PISCATAWAY – They are forgiven for not bringing the Group 1 state championship trophy to the post-game press conference.
“Sorry, we are a little excited.” Mark DiRugeris, the first-year coach of the Woodbury High School boys’ basketball team.
The Thundering Herd created the most excitement in the program’s history by winning its first state title Sunday evening with a 60-58 win over Cresskill at Rutgers University.
“I’m excited for the whole city,” added DiRugeris, a former player for the Herd. “But I wasn’t the one out there on the court playing.”
Aaron Estrada etched his name in Woodbury lore when he sank two free throws with 4.2 seconds remaining to deliver the coveted inaugural state title.
“It feels good to be the man,” said Estrada, who set off a joyous celebration among the Woodbury fans at the Louis Brown Athletic Center after scoring a game-high 23 points.
Woodbury’s historic win finished a clean sweep for South Jersey on Sunday as earlier in the day Shawnee won the Group 4 title and Haddonfield claimed the Group 2 championship. It was the sixth state crown for both programs.
“I guess after today that has to give South Jersey a little more respect,” DiRugeris reasoned.
Woodbury (21-11) is the No. 6 seed in the Tournament of Champions and will play No. 3 seed Shawnee on Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. at Toms River North High School. The winner will play No. 2 seed Don Bosco Prep, which has a first round bye, on Thursday in the T of C semifinals at Toms River North.
Cresskill (29-3) had won 23 straight before losing to Group A state champion Don Bosco Prep in the Bergen County tournament. The last time Cresskill played in the Group 1 title game was 2002. The Herd denied the Cougars their first title in five state final appearances.
Last year, the Thundering Herd was on the short end of a 69-54 count to Verona. However, Woodbury, which finished 26-6, did claim its first South Jersey title since 2010.
So the stage seem set for a resurgence of basketball at the Gloucester County school. However, Woodbury coach Justin Barringer resigned and the Thundering Herd had to replace Ja’Zere Noel, who scored 27 points in the finals last year.
So the Herd started over with a first-year coach in DiRugeris and with Estrada as the only returning starter back.
The 6-foot-1 junior averaged 21 points this season after averaging 17.4 points last year, so he improved and so did his teammates – senior forward Marcus McGruder, junior guard Tommy Carter, junior forward JayShawn Harvey and sophomore guard Andre Parker.
“He did a phenomenal job,” said DiRugeris, who played on the Herds’ sectional title team in 2010, about Estrada. “Every game he got more and more comfortable with his teammates.”
Estrada looked as comfortable as playing a pickup game in the Herds’ gym when he got the ball on an inbounds play with seven seconds left near half court. He immediately drove to the basket and pulled up at 14-feet when he was fouled.
“Coach told me to go to the basket,” said Estrada, who scored 30 points in the state semifinal 59-46 win over Point Pleasant Beach.
This was just the fourth visit to the championship game for the Thundering Herd, also losing in 2010 to University in the Group 1 final and in 1934 to Ridgefield Park in the Group 3 title game.
Woodbury built a double-digit lead early in the second quarter when Tommy Carter sank a jumper for a 22-10 advantage. But the Herd were outscored 10-3 in the final three minutes of the quarter and settled for a 31-30 lead at the break behind Estrada’s 10 points.
Cresskill immediately took the lead on a 3-pointer and the spread bulged to 41-35 when Woodbury called time with 4:41 left in the third quarter and the game slipping dangerously away.
The timeout only helped Cresskill as it responded with five straight points for a 46-35 lead. Estrada ended the quarter with two straight buckets, but Cresskill still held an eight-point lead going into the final eight minutes.
The Herd switched into a 1-2-1-1 three-quarter court press and the Cougars unraveled. A jumper by Parker at the foul line tied the game at 56-56 with 2:45 left and Cresskill called timeout.
Estrada drove baseline for a two-point lead but Cresskill answered with a bucket to tie the game at 58-58 and with 30 seconds left DiRugeris called time out.
Another timeout with seven seconds left set the stage for Estrada’s heroics.
“Everyone knew I was going to get the ball,” said Estrada.
And he delievered everything but bringing the trophy to the press conference.
Cresskill 12 18 19 9 – 58
Woodbury 15 16 10 19 – 60
W: Aaron Estrada 23, Tommy Carter 5, Andre Parker 6, Hakim Thomas 2, JayShawn Harvey 15, Marcus McGruder 9.
C: Michael Ferrara 12, Harrison Lucibello 14, Luka Radovich 19, George Sikoryak 5, Ben Green 2, Wellington Ventura 6.