EAST ORANGE – This past winter, the East Orange Campus High School girls’ varsity basketball team continued its dominance. The Lady Jaguars swept the Super Essex Conference-American Division, Essex County Tournament and state sectional tournament titles, all for the second year in a row, finishing with a stellar 24-4 record under longtime head coach Derrick Johnson.
Judging by their offseason showings in the past few months, the Lady Jaguars seemed primed to maintain their elite status.
In May, EOCHS won a tournament title in Atlantic City. The Jaguars then won the Father’s Day tournament title at the Wayne PAL.
The Jaguars continued their strong play with a runner-up finish at the annual Kutztown, Pa. camp, July 14-17.
EOCHS also participated in the West Orange Rec Summer League, but Johnson mostly played his younger players there.
The returning players who have led the way this offseason are rising sophomore guards Brianna Mills and Lakel Willis.
Mills “is getting better every day,” said Johnson. “She is learning the game and being a better leader.”
Willis also has shown improvement in all facets while taking on more responsibility, the coach said.
Johnson particularly is excited about incoming freshman point guard Brianna Turner. “She picks up things easily and listens very well,” said Johnson of Turner.
Annoushka Boatswain also figures to take on a more prominent role after playing sparingly last season. At 6-foot-4, the rising senior has “terrific upside and has gotten 100 percent better,” said Johnson.
Rising junior center Moriyah Jordan and rising junior forward Lauren Lewter are other key returning players who have further their development on the AAU circuit this offseason.
The Jaguars, however, will miss a strong senior class that graduated, led by guards Marvellous Osagie-Erese and Sahara Crawford, forwards Barbara Jackson and Jessica Woods. Osagie-Erese averaged 14.2 points a game and finished her career with more than 1,000 points.
But after a solid offseason, the Jaguars have reason to feel optimistic for more success next winter.
The Jaguars have appeared in a state sectional championship in each of the past four seasons, winning the state North Jersey Section 2, Group 4 tournament title last season. But now they are back in Section 1, Group 4, after the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association unveiled its reclassifications.
It marks the third year in a row that the Jaguars have been reclassified. The Jaguars were in Section 2, Group 4 in 2013 when they defeated Phillipsburg for the title. The team then lost to Paterson Eastside in overtime in the Group 4 state semifinal.
The following year, they lost to Franklin in the Section 2, Group 4 final. In 2015, the Jaguars were in Section 1, Group 4 and defeated Paterson Eastside in the championship before losing to Section 2 champion Franklin in the Group 4 state semifinals.
This past season, the Jaguars defeated Franklin in the Section 2, Group 4 championship, but lost to Paterson Kennedy in the Group 4 semifinal.
Indeed, the one thing that has eluded Johnson since he took over the helm at the start of the 2003-04 season has been a trip to the Group 4 state championship in Toms River. Incidentally, the last time the Jaguars made it to the Group championship was in 2003, the season before Johnson became head coach.
But Johnson remains hopeful that his team will get over the proverbial hump next season.