TOMS RIVER – After playing a season on the road and dealing with more injuries than an emergency room, the Haddonfield High School boys’ basketball team still found a way to overcome two more bouts with adversity Tuesday night.
Playing without one starter and with their best player battling illness, and falling behind powerful Nottingham by 10 points midway through the third quarter, the resilient Bulldawgs still found a way to take the lead in the fourth quarter in the Tournament of Champions quarterfinals Tuesday at Toms River North High School.
“Maybe we did lose our legs,” the Bulldawgs’ masterful coach Paul Wiedeman shrugged after a 64-52 loss to Nottingham. “But, it is that time of year. You do what we can.”
The Bulldawgs, the No. 5 seed and the Group 2 champs, pushed No. 4 seed Nottingham, the Group 3 state champs, back from absorbing body shots on the ropes to take a 50-48 lead early in the fourth quarter.
Haddonfield (29-4) scored six-straight points to open the final period on baskets by Ben Cerrato, Mike DePersia and Lewis Evans to stagger Nottingham (30-2).
But the Central Jersey champions answered with a 16-2 run over the final five minutes to earn a date against top-seeded Roselle Catholic on Thursday in the TofC semifinals here at the RWJ Barnabas Arena.
“We showed our character coming back,” Wiedeman added proudly, “but they had another gear.”
Haddonfield, though, still had its 62-45 win over Newark Central Sunday for the Group 2 state title to savor on its final bus ride of the season.
“They can’t take away our state title,” said DePersia, a terrific and tireless junior guard, who gutted out 12 points, seven rebounds and seven assists in playing all but 38 seconds despite being sick.
“I have something,” DePersia said afterwards.
The Bulldawgs were also playing without talented swingman Aiden Blake. But Haddonfield has been primed to stare down tough odds and somehow smile with grit between its teeth as the Bulldawgs played all their “home” games at Cherry Hill East this year since their historic gym was being refurbished.
Earlier in the season, after Haddonfield won its first 11 games, the Bulldawgs lost by three points to talented Wildwood Catholic without three injured starters in the Shoot Down Cancer Classic - DePersia, Dan Fleming and Mike Bond.
“We didn’t have a gym, guys have been sick and hurt all season, so it was like, ‘lets throw this at Haddonfield and see what they can handle,’ ” Wiedeman said.
Despite the enormous challenges, Haddonfield won 14 of its final 16 games as well as winning its sixth state title and first since 2006 when they won three-straight with 7-foot-1 Brian Zoubek, a dominating center who won a national championship at Duke.
“It was a journey,” Wiedeman said. “I told them how proud I am of them and their character that was revealed."
Haddonfield 11 17 16 8 - 52
Nottingham 18 13 17 16 - 64
H – Ben Cerrato 8, Dan Fleming 14, Dylan Heine 6, Will Bond 5, Mike Schroeter 2, Ben Schroeter 3, Lewis Evans 2, Mike DePersia 12.
N- Darrell Johnson 15, Ku’Jane Johnson 16, Richie Jones 17, Cliff Joseph 7, Kastro Montino 7, Deonte West 2.