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Girls basketball: ACIT has shown ability to rebound after star Yasmeen Nelson went down with injury

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By DAVE O’SULLIVAN Publisher Jason Vander Ryk, girls basketball coach at ACIT, had a lot of confidence when the 2015-2016 season began. He had two talented freshmen coming in, Kayla Sykes and Tahirah Howard, to go along with seniors such as Tekyyah Harrell-James, Courtney Hartman, Tamia Taylor and Yasmeen Nelson. Hartman was second-team all-Cape-Atlantic League last year, and Nelson — twin sister of St. Augustine Prep star guard Sa’eed Nelson — was one of the top returning players in the league and already a 1,000-point scorer before her final season began. Things started out pretty well for the Red Hawks, as they went 4-3 through their first seven games. Then disaster struck — or so it seemed at the time. In a game against Absegami on Jan. 8, Nelson went down with a knee injury in the first quarter. It turned out to be a torn ACL. Her season, and her high school career, were over. The Red Hawks lost to the Braves, 52-37, and there they were at 4-4 and without their star player. Things didn’t look good. But the emergence of Sykes, along with some solid play from Howard and the rest of the starting lineup, turned what could have been disaster into motivation. ACIT went 8-5 in its next 13 games and secured a berth in the South Jersey Group 3 playoffs. The No. 12-seeded Red Hawks travel to No. 5 Mainland Regional on Feb. 29 in the opening round. “I thought we had a chance to win the United Conference, I thought we had a chance to make the CAL Tournament, and I thought we had a chance to have a home playoff game. Those were our three goals going into the year,” Vander Ryk said. “What gave me hope was we gave Absegami, which is a great team, a battle. We were down by only four points going into the fourth quarter on a night when Yas went down two minutes into the game. Right there, that showed me that my team isn’t going to quit and they’re not going to fold. They didn’t let losing Yas faze them, and I was impressed by that.” Players such as senior Tekyyah Harrell-James have picked up the slack in the absence of star guard Yasmeen Nelson, whose season ended in early January after a torn ACL. Players such as senior Tekyyah Harrell-James have picked up the slack in the absence of star guard Yasmeen Nelson, whose season ended in early January after a torn ACL. Vander Ryk said Nelson had achieved pretty much all she could as an individual throughout her high school career, and that she was focused on getting this team to the next level to be able to complete with the likes of Mainland, Ocean City, Wildwood Catholic and Cedar Creek. “It’s tough for her. Going into the year, we believed she could possibly be player of the year. Yas had all the individual accolades and I know she wanted that team accolade,” Vander Ryk said. “I know it has to be tough for her, but she handles everything like a champion. She holds herself as a champion, and the way she has handled the situation has been phenomenal.” Vander Ryk said it was just as difficult on him as a coach. He set the bar high this year, knowing what Nelson could do on the court, and pairing her with players such as Howard, Hartman and Sykes made for a pretty dynamic lineup. “I told the girls that I wanted this season so bad. We had Yas, a seasoned player and the face of the franchise, we had a couple good freshmen coming in, we had our second-team CAL all-star senior Courtney Hartman, we had another senior leader in Tamia Taylor. Man, I wanted it this year, and I told the girls when Yas went down that I didn’t think I could have wanted this season even more,” Vander Ryk said. “It motivated me to work even harder. I wasn’t going to accept that because Yas went down our season was over. Everybody worked too hard. I never thought that I could want this season any more, but when Yas went down, I wanted it 10 times more. So we’ve just been working really hard.” The Red Hawks still have an opportunity to make an impact in the state playoffs, but even if they don’t win a sectional championship this year, Nelson said this team has the potential to become a solid contender in the CAL for the next couple of years. “I think this team has the potential to win a CAL championship in the next couple of years,” Nelson said. “To know that I’m inspiring a lot of younger players, and getting more kids to come to this school and play basketball, that feels great. These girls are like my family.” Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sully@acglorydays.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays [adsense]

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