allura Miller.

Barnegat’s squad was made up of seniors Victoria Bykow, Summer Cotler, Grace Cramer, Zahara Harris and Haley Iveson, juniors Alyssia Adorno, Selena Frusco, Cassie Kacso and Nikki Larkin, sophomores Britney Adams, Hannah Durling, Gianna Lavalle-Butler, Jaylene McGirr and Tori Scully, and freshmen Reannah Cooper and Gianna Spano. Alternates were Destiny Davidson, Mandi Frusco, Trinity Harris and Kacie Meyer.

12. Breakthrough Season for Truex Jr. – Local NASCAR fans had been waiting for years to see when Mayetta native Martin Truex Jr. would make his move into the upper echelon of Sprint Cup Series drivers. And in 2016, Truex had a breakthrough season, cementing his place among the sport’s best.

After snagging the checkered flag in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Memorial Day weekend, the Furniture Row Racing driver waited until Labor Day weekend to score his next victory in the Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. Once he earned a place in the Chase for the Championship, Truex put on a show during the first few weeks, automatically gaining a spot in the Round of 12 with a victory in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 400 at Chicagoland Speedway, then two weeks later leading an incredible 187 laps in the No. 78 car en route to victory in the Citizen Soldier 400 at his “home” track, Dover International Speedway.

Unfortunately, the Round of 12 is where Truex’s Chase for the Championship road ended and he ultimately finished 11th in the Sprint Cup final standings. Still, four victories, eight top-5 finishes and 17 top-10 finishes, along with five pole positions, was, by far, his best season to date.

11. Southern Sailing Squad Tears It Up – Two hallmarks of a successful team are its ability to positively navigate through adversity and consistency. And throughout its fall season, the Southern Regional sailing team excelled, and coach Steve Warren’s Rams seemed to have a knack for battling through difficult situations and did so consistently.

After sisters Emily and Dana Haig won four of the first five races en route to the New Jersey Interscholastic Sailing Association girls state championship in May, they returned to the team in the fall to lead a solid Rams crew that included Tommy Green, Emily Micciche and Paul Reiff. In early October, Emily Haig combined with Reiff while Green and Micciche worked in tandem to win the New Jersey Fall Fleet Championship regatta, earning a spot in the Middle Atlantic States Championship, where they finished seventh.

However, one of the teams that finished ahead of the Rams at the Middle Atlantic regatta wasn’t able to attend the Atlantic Coast Championship, so Southern was invited to compete in it for the first time in the program’s history. Amid a 20-boat field, the Rams managed a sixth-place finish behind the sailing prowess of the Haigs, Reiff, Micciche and Green, completing a season that Warren described as “the best we’ve ever sailed.” And, thus, the sailing Rams land in the middle of our Top-20.

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