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The long road back for Haddonfield Boys Basketball

By Lauree Padgett. Exclusive to Haddonfield[dot]Today.

No one could have anticipated that when the Haddonfield Dawgs’ 2019–20 season came to an end on March 10, 2020, in a South Jersey Group 2 championship loss to Camden, it would be a few weeks short of a year before the team took to the court for an actual Colonial Conference contest. While the COVID-19 pandemic brought the New Jersey 2020 basketball state semi-finals to a screeching halt a few days later and would go on to upend sports on all levels, that spring, I doubt few people aside from maybe infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci weren’t thinking that by the fall of 2020, life, including high school sports, would be back to normal. Sigh.

The original Dawgs 2020–21 schedule had the first game happening on Friday, Dec. 18th versus Haddon Township. That schedule did not last too long before Governor Phil Murphy halted all winter (indoor) sports activities until mid-January. January 18, Dawgs’ coach Paul Wiedeman replied to an email of mine, saying in part, “So far we have successfully completed 7 days of practice uninterrupted. Our opening game against Haddon Township on January 26th has already been postponed and moved back to February because of COVID concerns on their part. …  Guys are working real hard in practice and are just excited to be in the gym playing basketball. I hope we can play all 15 games this year.”

Fifteen games, for those of you who don’t keep basketball stats memorized, would be exactly half of what the Dawgs played last season when they finished 25–5. Sectional playoff games were eliminated (meaning the 2019 Dawgs are still the reigning Group 2 state champion!), although individual conferences, such as the Colonial, could have their own playoffs. The number of non-conference games allowed, normally capped at 11, was also reduced.

But alas, per COVID-19 protocols, the Haddonfield squads had to then stop practicing for 2 weeks, pushing back the opening game even further. Finally, on Feb. 6, which, by this same date in 2020, the Dawgs played game 19 in their schedule, the team took to the court at Haddon Township. No fans were in the stands. The only people in the gymnasium were the players and their coaching staffs, the refs, and the other essential personnel, such as those running the clock/scoreboard and providing the audio and video feeds.

That first game showed just how much the delays and setbacks had impacted the Dawgs, who only brought back two players with starting varsity experience: senior Justin Kasko and junior Tom Mooney. The game was tied 5 all after one quarter, and the Dawgs had a 3-point, 14–11 lead at the half that they built up to a 19–13 advantage early in the third quarter. However, the shots stopped dropping and those quick 5 points would be the only ones that went on the board for the team in the remaining minutes of the quarter. (If I could tell you the time on the clock when the Dawgs made it 19–13, I would, but the Haddon Township feed did not provide a scoreboard, nor did the announcer think to provide any time updates.) When the quarter ended, the Dawgs were behind by 2, 19–21. Mooney and junior Carson Wolfe did help boost the Dawgs’ 4th quarter points, scoring two buckets each, but when the final buzzer sounded, the Hawks had beaten the Dawgs 38–30. According to the Courier Post, Haddon Township had not accomplished this feat in 48 years!!! The Retropsect was more, uh, circumspect, and reported it had been more than 40 years since the Hawks had secured a W versus the Bulldogs.

Game two of this shortened season took place 3 days later at Haddonfield. The Silver Knights of Sterling road into town and put it to their Colonial nemesis all four quarters, leading by 5, 11–6, after the first 8, upping that lead to 8, 31–23 at the half, and taking that to a double-digit advantage of 50–35 at the finish of the third. The final score was Sterling, 64, Haddonfield, 55. And although the Dawgs were now 0–2, those last 8 minutes gave a glimpse of what the team might be capable of, as five players—Wolfe, Mooney, juniors Matt Leming and Dante Del Duca, and freshman Matt Kouser—had scored to put 20 points, to Sterling’s 14, in the net. The team had also hit 10 three-pointers during the game.

Thursday, 2/11, the Dawgs went up the highway (Kings Highway, that is) to take to the court against another longtime rival, the Garnets of Haddon Heights. Last year, the Dawgs and the Garnets split their pair of conference games and then faced off for the third time in the South Jersey Group 2 semi-finals. That nail-biting 35–33 win, secured on a nifty poach of the ball and a layup by Dawg Connor Fell, also gave Paul Wiedeman his 500th as Haddonfield’s coach.

On one hand, the stakes weren’t quite so high in this matchup as they had been the last time the teams had met. On the other hand, no one wanted to see the Dawgs start off 0–3. (Or, as Vic Wiedeman reminded me when we passed each other in our cars in our Voorhees neighborhood and rolled down the window to chat, lose 4 games in a row, counting the Camden game.) From the outset, it was clear the Dawgs were not going to let that happen. Unlike the first two games, the Dawgs scored the first 5 points of the match on a 2 by Wolfe and a 3 by Leming. Heights got 2 back from the foul line, but the Dawgs scored the next 5, in a second verse same as the first, but in reverse order: a 3 by Leming and a 2 by Wolfe. Heights got another point from the free throw line, and Wolfe closed out the scoring for the quarter with his third bucket, putting the Dawgs up by double digits 12–3.

The Dawgs never looked back. Heights did score a bit more (7 points) and Haddonfield a bit less (9 points on another 3 from Leming and two more drives by Wolfe) in the second 8 minutes, but going into the half, the Dawgs were leading by 9, 19–10.

The Dawgs really stepped on the offensive gas in the third quarter, putting up 25 points to the Garnets’ 5. Wolfe knocked in 7 on a trio of 2’s and a foul shot. Leming got his fourth and fifth 3’s of the game (he would finish with 6 of them and a total of 22 points). Justin Kasko showed that he had been honing his 3-point shot in the offseason, swooshing in 2 along with as a basket from the foul line, and Dante Del Duca got into the 3-point act as well. Going into the last 8 minutes, the Dawgs were definitely in control, ahead by almost 30 points, 43–15.

Heights finally found its shooting range in the 4th, outscoring the Dawgs 18–11, but the Dawgs still won by a decisive 26 points, 54–28 to secure their first win of the 2021 season. In addition to Leming’s 22, Wolfe finished with 13 and six other players contributed to the total.

Saturday, 2/13 was the day I had pegged to go to a home game in person. As it turned out, it was the first game family members (two per player) were also allowed in the stands. (The Dawgs’ athletic department, under AD Lefty Banos, did a great job arranging the seats, assigned by numbers marked on the benches, so that social distancing protocols were followed. While families did chat a bit during halftime and as they were exiting the stands, I think everyone felt safe.) The foe was the Collingswood Panthers, always a tough team to beat. Could the Dawgs get another win to get to the .500 mark?

Well, Collingswood got the first bucket of the day at the 7:25 mark of the quarter 1. The Dawgs got on the board to tie it off a nice feed from junior Matthew Guveiyian to Tom Mooney. Then after rebounding a board at the other end, Guveiyian hit a 3 to put the Dawgs on top 5–2. The Panthers got 2 and then the Dawgs got 2 more on a nice drive by Kasko, putting the Dawgs up 7–4 with 4 minutes and change to go in the quarter.

Collingswood got to within 1 point on a basket its next possession, then went up by 1, 8–7, on a steal and a slam at the 3:22 mark. The next score of the game would come on a 2-point bucket by Leming, who was fouled. His shot at the line went in to put the Dawgs back on top by 2, 10–8. He got another 3 in one shot to push the lead up to 13–7 with 1:44 to go in the first.

Collingswood ended their mini-scoring drought with a 2, but Leming answered with another 2 and Mooney drained a 3. The Panthers got another basket, but Mooney hit another 3, and the first quarter ended with the Dawgs up 9, 21–12.

Both teams scored a bit less in the 2nd quarter, but the Dawgs were still able to build onto their lead, putting 10 more points on the board on 3’s by Mooney and Kasko and the equivalent of one by Leming, who was fouled beyond the 3-point arc and made all of his resulting foul shots. Mooney also added a point from the foul line, and going into the half, the Dawgs were ahead 31–17, with their solid D having held the Panthers to 5 points.

The third quarter was a little more evenly matched, as the Dawgs again got 10 on the board but this time the Panthers got 7. Still, going into the last 8 minutes, the Dawgs had a comfortable 41–24 lead. Sometimes that comfortable edge can vanish, as a team starts to lose a bit of momentum. However, thanks to Matt Kouser, who played a good part of the 4th and send in a trio of treys from way out there, and Mooney, who drove in for three consecutive layups, the Dawgs put 15 more on the board. The Panthers took a bit of an advantage of Wiedeman clearing his bench and actually outscored the Dawgs by 1 point, but it did not change the outcome. The Dawgs won their second straight by a 56–40 margin.

For the third straight game, the team combined for 10 3’s. Tom Mooney knocked in 18, Matt Leming, 16, and 7 Dawgs contributed to those 56 points.

So, what happened between the first two games, when the Dawgs lost by 8 and 9 points, respectively, and the second two games, when they won by 26 and 16, respectively? In my mind, it was almost like a switch was flipped. A team that looked tentative at best versus Haddon Township and even for the first three quarters against Sterling, with no one really taking charge, was in control from end to end of their games versus Heights and Collingswood. A parent I was in touch with put this about-face into perspective after the Heights victory: “That 14-day quarantine and coming back into games with virtually no practice time was tough. They are getting their rhythm back,” he noted, adding, “Great to see that win!”

And I think that is really the right takeaway. Teams returning most of their starting lineup from the previous year probably are in somewhat better shape than teams who are bringing in players who don’t have a lot, or even any, varsity minutes under their unis. Between the long delay of the season at the outset, and then the 2-week quarantine just as the Dawgs were getting ready to play ball, the players lost valuable time interacting with each other as a unit. How can a team gel when the players and coaches are isolated from each other? The short answer is, it can’t.

By the end of the Sterling game and then the full matchups against Haddon Heights and Collingswood, the players started being more in synch with each other. Turnovers started decreasing on their end and passing and assists picked up. Balls started dropping into the net instead of clacking off the rim or the backboard. Defensively, through great double teaming, pressing, and quick hands, the Dawgs started turning the tables on their opponents, forcing them to turn the ball over before getting shots off.

I’m not predicting that the Dawgs are now going to win their remaining (if the schedule holds up) 11 games, which doesn’t count the Colonial Conference Tournament. But I think the team is finding its mojo, now that they can really be a team again and under the in-person tutelage of one of South Jersey’s greatest coaches, Paul Wiedeman. And in a season that has been like no other, that counts for a lot.

Come back on Monday night (February 15) for:

  • Getting to Know the Team
  • How to Watch the Games, Live or Later