NEW PROVIDENCE, NJ – The Pioneer girls’ basketball team were living high in the middle of June. Close to three months after beating Haddon Township for the NJSIAA Group 1 title, New Providence already had plans for a repeat. And why not?
The best scorer in New Providence basketball history, Sydney Morang, was primed to return for her senior season, while her cousin, Katie Kinum, was also expected to be even better than she was during her sophomore season.
Then, in a matter of seconds right before school let out for the summer, Morang dropped a bomb shell that no one saw coming. The University of Florida commit was transferring to Florida’s IMG Academy for her senior season in preparation for college basketball.
The room was devastated. Shock set in on everyone, including head coach Cap Pazdera.
“You’re on cloud 9 when you win the championships,” Pazdera said. “Thinking about what we had coming back for the next year, you set your goals, you start thinking about what next season is going to be like. When somebody of Syndey's’s caliber tells you that she’s not coming back, it wasn't very easy for anybody, let alone her. I don't think she wanted to go either. It was a tough situation for everybody.”
Pazdera and his coaching staff went right back to the drawing board to try and come up with a plan to make the 2015-16 season as successful as the previous one…and they didn’t have to go far.
Similar to the boys’ team, the Lady Pioneers followed the “Next Man Up” mentality, putting this year’s squad in the hands of relatively new leaders, Kinum and the rest of her junior class.
“It's a lot different this year,” Kinum said. “Last year, towards the end, I became more of a “step-up” leader. Now, I think it is more apparent that is my role here. That's the one thing I really want to work on this year, that we’re really strong and united together. It definitely changed. Even coming in the first day of practice, you can see a change. All the juniors are in this role this year.”
Despite losing their best player in decades, New Providence still returns a star-studded lineup of contributing players with Kinum and Pazdera hoping to pull all the right strings. Sharpshooter Hannah Caminiti returns, 18 months removed from ACL surgery that forced her to fully return the Pioneers in the middle of last year.
Also returning for New Providence is the one most responsible for the Lady Pioneers’ victory over Haddon Township in the Group 1 Championship game, Sarah Zeto.
The now junior point guard scored six-second half points to seal New Providence’s title run.
Between Kinum, Caminiti, Zeto and Brielle Carleen, the Lady Pioneers are loaded with a junior class that already has experience playing in the big game. Now, its just a matter of getting the team to that position.
“All of our juniors have really stepped up,” Pazdera said. “Brielle [Carleen], Hannah [Caminiti], Katie [Kinum], Sarah [Zeto], they’re all kind of leading the way, leading the charge. Having the experience from last year, having a taste of it, knowing what it takes to get there, all four of them have showed up and kind of done a good job showing the younger girls what hard work is and what its going to take.”
This year’s New Providence team faces more challenges than just the loss of Morang. On top of moving to one of New Jersey’s premiere girls’ basketball sections, Central Jersey, Group 2, that features top-tiered programs like Rumson-Fair Haven and Manasquan, the Pioneers will also have no idea what to expect their opponents to do defensively.
While they grew accustomed to seeing double- and triple-teams when Morang was on the floor, that won’t be the case anymore. For the Pioneers to be successful, they need to be prepared for anything and everything.
“I don't know what to expect,” Pazdera said. “We’re preparing for it all. I’m hoping the double- and triple-teams won’t be as effective as they were last year. I think we’re a different team. There is more responsibilities on each of the girls’ shoulders as far as the offensive load is concerned. I think they’re ready to step up and handle it.”
Kinum and the rest of the Pioneers tip-off their season on Saturday when Cranford visits at 1 p.m.