High Schools: Emerson Boro 48 Wood-Ridge 36

Wood-Ridge, NJ - A small school, Wood-Ridge had its boys team mentioned in Sports Illustrated in 2006. Back then SI did a story on the dribble drive offense. They listed all colleges and high schools, by state, utilizing the uptempo three point shooting scheme. Wood-Ridge was one of them.

The girls program has not made their way into SI but over the years has been respectable. On this Friday night the Blue Devils host another small school, Emerson Boro.

Emerson Boro is coached by Colleen (Vogel) Malzahn. She starred at Emerson and later went to NJIT before transferring to St.Thomas Aquinas. In her freshman year at NJIT I interviewed her for an article about making the jump from a small high school to the challenge of Division I basketball. Later we reconnected when I had the pleasure of officiating a few games she coached in travel basketball. Malzahn, an educator by profession, started coaching right after college and is in her 11th year at Emerson Boro.

Her team has been playing well of late, coming off a 30-22 win at Rutherford on Wednesday in what she called, "an ugly game." Talking with her a few minutes prior to game time she talked about the low numbers in the program. "We have only 11 girls in the entire program," she said. Emerson Boro fields JV and varsity squads, with the JV filling out the varsity roster. "Some schools are having a hard time with numbers," she added. "I think it's all an effect due to Covid, which changed so many things."

Wood-Ridge starts fast. The Blue Devils win the tap and quickly score. Getting into a full court press they force an Emerson Boro turnover then bury a three pointer. Thirty seconds into the contest, the Cavos are looking at a 5-0 deficit. The visitors refuse to panic. They run their offense and convert. They come out in a full court press of their own, forcing a few Wood-Ridge turnovers. The Cavos, following that slow start, went on a 15-5 run to lead by four after one period.

On the high school level it is interesting to see what offenses, defenses and other adjustments coaches make during the course of the game. Wood-Ridge runs a cutter against the Emerson Boro zone. The Blue Devils are not afraid to shoot the three with the cutter working to get open or freeing teammates on the perimeter. Emerson Boro will shoot the three but operates more out of a high-low set looking for opportunities inside. "We run some of the same offensive sets and plays that we used when I played at Emerson," Malzahn admitted.

Emerson led 27-21 at the half. Following a break that saw local travel team players invited to take the floor and shoot for prizes, Wood-Ridge came out scoring the first four points to narrow the deficit to two. Emerson Boro answered with a three pointer. The Cavos are in man to man defense. Wood-Ridge, changing defenses all night to keep Emerson Boro off balance, has used pressure, a 2-3 and 2-2-1 zone. Emerson Boro runs some nice sets after timeouts and on inbounds plays. There are looks but not everything falls. Emerson Boro was able to take a 33-30 lead into the final period.

Two three pointers highlight a 10-0 run that affords the visitors some breathing room. If the break is there they will run. With the lead though, they are not rushing things as the clock is their friend. Wood-Ridge managed just six points in the final period as Emerson Boro secured the 48-36 victory. The final period saw each team use 15 possessions with Emerson Boro enjoying a substantial edge in offensive efficiency (points per possession times 100) by a 100-40 count. Emerson Boro , now on a three game winning streak, improved to 11-15 while Wood-Ridge is now 12-12.

"I think we are playing very well," Malzahn said after the victory. "I think now is a good time to be playing well as we start the (NJ) state tournament with a game Monday at Boonton." She is looking at improvement on the defensive side and in rebounding. A few players stood out on this night as Emerson Boro earned their third straight victory.

Victoria Sterinsky tied Kayla Elek for team scoring honors with 14 points. "She (Sterinsky) missed a few but she has a beautiful shot," Malzahn praised. Caroline Friedman enjoyed an eight point 10 rebound effort. "She (Friedman) is undersized for an inside player," Malzahn observed, "she gave us some good defense and rebounding tonight."

After defeating Rutherford on Wednesday there was one day of preparation for coach Christopher Lovermi’s Blue Devils, Emerson Boro faced a tough task. Normally the day following a game you want a light workout. That was not the case. "We had to have a regular practice," Malzahn said. "Wood-Ridge runs a lot of different defenses so we had to be ready. Plus we had to scrimmage against the plays we felt they would run. It was a practice to focus on our next opponent."

The lack of preparation time is something all New Jersey schools face. Since the NJSIAA governing body decreed the season would end earlier, teams regularly face three games in a week.

"It’s tough for everyone," Malzahn said. "It’s really difficult for a small school. With practices and games it feels like you have no days off." The state wanted more time between seasons, thus the earlier finish. "Our girls ended their soccer season in early November," Malzahn said. "That gave me more pre-season and weight room time with them. I would like to scrimmage some New York state teams (given Emerson Boro’s Northern New Jersey location) but I can’t because they start their regular season earlier than we do in New Jersey."

The situation has been criticized by coaches throughout the state. More games per week, less practice time, almost no time for recovery of young bodies- all adds up to injuries and./or kids playing hurt. No to mention the academic challenges for the student/athletes. "With our two (Bergen) county tournament games we have had 26 games," Malzahn pointed out. Monday, the state tournament opener will make it number 27. After the Friday win, no time off. The team would be back in the gym Saturday and Sunday to prepare for Boonton.

The upside is being in the state tournament and , as the coach pointed out, playing your best basketball at a most opportune time.