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Senior Spotlight: Consistency defined basketball career of Ocean City guard Nicole Piergross

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By DAVE O’SULLIVAN Publisher Ocean City girls basketball coach Paul Baruffi has a pretty good eye when it comes to spotting talent. You don’t win more than 300 games without that kind of skill, even when you’re talking about third-graders. Baruffi knew that Nicole Piergross would one day be a starter for the Red Raiders, even when she was just a tyke attending his summer basketball camps. “I’ve known Nicole for a long time. She started coming to my basketball camp probably when she was in third or fourth grade,” Baruffi said. “She was one of those kids I knew would eventually play for me, even back then. She came in as a freshman and ended up starting for me for four years.” “Growing up, I would go to the Ocean City games and watch them. I knew how historic the program was and how much (coach Baruffi) gets out of his players,” Piergross said. “I was so excited to be a part of that. I knew with him as a coach, my teammates, I’ve been playing with Olivia (Briggs) forever, I knew we had the pieces to do something great. And freshman year we did by winning the state championship.” Piergross came in as a freshman and was known as a shooter, and that’s about all she was asked to do during her first season, as she was in the mix with a senior-dominated team led by star forward Julia Duggan. “I was nervous, but I had four seniors with me on the court and they helped me through it the whole way,” Piergross said. “Julia Duggan was a Division I player, and she was just an amazing player and role model, and she really helped me throughout my first year.” “She always had the ability to shoot the three, and being able to hit that outside shot she really added something to our team. We had that really good inside game with Julia Duggan, and it helped open things up because she stepped up and hit some outside shots for us even as a freshman,” Baruffi said. Piergross bookended her career with South Jersey championships, as she helped lead the Red Raiders to this year’s South Jersey Group 3 championship with a win over Toms River East in early March. While she was just a piece to the puzzle four years ago, this year she was one of just two seniors and was a steadying force for a group of up-and-coming sophomores and freshmen. Piergross is the epitome of a player who leads by example, never getting too high or too low during the course of a game or season. Nicole Piergross had an outstanding career as a 4-year starter on the Ocean City girls basketball team, helping the Red Raiders win two South Jersey Group 3 championships as well as a Cape-Atlantic League Tournament title. (Glory Days Magazine photo/Dave O'Sullivan) Nicole Piergross had an outstanding career as a 4-year starter on the Ocean City girls basketball team, helping the Red Raiders win two South Jersey Group 3 championships as well as a Cape-Atlantic League Tournament title. (Glory Days Magazine photo/Dave O’Sullivan) “Coming off that first year, it definitely put me into that role of being a leader on the team even though I was only a sophomore. It was good for the younger girls coming up to see that even though you might be an underclassman you can still make a big impact on the team,” she said. “Nicole is a quiet leader. She doesn’t say a whole lot, but I think the other girls would feed off the fact that she did everything the right way. If you watch Nicole practice, every drill that we do she does 100 percent and she does everything correctly. That’s what always stood out to me with Nicole. I always knew she was listening and trying to do her best, and I think she tried to show that to the team rather than communicate it verbally,” Baruffi said. “If you talk to any girl on the team, they will tell you they respect her. She’s a very likeable person, a quiet leader who always did everything the right way, and never looked to take any time off. And that’s a great attribute to have to demonstrate to the players coming up.” Ocean City typically has had strong post players, which meant that throughout much of her career Piergross was able to hang around the outside and shoot 3-pointers whenever an opportunity presented itself. This year, however, Baruffi asked her to do more. The combination of her being known as a great outside shooter, as well as having senior forward Olivia Briggs out for half the season while recovering from a knee injury, meant that defenses were guarding Piergross differently. Many times, opposing defenses would stick their best defender on Piergross to limit her shot attempts, so Baruffi began using her as a decoy. While her scoring may have gone down, her value to the team rose. She also was asked to play more aggressive defense, mirroring the player who was guarding her on the other end of the floor. “Her ability to handle the ball got better as time went on, and her defense got better. A lot of times I would put Nicole on somebody who was a really good shooter, and her assignment was to not let that player get a shot off. And she was pretty good at doing that over the years,” Baruffi said. “She would end up drawing other teams’ best defenders, so when that would happen we would almost sacrifice her shooting the ball and have her setting screens to set other players up. I think her reputation of being able to hit that three changed her game in that sometimes she took on a different role. She had to learn how to use that against the other team. Sometimes we would set a back screen using Nicole because we knew her girl wasn’t going to switch and help, and she was pretty good at that. We ran a lot of sets like that, where it looked like a play we were running for Nicole and instead it was a back screen for someone who would normally be screening for her to get open. She was very willing to do those things. Her basketball intelligence is very high, so I could do those types of things with her and she understood what we were trying to accomplish.” Piergross said she wasn’t sure how this season was going to play out. Point guard Grace Sacco, a junior, was in her third year as a starter and fellow guard Alexis Paone saw a lot of varsity time last year, but other than that, the Red Raiders had an untested lineup. But players such as Sadie Ford, Rosalia Daddi and Mickey Baker began to take on significant roles as the season went on. “It was up in the air at the beginning of the season, especially since Olivia wasn’t playing in the beginning of the year because of her injury. But after that loss to Mainland in the first game, we went into a Christmas tournament with some really good teams and ended up winning it. That kind of set the tone for the rest of the season,” Piergross said. The Red Raiders put together a 25-5 season that included a Cape-Atlantic League National Conference title as well as another sectional championship. They also made a return trip to the CAL Tournament finals. In four years, Piergross was a part of two South Jersey championships, a CAL Tournament title (in 2015) and a pair of CAL National crowns. Piergross said she will look back fondly on her Red Raiders career. “It’s a little bittersweet. We got the South Jersey championship, which was our goal from the beginning, but it’s also the last time I’m going to be playing basketball, which is kind of hard to swallow,” She said. “It was a great feeling. Going out on such a high note and being a captain of this team, it was a great feeling and an incredible thing to be a part of. I couldn’t have asked for more from my experience at Ocean City. We have such great coaches throughout all the sports and our fans come out and support us. It’s such a great atmosphere to be a part of.” “It’s going to be really strange (next year). A lot of times you have a player on varsity for only two years. It’s rare that you have somebody for four years. It is going to be really different not seeing her at practice,” Baruffi said. “A few times near the end of the year I caught myself thinking about that. You end up spending a lot of time with these players. She’ll definitely be missed.” Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sully@acglorydays.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays [adsense]

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