Robbinsville’s Marieli Perez maneuvers during a 59-30 loss to Notre Dame Jan. 17. (Photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)

At the beginning of last season, the Robbinsville High girls’ basketball program had to start from close to scratch.

After a multitude of players had left the team, the Ravens were left with a squad that consisted almost entirely of underclassmen, with two juniors and no seniors.

Team co-captains and lone juniors Maya Johnson and Marieli Perez, with the guidance of head coach Joe Washington, led the team to a 6-17 record. Though the record was down from an 11-15 campaign in 2017-18, Robbinsville High was still able to exceed the expectations set for them at the beginning of the season.

Going into the new year, Washington was excited about bringing back a large field of players from last season. Halfway through the 2019-20 season, the Ravens sat at 4-7, including double-digit wins over Nottingham and West Windsor-Plainsboro South.

“We had an offseason together, which is huge,” Washington said. “We didn’t have that last year. We got in the weight room, we ran, all summer we had at least 10 to 14 girls in the gym every day, we’ve been able to start building off of that.”

Now a senior, Johnson was happy with the pool of players the Ravens were able to bring back for 2020.

“We have 10 to 12 people now that know what it’s like to play in a high school varsity game,” Johnson said. “The difference between middle school and high school is a big jump, even the difference between junior varsity and varsity is a big jump, so the fact that we have so many people that know what winning feels like and what losing feels like is amazing.”

Despite the larger rate of player retention going into the 2019-2020 season, Washington was adamant about bringing new players into the fray. He said the program has 13 new players this season.

After spending the last season trying to give the Ravens on-court experience, Washington set the targets high for Robbinsville come the end of the season.

“We set some goals ourselves,” Washington said. “We want to make the playoffs this year, and we want to win a Mercer County Tournament game. Competing for our division is a goal of ours.”

Robbinsville’s Kailey Pacifico dribbles around a Notre Dame opponent during a 59-30 loss at home Jan. 17. (Photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)

Completing the set goals will be a tall task for the Ravens, as they are going to have to play without their lineup fixture of the past three seasons.

Over the offseason, Johnson tore her ACL and will have to spend her senior season on the sidelines. Despite that fact, Johnson remains undeterred from helping her team every way that she can.

“We know our goals,” Johnson said. “We made a list of goals that we have, and we’re going to stick to them. I’m going to make sure there’s a lot of positive energy out there, make sure our competitive energy is up and make sure our team knows that we deserve to be here.”

Washington added, “When Maya tore her ACL, we didn’t change our goals. We just said to ourselves, ‘We’re going to attack as if she’s on the court.’”

On top of the injury to Johnson, being in contention for the Valley division crown could be a tall order. The Ravens have to face teams like Ewing High School, who finished last season with a 16-8 record, highlighted by an in-division record of 4-0, including a convincing 75-40 win over Robbinsville last January.

Heading into the beginning of this season, Washington saw great things from the Ravens in practice.

“Defensively, we’ve been pretty tough,” Washington said, “Last year, we had a lot of teams where we held them to 40 points or under. I think that’s going to be a point of focus of ours again. They work hard, we’re able to play a few more defenses this year than we did last year, so that’s definitely been a positive for us.”

One of the big upsides to the program’s development is the existence of girls’ basketball on three levels: varsity, junior varsity and freshman, something that wasn’t always guaranteed for Robbinsville.

Johnson said that having three levels of basketball is “amazing” for the program.

She added, “My freshman year, we didn’t have three levels. The fact that we have that now and we’ll be able to start building a program. It’s great to see the program better as I’m leaving then when I came in.”

Without Johnson on the court, the team voted on three girls to serve as co-captains for the season. Perez was again selected as a captain for her senior season, and she was joined by sophomores Vanessa Sabol and Kailey Pacifico to serve as co-captains for the team.

Washington said, “I can already see [the sophomores] stepping into that role that they may not have been comfortable doing last year and taking on that ownership of the program.”

The Ravens round out their 2019-2020 season against Lawrence on Feb. 4, West Windsor-Plainsboro North on Feb. 7, Steinert on Feb. 11 and Moorestown on Feb. 15.

Despite having seen the end of her high school playing career, Johnson knows she has a lot to give to the Ravens this season.

“I’ve been blessed with amazing teammates all four years that I’ve been here,” Johnson said. “I just want to make sure I have the opportunity to pay that back and be a good teammate to everybody else.”