Long after the job was done on the floor and the upset was complete, Jordan Janowski walked to mid-court and accepted Saddle River Day’s fifth straight Bergen County championship. The team’s lone senior lifted that title in the air and then hugged it tight throughout the postgame celebration.
Janowski dreamt of this moment for a year; she wasn’t letting go any time soon.
Every time she heard the hype surrounding top-seeded Immaculate Heart, No. 3 in the NJ.com Top 20, this winter, Janowski used it as motivation; an extra source of energy on the way to the title game. No. 8 Saddle River Day came into the year as four-time defending champs, but felt like it needed to prove Bergen County was still under its control. On Sunday, the Rebels left no doubt in a 56-44 win.
Saddle River Day (20-3) is now just the second Bergen County program to win five titles in a row, joining the Paramus Catholic dynasty from the 1970s.
“Immaculate Heart is a great team and they’re having a great year, but people underestimated what we could do. The culture carries on here,” said Janowski. “There were some jitters at the start with a lot fresh faces in a scenario like this and we didn’t know what to do at first. Once we starting running our tempo and playing our game, we really built up that lead and they couldn’t come back.”
Immaculate Heart (21-2) scored back-to-back baskets to start. But then the wheels fell off.
Saddle River Day used an 8-0 run to grab a hold on the game and led 11-6 at the end of the first quarter. That advantage grew to 10 by halftime, sat at 15 at the end of the quarter and ballooned up to 20 in the fourth. Every positive play by Immaculate Heart was met with an answer from Saddle River Day.
“I knew what our opponent was capable of," said Immaculate Heart coach Steve Silver. “They’re very fast, they’re very athletic and they shoot very well. I knew we needed to play an above-average game to win and the fact that we didn’t stings. It hurts. Sometimes when things don’t go your way, you have to find a way to overcome it. We weren’t able to do that today.”
Saddle River Day’s defense was at its best on Sunday in the county final.
This team has become known for its defense and with players who were willing to buy in this year, Saddle River Day has drawn up several game plans that have challenged some of the best offenses in the state. No team in New Jersey forces more turnovers than Saddle River Day and that’s been a major advantage.
That’s why this team went from rebuilding to reloading faster than most people expected. Last year’s four Division-I bound seniors were household names and made up a powerful offense. This season’s group makes up for its lack of well-known star power with its grit and hustle on the defensive end.
“That’s what we are. We focus on our defense," said sophomore Saniah Caldwell, the team’s only returning starter from 2019. “We wanted to set the tone and have them respond to what we do. Our defense set the tone from the start and that’s what helped us win this game. We wanted to create a new identity and we’ve done that this year.”
Caldwell had four steals in the county final and a team-high 15 points.
Janowski and sophomore Cierra Pearson also got in on the defensive action, combining to come up with seven steals. That pair and Caldwell were the mainstays from last year’s team and in the biggest game of this winter, each one of them stepped up and made plays to give Saddle River Day the momentum.
The rest of the cast was on this stage at Ramapo College for the first time.
By the end of the game, they all looked liked seasoned vets.
Pleasantville (NY) transfer Dakota Corey added 11 points for an offense that saw nine different players score. Hackensack transfer Kristina Mathurin and Tappan Zee (NY) transfer Alanis Diaz also made an impact along with freshmen newcomers Karly Fischer, Madison McCarthy and Mia Walsh.
Immaculate Heart’s Anna Morris led all scorers with 20 points. The Northwestern commit also pulled down 10 rebounds to finish with a double-double.
“This was like a dream," said Corey. "I moved here from New York and all I heard was IHA, IHA, IHA. I wanted to take them out. That’s part of why I came to Saddle River Day. I knew we were going to be the underdogs this year and my goal was to beat IHA. It was a lot of fun to go out there and do it. We knew this game was going to be fast-moving and our condition was a lot better than IHA’s. We’re small and we don’t have a lot of size, but we can run and play defense until the sun goes down.”
The only other team to get the best of Immaculate Heart this year is No. 2 Trenton Catholic and that 50-48 game was decided in the final minutes. By the end of the game this weekend, there was no question who was walking off with the trophy. It was just a matter of time down the stretch.
So, that opens up the door for a bigger conversation.
Is Saddle River Day the best team in the state?
The two-time defending Non-Public B champion can answer that question in March. For now, the Rebels are just enjoying their latest title success story on the county level.
“All I ever wanted this season was a county championship," said Janowski. "Everyone doubted that it would happen, but we proved to everyone else and to ourselves that we’re at a whole different level. This game showed what we’re capable of. We’re excited to go celebrate tonight, but then it’s back to work.”
Story by Brandon Gould, NJ.com