SPRINGFIELD, NJ — One of the most successful girls basketball teams in Union County a year ago has the talent returning to continue that success this year.
The Jonathan Dayton High School Bulldogs return five prominent players from last year’s squad, which went 11-1 and concluded with a 10-game winning streak.
Perhaps the best part for veteran head coach Dave Rennie is that four of those five girls are not seniors. That means he gets the opportunity to coach them again next season.
Those players include sophomores Caitlyn Del Duca, Molly Martys and Alyssa Santangelo and junior Samantha Casey.
One of five seniors on the roster is Mya Sims-Taylor, who also saw playing time last season.
Dayton was scheduled to open on Friday, Dec. 17, at home against Union County Conference–Valley Division foe Linden, but the game was postponed. The Bulldogs were then scheduled to begin the 2021-2022 season at Valley Division rival Rahway on Tuesday, Dec. 21, after Union County LocalSource went to press.
The annual Joe Pepe Holiday Tournament at Dayton is scheduled for Tuesday, Dec. 28, and Thursday, Dec. 30, with the Bulldogs set to host Freehold at 3:30 p.m. in their first game on Tuesday, Dec. 28.
To say that Dayton made the most of last year’s abbreviated pandemic season would be an understatement, especially considering that three freshmen played a key role in the team’s development.
Dayton played 12 games, from Thursday, Jan. 28, to Monday, March 1, without interruption. The only setback was to bigger Scotch Plains, a team that finished 12-3 overall and placed first in the UCC’s Mountain Division standings at 10-1.
Dayton won 10 games by double digits. The Bulldogs finished first in the UCC’s seven-team Valley Division at 11-0. The same teams make up the Valley Division this year; the other six are Brearley, Linden, Rahway, Roselle, Roselle Park and Union.
“Every season brings certain challenges, and this one certainly had additional ones, on top of the typical,” Rennie said at the close of last season.
Rennie, a Bloomfield graduate who was also briefly the head coach at Union, is now in his 25th season at the helm of the Bulldogs. His record at Dayton going into this year was 363-223 (.620).
Including the two seasons he was head coach at Union, when he went 5-15 and 11-11, Rennie’s overall record going into this year stood at 379-249 (.604).
“Our girls were very diligent, as far as doing the right things outside of basketball to make sure we could play,” Rennie said of last year’s squad.
Seniors that provided key, upperclassmen guidance and made the necessary sacrifices so that they could enjoy their final year on the court included Aiyona Wood, Alexandria Monguso, Elsie Cohen and Gabriella Lipkin.
“Our seniors led the way of keeping everyone focused on the singular goal of being able to play,” Rennie said. “We had certain protocols in place, from daily health screenings to temperature checks and wearing masks during practice.”
Rennie said his seniors made their final season a special one on many different levels.
“They were all great, showing great leadership,” Rennie said. “I was so excited for them that they were able to play and get a full season in.
“They did all the right things and others followed. Each was different in their leadership styles. Some were vocal and some led by example.”
This year’s prominent players seek to display the same kind of ethics, with a team-first attitude leading the way.
Casey, a forward, was Dayton’s second-leading scorer last year with 103 points. She was also second in rebounds with 97 and blocked shots with 10.
“Casey has a nice, midrange shot,” Rennie said. “She is versatile in her ability to play inside and out. She’s a good defender as well.”
The energy provided by Del Duca, Martys and Santangelo really sparked the Bulldogs throughout last year’s shortened season.
“They made an immediate impact,” Rennie said. “All three are guards and are very quick and athletic.”
Martys started at the end of last year and Del Duca halfway through the season. Martys led the Bulldogs in dishing out assists with 37 and coming up with 60 steals.
“Molly is the consummate point guard,” Rennie said. “She sees the ball well, handles it well and is a tremendous passer. She gets the ball to the open person.
“The maturity level of her basketball knowledge helped us out. She’s such a good athlete, with her quickness and athleticism.”
Del Duca led Dayton with 11 three-pointers, one more than Martys. Del Duca scored 83 points, grabbed 36 rebounds, dished out 24 assists and came up with 18 steals.
Santangelo came off the bench and really lifted the Bulldogs defensively.
“She showed a lot of quickness and created some turnovers and also hit some big shots for us,” Rennie said. “I see her developing into a promising scorer.”
Rennie described the team’s ability to win by the margins it did, starting with defense and continuing with quick guards on the perimeter that were able to take teams out of their continuity on defense.
“Getting 12 games in was great,” Rennie said. “Having an 11-1 record and finishing first in our division was icing on the cake.
“First and foremost, to get through the season with no interruptions — to be able to do that — we were fortunate. We had freshmen come in and have an impact.
“We knew they were good coming in, but I didn’t realize the positive impact that they would provide so quickly.”