Columbia HS girls’ basketball recalls special 1997-98 season

Cougars won conference, county and state titles during near-perfect campaign, 20 years ago


Photo courtesy of Johanna Wright
The 1997-98 Columbia High School girls’ basketball team finished with a spectacular 30-1 record. Seated from left: Nia Rasool, SchrKya Massey, Ijeoma Gayle Nwafili, Marcie Dickson, Emily McKee, Monique Cole, and Button England. Standing from left: Assistant coach Anthony Cicenia, assistant coach Gerry Paradiso, Jessica McGrath, Stacey Townsend, Tiffany Smith, Ana Boksay, Mobolaji Akiode, Jazmine Wright, Zakiyyah Oglesby, and head coach Johanna Wright.

MAPLEWOOD, NJ – As the head coach of the girls’ basketball team at Columbia High School, Johanna Wright got the opportunity to coach some top players and some outstanding teams.

But for Wright, who is now a well-respected member of the local Board of Education, her top thrill on the hardwood came in the winter of 1997-98. That season, the Cougars picked up conference, county and state titles, and advanced to the Tournament of Champions finals against powerful Mendham with a perfect 30-0 record. Columbia did lose that contest, but it was still a remarkable winter for Wright’s players.

“It’s hard to believe that it’s been 20 years since that season,” said Wright, whose late husband, Lonnie, was a legendary athlete at South Side High in Newark in the early 1960s. “We were so successful because everyone on the squad contributed.”

For Wright, who always stressed academics to her players, the two players she counted on most were senior point guard Stacey Townsend, and her daughter, Jazmine Wright, who was a scoring machine and top rebounder up front. The duo had been playing hoops together since they were in grammar school.

“I felt a little pressure that year because I was coming back from a serious injury,” said Townsend, who is now the head women’s coach at Monroe College in New Rochelle, N.Y. “I wanted to prove myself right from the beginning of the season in December.”

Jazmine Wright, who is now the CHS girls’ head coach, also might have felt some pressure in her senior campaign, but she knew that anyone on the court could lift up the team at a given moment.

On the talented CHS roster, youngsters like Schryka Massey, Marcie Dickson, Gayle Nwafili and Mobalaji Akiode, made tremendous contributions.

“Every player on the team really contributed,” emphasized Johanna Wright. “Against Bloomfield in the sectional finals, Gayle won the game with a putback in the final seconds. She was only a freshman, but she had great poise.”

Townsend, who played in college at Seton Hall University, suggests that the Cougars always played with a great deal of confidence.

“We have the right chemistry,” remarked Townsend, who previously served as the head women’s coach at Essex County College. “We all understood our roles, and what it would take to win games, particularly the big ones. We all had that hunger to succeed.”

Jazmine Wright, who had more than 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds in her remarkable career, always seemed to produce, even if she had two players defend her.

“It was a thrill to get 2,000 points and 1,000 boards,” said Wright, who played her college ball at Syracuse. “But the team success meant a lot more to me.

“When I was on the court, my mom treated me just like every other player on the team. When we got home after a game, then it  was just a normal mother/daughter relationship.”

Steve Jenkins, the Bloomfield High School Athletic Director who formerly coached girls’ basketball at BHS, says that Columbia was so successful under Wright because “they played hard and were so smart on the court.”

Jazmine Wright, who also stood out in track and field, feels that the underclassmen had a lot to do with the CHS success in 1997-98.

“I guess Stacey and myself were considered the team leaders, but we didn’t have to do it by ourselves. Believe me, I had a lot of help up front and it was the same with Stacey in the backcourt.”

“We had several players who scored in double figures,” recalled Johanna Wright. “If Jaz or Stacey had an off game, someone else would pick us up.”

“In the TOC finals against Mendham, I think foul trouble did us in. But that loss took nothing away from a 30-win season. We left Rutgers that day with great memories of a special basketball season.”

COUGAR TALES – Akiode has established a “Hope for Girls” Foundation in Nigeria…

Jazmine Wright was inducted into the CHS Hall of Fame in 2007, and Johanna Wright received the same honor in 2009…

In 2016, the 1997-98 went into the CHS Hall, 18 years after their memorable season… Johanna Wright ranks with Gene Chyzowych (soccer) and Len Klepeck (track and field) as the best coach in CHS history. She also keeps busy today, serving on the Board of Trustees at Essex County College…

When Townsend and Wright were in college, UConn was starting its domination in women’s basketball… In the Essex County Tournament finals, CHS beat Clifford Scott, 64-52. The Cougars won the 1996 title over Bloomfield, 49-41, when Townsend and Wright were sophomores.