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Vic’s Subs Cover Story: Mainland’s Megan Stafford has lived up to expectations throughout her career

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By DAVE O’SULLIVAN Publisher There were times during her high school basketball career when Mainland Regional forward Megan Stafford would miss a shot she felt she should have made, and become frustrated. The frustration would simmer, and on the defensive end and she would commit what coaches might call “a bad foul” — i.e., a hand-check 80 feet from the basket. It wouldn’t be long before Stafford found herself on the bench, in foul trouble. Her ultra-competitive nature was at the root of such breakdowns. She knew she was talented and demanded much of herself on the basketball court. It wasn’t easy to take the burner from high and give it a half-turn to the left, setting it at a more manageable medium. But that’s all part of the maturation process, a process that Stafford has mastered better than most high school athletes. She’s a senior now, and the silly fouls on the opposite end of the court are much fewer and farther between. Think of a young pitcher on a baseball diamond who walks a batter and the next thing you know, it’s bases-loaded with nobody out and the inning is spinning out of control. These days, Stafford is much more like a veteran pitcher who can turn a walk into a double-play. “It’s part of her game. What makes her so special is her aggression. She’s aggressive on offense, she’s aggressive on defense. It’s why she scores so many points and gets so many steals,” said basketball coach Scott Betson. “It can rear its head from time to time, but as a coach you have to take that because with the few negatives, the positives definitely out-weigh any of that.” “I’ve definitely matured more. We don’t have a lot of upperclassmen, and there are a lot of freshmen looking up to us and I want to show them that you can compose yourself (in tough situations). I get frustrated a lot, but I’ve learned that once I get frustrated to go right to the next play. If you miss a shot, go sprint back on defense and get a stop,” Stafford said. “I used to take a lot of fouls 80 feet from the basket, but this year I’m really focused on not taking that stupid foul, or not taking that extra reach that’s not necessary because you’re more valuable offensively rather than taking a silly foul on defense and having to come out for the rest of the quarter. Megan Stafford is one of just two seniors on the Mainland Regional girls basketball team, but under her leadership the Mustangs have won nine of their first 12 games. (Glory Days Magazine photos/Dave O'Sullivan) Megan Stafford is one of just two seniors on the Mainland Regional girls basketball team, but under her leadership the Mustangs have won nine of their first 12 games. (Glory Days Magazine photos/Dave O’Sullivan) “You just have to know when to play smart. When to take the risk and when to step back a little bit and play smart defense. It’s just something you learn with time.” Not all highly talented high school athletes master the process of going from athlete to team leader. Stafford, like many freshmen, relied on her athletic ability and competitiveness to make an immediate impact, not only for the basketball team at Mainland, but also the field hockey program. She played junior varsity field hockey as a freshman, but it wasn’t long before she became a standout varsity player. Under the guidance of field hockey coach Jill Hatz, and Betson on the basketball court, Stafford has learned throughout the past few years how to master the mental side of athletics — and how important it is to be a steadying force as you become an upperclassman with varsity experience. “You don’t realize how fast it goes. It feels like I was just playing my first varsity game and it’s crazy to think this will be my last season as a Mainland athlete. I feel like (the maturation process) just kind of happens. When you look back on it, I was a shy little freshman and now I feel like I’m a leader on the court, and off the court as well,” Stafford said. “Coming into high school, I didn’t really know anything so I don’t think I really expected anything. I didn’t expect to be playing varsity basketball as a freshman. My sophomore year of field hockey I was a starter and that kind of opened my eyes, like, OK, this is it, I need to be a leader from here on out.” Stafford’s expectations may not have been high when she was a freshman, but Hatz and Betson both knew they were getting a tremendous athlete. She was taller and stronger than a lot of first-year players, and her skills were much more advanced than the average 14-year-old, Betson said. And while those expectations may have seemed like a burden a few years ago, Stafford is much more comfortable in her role now as a player who will not only leave her mark on the field hockey and basketball programs at the school, but also help the basketball team transition to a new generation of stars. She and Melanie Malcolm are the only seniors on the team, and players such as Gabby Boggs and Aly Nazarok, both sophomores, are the heir apparent to Stafford and Malcolm. “She really has matured. A player like her who is so athletic and good at everything, they can go one of two ways. They can be cocky and selfish, but Megan really went the other way. She trusts her teammates and works with them, and it’s been really cool to watch her athletic career the last four years, and to be a part of it,” Hatz said. “She’s leading the way from what she was taught, either by her coaches or her parents. It’s really cool to see what she’s been able to accomplish.” “She came in and had the ability to be pretty versatile for us. One of the things that stood out to me, and I tell this story all the time, the summer before her freshman year we had Alex Raring on the team — who was going to be our senior leader and a 1,000-point scorer — and during our summer camp she said to me that we had to find ways to get Megan Stafford on the floor,” Betson said. “I had already been thinking that, but the fact that she had proven herself to a senior, Alex even identified how special Megan was going to be before she even played a minute on varsity. So that was kind of telling about what kind of player she was going to be.” Stafford also had an outstanding field hockey career at Mainland, leading the Mustangs to 17 wins last fall and a berth in the South Jersey Group 3 semifinals. Stafford also had an outstanding field hockey career at Mainland, leading the Mustangs to 17 wins last fall and a berth in the South Jersey Group 3 semifinals. Stafford has really shined during her senior year. In field hockey, she anchored one of the best defenses in South Jersey and helped lead the Mustangs to a 17-4-1 record and a berth in the South Jersey Group 3 semifinals. And in basketball, she led Mainland to six wins in its first eight games, and is on track to score her 1,000th career point this month. “I sat the seniors down at the beginning of the year and laid out our expectations of them, and she did great. Megan is the type of player, I don’t think she realizes how much the younger girls look up to her and have watched her over the years. She really came out and was leading by example this year, taking it to another level in terms of her communication with the girls and bringing our team together,” Hatz said. “If you want to play defense, one of my philosophies is you have to be confident and Megan is the epitome of that. She oozes confidence, and I think she makes the people around her play with more confidence. She’s very positive with the girls, never put them down and was always encouraging, and that helps to have that kind of encouragement from a player like her.” “We talked a lot in the offseason with Megan and Melanie, how it’s their senior year and I know they have big aspirations for their senior year, but at the same time we had a lot of turnover at the guard spots and how important it would be for them to stay patient and work with the younger girls. And they have done that,” Betson said. “She had a couple of tough games last year and she would come out and have a hard time mentally within herself. When that has happened this year, there’s been a different demeanor and she’s made an effort to stay positive. On the practice court she’s made a real effort to teach the younger girls, and she’s almost become like an assistant coach with her ability to explain things to the younger girls. That’s been invaluable for us.” Stafford’s development has mirrored that of Malcolm, which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise since they are best friends off the court. They both came in primarily as players who could make an impact defensively, but needed to hone their offensive skills. And they have both done that, and as seniors comprise about 50 percent of Mainland’s offense on a nightly basis. “Meg will be the first one to tell you how important Mel is. What Mel does, surprisingly, goes underappreciated by a lot of people. They have great chemistry together. They do things that make them look really well coached, and I honestly have nothing to do with that. They have just played together so much they just know what the other is going to do. They both know how valuable the other is to their games,” Betson said. “Meg and Mel are the first group of seniors that I’ve had all four years, so there’s a special connection there. There’s been a lot of ups and downs, but they have always bought in and have been instrumental in putting together what we have tried to do with this program. They have really special personalities, and it’s been a real pleasure to work with them.” Betson said he is hoping a player like Boggs has a similar career trajectory. “Megan’s development has been unique in a number of ways. She came in and was primarily a forward and her role was to use her athleticism to get rebounds and putbacks, and make whatever plays she could with her back to the basket. Last year, we asked to step outside a little more and she thoroughly embraced that. Now we have a lot of flexibility with her, and that creates some tough matchup problems for other teams trying to defend her,” Betson said. “You can see it so much with Gabby. She came in really introverted and shy, and such a nice kid. Almost too nice, at times, on the basketball court. Gabby, to me, is the kind of kid that high school sports is all about. You can see her confidence from basketball flowing over into other aspects of her life. And a lot of that is her being embraced by girls like Megan and Mel, who are not only leaders on the basketball court, but in the school in general.” “It’s been awesome watching her grow from a shy little freshman, and this year she’s so positive,” Stafford said of her protege. “I love helping her out whenever she needs it.” It would have been easy for Stafford to go into cruise control during the field hockey season. She wants to play basketball in college, so field hockey is not her main sport, but Hatz said she played like it was her main sport when she was out there last fall. “Seniors sometimes plateau and just kind of cruise through their senior year, but girls like her, Kathryn Hutton, Ashley Albright, all the seniors we had this year, they didn’t lay low and say, ‘whatever, this is our last year.’ They wanted their last year to be the best year,” Hatz said. “There was no question in my mind about not playing field hockey. It’s not my main sport, but it’s a great team and family environment and I didn’t want to miss out on that,” added Stafford. Stafford said there are times when she and Malcolm feel pressure, being the only two seniors on the basketball team. But the experience they have gained during the past few years has prepared them to handle any situation. “There’s pressure, but we talk and we’re just trying to really take it one game at a time. We’re so focused on that next game, and then moving on from there,” Stafford said. “It’s great playing with Melanie. We’ve been playing together or against each other since fifth grade. We’re best friends off the court, so we have a great connection.” Hatz said she has grown so close to Stafford that she sometimes enlists her as a babysitter to her two young daughters. She will certainly miss Stafford’s off-the-court presence when Stafford heads off to college next fall, and on the field hockey field and basketball court, Hatz said, Stafford will be very tough to replace. “She’s a game-changer,” Hatz said. “At the basketball games, announcer Frank Marascio has a fun nickname for all the girls, and he dubbed Megan ‘game-changer’ and she really is. She’s that person you don’t want to take out of the lineup, ever.” Betson said he can only hope Stafford’s intensity rubs off on some of his younger players. Said Betson, “If you challenged her to a game of checkers, you’d have a hard time beating her.” Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sully@acglorydays.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays [adsense]

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