Creek’s playoff journey ends with semifinal loss to Manasquan

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morgan Bill LeConey/Cedar Creek senior Morgan Stefanski talks to a reporter after her team's loss to Manasquan in a state semifinal. MONROE TOWNSHIP – The road to another state championship for the Cedar Creek Pirates hit a roadblock named Marina Mabrey on Wednesday night.

But for a group of girls that helped put the still-young Egg Harbor City school on the South Jersey sports map, there is plenty to be proud of.

“We definitely left a legacy,” said senior guard Mercina Stefanski after the Pirates lost to Manasquan, 65-48, in a New Jersey Group II state semifinal at Williamstown High School.

“I guess because we’re so hard on ourselves, we kind of think of ourselves as just average players, but when you look at what we’ve accomplished, our team is more than average. Our goal this year was to win a (South Jersey) Group II, and we worked so hard to accomplish that.”

After winning their second South Jersey title in three years (they won the Group I sectional and state titles in 2012), the Pirates had few answers for Mabrey. The all-American junior, one of the most talented high school players in New Jersey, scored 30 points and set up her teammates for plenty more.

Casey Thomas scored 17 points to lead the Pirates (24-5), and Mikila Stefanski added 12. Cedar Creek got off to a jittery start, turning the ball over on seven of their first nine possessions and falling behind 11-0. They came back with a trio of 3-pointers – by Mercina, Mikila and fellow senior Jahniece Jaffe – to actually take a 16-14 lead with four minutes left in the first half.

But the Warriors (25-5) responded with a 12-2 run to close out the half, Courtney Hagaman scoring five of those points, and the Pirates never fully recovered. Mabrey’s 3-point play to start the third quarter set the tone, and the Pirates never got closer than seven the rest of the way.

“We just kind of beat ourselves in the first half,” coach Fran Raph said. “We had 10 turnovers in the first quarter, and that just changes everything in a game like this. You have to play the best game of your life at this time of the season. We didn’t play our best game tonight – we missed foul shots, missed put-backs - all those little factors. When you get to this level, you’ve got to get them right.”

It was the Pirates’ second playoff loss to Manasquan in three years. In 2012, they lost to the Warriors in a Tournament of Champions quarterfinal.

It also marked the end of an era for Cedar Creek and the Stefanski quadruplets, who, along with Jaffe, helped the Pirates win back-to-back CAL United Conference titles, a pair of South Jersey championships, and one state title.

They also helped create a whole new breed of fans at the five-year-old school, called "Creek Crazies," who made a lot of noise and followed their team to games throughout the state.

“Our principal (James Reina) just told us that the things we’ve done, most schools take years to accomplish,” said Morgan Stefanski, who will continue her basketball career along with sister Mikila at Goldey-Beacom College in Delaware. “I wouldn’t change any of it. I wouldn’t change anything that I’ve done in high school. We have our ‘Creek Crazies’ and they come out and we unite with them. Cedar Creek is a family.”

Raph said this year’s playoff run, capped by Monday’s South Jersey championship win over Middle Township, gained the team a new level of respect after the departure of star center Kristine Miller to Fairfield University. She also said the Pirates should be well-positioned to compete in the future, especially with the return of big players Casey Thomas and Fatimah Blackwell.

“I have juniors and sophomore sitting on the bench chomping at the bit to get in,” Raph said. “They just want to get in and show what they can do. It’ll be a different kind of game, but I think we’ll be alright.”

But for the Stefanski sisters and Jaffe, Wednesday night was not a time to look forward, but to look back on a rewarding basketball journey – and one that gave Cedar Creek an identity.

 “Starting out at Cedar Creek four years ago, no one had even heard of Egg Harbor City or Cedar Creek,” Mikila Stefanski said. “They were, like, Cedar who?

“I feel as though our basketball team as a whole brought our community together. We’ve created so many memories for our school, with pep rallies and events in the community and the ‘Creek Crazies.’ When we go back for our reunions, everyone is going to cherish the memories and reflect on the girls basketball team, so I’m really glad I was a part of it.”

thomas Bill LeConey/Cedar Creek's Casey Thomas prepares to take a foul shot during the playoff loss to Manasquan. mabrey Manasquan star Marina Mabrey (right) walks up the court behind Cedar Creek's Fatimah Blackwell. mikila Cedar Creek's Mikila Stefanski CCteam The Cedar Creek Pirates leave the court after their state semifinal loss to Manasquan.


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