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Gloucester Catholic girls top Highland in opener

There was a bit of unavoidable awkwardness in the Gloucester Catholic gym, at least initially. It was almost as if the schedule makers were playing some kind of sick joke. And it was hard not to notice.

There was a bit of unavoidable awkwardness in the Gloucester Catholic gym, at least initially.

It was almost as if the schedule makers were playing some kind of sick joke. And it was hard not to notice.

But in the end, these were kids. And this was basketball.

And both - the game itself, and the character of the players - were operating at a high level Saturday when the Gloucester Catholic girls' basketball team topped visiting Highland, 61-31, on opening day for both teams.

The game underscored the most talked-about offseason move in South Jersey: The transfer of Highland star Azana Baines to Gloucester Catholic.

Baines - the rare 5-foot-11 guard - was a freshman sensation for Highland last season, setting the stage for what looked like a return to prominence for the Tartans.

She was lauded for staying with her local public school rather than opting for a private school. She was a hometown hero.

Until she wasn't.

Offseason reports varied on exactly why Baines decided to transfer to a team that was already the best in South Jersey. Some of those reports, both sides said Saturday, only made tensions worse.

Saturday, Baines stressed that her move to Gloucester Catholic was a family decision. She said that it wasn't all about basketball. She would prefer not to talk about every detail in the media.

But what she did choose to say was telling.

"I told [Highland] I still want to come out to their games, I still want to be there to support them when I can," said Baines, who was sidelined for the game as she abides by the state transfer rule that dictates she must sit the first 30 days of the season. "I loved Highland. But I'm just trying to better myself - for myself and for my family."

In some ways, then, this was a chance for both sides to clear the air.

Highland coach John Senft has known Baines since she was in fifth grade. He said he still loves her as a player and a person. But one of the most distressing parts of this ordeal was the perception that his school and the environment surrounding his program were deficient. Both sides squashed that Saturday.

"This is a great community. Our kids works hard, they do things the right way," Senft said. "There are a bunch of honor students on this team. Our environment is wonderful, our kids are wonderful."

The class of his team was evident.

As for Gloucester Catholic - the Rams stole the show with their skill.

The team's senior trio of forwards Tenisha Pressley and Dani Sanderlin and point guard Naiy Sabb were in sync and selfless, and each flashed improvements over last season.

"This was a good first game, but we feel like we can get even better," said Sabb, who finished with a game-high 22 points, including four three-pointers. "And we know Azana will be a really big help."

Through all of the noise surrounding the game, the clearest and most inarguable point was that, with Baines, Gloucester Catholic will be in the conversation about the best teams in the state and the best teams South Jersey has seen in years.

And now that the awkwardness is out of the way, that's where the team's focus is.

"She's a kid with a ton of talent," said Rams coach Lisa Gedaka. "When she steps on the court, it's going to make our team better.

"And she's not here because Highland isn't a great school." Gedaka added. "She left for reasons outside of basketball - we didn't recruit her - and our team benefited from it. And we've embraced her."

Baines, who Gedaka said will play all five positions at times, is excited to spend the first part of the season learning.

But she can't wait to get on the court with players like Sanderlin and Sabb, both of whom she has played with in AAU basketball.

And she, like the rest of the state, wants to see what Gloucester Catholic can accomplish at full strength.

"I'm definitely excited," said Baines,who is allowed to practice with the team. "I already see that we have chemistry. I think I can contribute a lot, especially with helping everyone on this team shine."

Highland 4 10 8 9 - 31

Gloucester Catholic 20 12 15 14 - 61

H: Ay'ana Bey 15, Alexa Bishop 2, Sha'nisha Coleman 5, Gia LaBance 3, Cameron Kennedy 2, Paige Gerst 2, Taliyah Toussaint 2.

GC: Naiy Sabb 22, Dani Sanderlin 14, Katie Gerardi 7, Tenisha Pressley 2, Sam Heister 4, Kaitlyn Racobaldo 3, Kiera Regan 4, Mikaela Neilio 3, Bella Steiles 2.