Rutgers Prep girls’ basketball head coach Mary Klinger has always liked the Tournament of Champions. In the Somerset school’s ten years playing as an NJSIAA member, her Lady Argonauts have made the ultimate tournament twice before, and are set to play in their third Wednesday night, as the TOC makes its final run.
The NJSIAA decided last year to eliminate the Tournament of Champions. Its reasoning was that it wasn’t played in all sports, and often it was the same teams in each sport making the field, and winning the title, year after year after year. And following a move to bring the fall, winter and spring sports seasons into balance, and allow for down time between seasons to encourage multi-sport athletes, eliminating the TOC would add an extra week back onto the season, not just for six teams.
So this year’s event means a little something extra. Not that Rutgers Prep needs it.
They were “embarrassed” in a bad loss to St. John Vianney – the top team in the state – back on Super Bowl Sunday in a girls’/boys’ doubleheader up at Kean University. They knew it. The players and coaches all knew it.
They remember it. And they want to atone.
They have had the TOC circled on their calendars since then, and if they had it circled before then, they went over it in thick, black Sharpie.
They want another crack at the Lady Lancers.
But first, they have to get through The Phoenix.
Rutgers Prep (27-2) begins play Wednesday night in the Tournament of Champions against University (19-7) of Newark, down at the RWJBarnabas Health Arena at Toms River North High School. Game time is set for 7:00, following the first game of the quarterfinal doubleheader at 5:30.
You can hear the game on Central Jersey Sports Radio, with pregame set for around 6:40 (or 20 minutes prior to tip-off, depending when the first game – between Sparta and Westfield – ends). Click here to listen to Mike Pavlichko call all the action.
Scroll down for a preview of the game with sophomore guard Chloe Escanillas, Rutgers-bound senior forward Antonia Bates, and head coach Mary Klinger.
In the meantime, here are some more details on the game:
HOW THEY GOT HERE:
- Non-Public South B 1st Round: bye
- Non-Public South B Quarterfinals: def. 8-Holy Spirit, 75-15
- Non-Public South B Semifinals: def. 5-St. Rose, 64-34
- Non-Public South B Final: def. 2-Wildwood Catholic, 67-36
- Non-Public Group B Final:
- North 2, Group 1 First Round: bye
- North 2, Group 1 Quarterfinals: def. 9-North Arlington, 92-22
- North 2, Group 2 Semifinals: def. 4-Dayton, 73-28
- North 2, Group 1 Final: def. 2-Secaucus, 57-27
- Group 1 Semifinal: def. North 1 champ North Warren, 57-39
- Group 1 Final: def. Central champ Shore, 66-31
Rutgers Prep: The Lady Argos have made it twice before to the six-team field. In 2016, there were the 2-seed, earning a bye to the semifinals, where they lost to third-seed Manasquan, 59-50. ‘Squan then lost to top-seed St. John Vianney in the final, 65-58.
They would return the following year, earning the top-seed, and again a bye to the semifinals. But they would lose in the semis to the fourth-seed and eventual champion, Franklin, 66-57. The Warriors beat 2-seed Manasquan in the final, 50-48, for their first of back-to-back TOC titles.
Incidentally, Franklin may have been on its way to winning an unprecedented third straight title in 2020 had COVID-19 not shutdown the state tournament in the Group semifinal stage. Only three teams have won more TOCs than Franklin: Manasquan (3), Shabazz (6) and St. John Vianney (7).
University: The Phoenix have a TOC title to their credit, and it came in 2007, when third-seeded University had to play three games to win the championship. They beat 6-seed Willingboro in the quarterfinals, 71-58. They took out second-seed Trenton Catholic, 61-51, in the semifinals. And they knocked off top-seed Trenton, 68-62 in the title game.
In 2008, they were the overall top-seed, but were upset in the semis by 4-seed Trenton, 73-69.
In 2016, they were the 6th-seed and got eliminated by eventual finalist and third-seed Manasquan, 56-49.
In 2018, University got a 4-seed and lost to 5th-seed Saddle River Day in the quarterfinals, 92-63.
And in 2019, they claimed a 5-seed and lost to fourth-seed St. Rose of Belmar, 61-45.
LAST MEETING: The teams last met in 2011, prior to Rutgers Prep joining the NJSIAA, with the Lady Argos winning, 56-32.
RUTGERS PREP IN THE NJSIAA: Rutgers Prep was an independent until the 2012-13 school year. Since then, the Lady Argos have had great success under coach Mary Klinger, who is in her 38th year at the school, with a record of 583-234. Prep won three straight South B titles from 2016-2018, beating North champs Saddle River Day in 2016 and Queen of Peace in 2017 for the group title and TOC bids. They lost in 2018 to Saddle River Day.
Overall, Mary Klinger’s squad is 25-8 in NJSIAA Tournament games, over a span of 9 postseasons. (There was none in 2021 due to COVID-19.)
WHO IS UNIVERSITY?
University is based in Newark, a six-year high school that grew out of a program at the city’s Shabazz High School, but became a standalone academy in 1977.
On the court, the Phoenix girls’ basketball team is coached by Amiri Baraka, Jr, who is Chief of Staff to his brother, Ras Baraka, the current mayor of Newark. Their father was a world-renowned poet and writer who died in 2014, and whose career spanned more than a half-century.
While Detiny Bynum-Johnson went off for 29 points against Shore in the Group 1 title game, you likely wont see another effort like that against Rutgers Prep, which has been on another level since the Vianney loss. The Argos had won six straight postseason games – between the Somerset County Tournament and the NJSIAA playoffs – by 38 points on average until their 11 point win against Saddle River Day Saturday for the Group B title in Toms River.
Freshman guard Paradise Fisher leads the team with 13.4 points per game, with junior Mya Davis not far behind at 12.3. They’ve got some balance, but haven’t played anyone remotely like Rutgers Prep this season. And watching the Lady Argos on tape doesn’t do them justice. Their biggest hope is to not fall too far behind before they know what hit them.
Central Jersey Sports Radio’s Mike Pavlichko visited Rutgers Prep practice Tuesday on the eve of the Tournament of Champions quarterfinals. Hear more below:
Antonia Bates has fit in nicely with Rutgers Prep. A senior transfer from Notre Dame in Easton, PA, she hasn’t upset the chemistry at all in Somerset, fitting right in with her teammates and contributing every night. She explains why she made the move for her senior year before moving just a bit down Easton Avenue to play for Rutgers University, and talks about the transition:
Chloe Escanillas is just a sophomore, but contributed in a big way in Saturday’s Group B final win over Saddle River Day, helping shut down top-scorer Paulina Paris, or at least keep her in check enough to allow the Lady Argos’ to win. She then scored seven points in the decisive fourth quarter en route to an 11-point win over the Rebels, who had taken back the lead in the third quarter after Prep had led 31-11 in the first half.
Click below to hear Rutgers Prep coach Mary Klinger talk about her team’s resilience against Saddle River Day, their drive since the Vianney loss, and their mindset heading into the final Tournament of Champions in New Jersey: