Star guard Jackie Fortis went down with a thumb injury in preseason that kept her out of Absegami’s entire regular-season schedule, so somebody had to step up. It wasn’t surprising to coach Bob Lasko — or anyone familiar with the Braves’ program, for that matter — that senior Gianna Hafner had the best season of her career and led the team to 17 wins and a berth in the South Jersey Group 3 semifinals with her trademark consistency and selfless play.

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Hafner, also a star midfielder on Absegami’s soccer team, could have scored a lot more points than she did, but she knew her role as the point guard and was the ultimate distributor. She was one of the most careful point guards in the league, in terms of turnovers, and was methodical in setting up the Braves’ offensive sets. It was that relentless, methodical approach that helped the Braves go 17-11 and score a pair of heart-pounding, come-from-behind victories in the state playoffs that had Absegami on the doorstep of playing for a sectional title, before a tough loss to Mainland Regional.

“When I first had her, junior year, I could tell she was a really hard worker but she kind of shied away from contact. I wanted her to play a lot tougher, so I really challenged her during her junior year and by the end of the year she was one of our better players. And senior year, she was one of our best players. She ran the team,” said Lasko, a former Holy Spirit assistant who just finished his second year as head coach of Absegami. “Without her, we can’t even run our offense. People don’t realize she can hit an open shot, she can take it to the hoop and score with either her left or right hand, and her turnover-to-assist ratio is probably one of the best in the league. There aren’t many who can even compare to her. And she’s such a leader that she doesn’t even care about being in the spotlight, she just wants to lead the team, and I thought she did a really good job of that this year. Without her, we would have been in serious trouble.

“The two things people forget about are field-goal percentage and turnover-to-assist ratio. She was really good at both of them,” he added. “If we had a six-point lead late in the game, the game was over, and that’s a testament to her. She’s a really hard worker. Her dad is a referee, and you can tell basketball runs in the family. Just a really high basketball IQ kid, and a really nice kid.”

Hafner, the daughter of Cape-Atlantic League referee John Hafner, grew up a soccer player but decided to get into basketball during her days at Galloway Township Middle School. She emulated former Absegami star Julia Dolan, and six years after picking up the game full-time in seventh grade, Hafner will be graduating as one of the top guards in the CAL.

“Even when I was younger I was able to pick things up very quickly. I did a bunch of sports when I was younger, gymnastics, volleyball, tennis. My dad wanted me to be a point guard because he said dribbling the basketball was the most important thing. If you can’t handle the basketball, how do you expect to play? So handling the basketball really became my focus — not necessarily scoring, although that’s a big part of the game. I think playing controlled and being composed and finding the open player so they can score is just as important as scoring 1,000 points,” Hafner said. “I watched so much basketball. Ever since I was in middle school my dad and I would go out and watch games. I just loved watching the game and picked up things from other point guards and how they play. And coach Bob got me to play with the mentality that you don’t have to rush things. There’s no shot clock in high school, so he really taught me to take my time and let the game come to me, and not force anything.”

Hafner made some big-time plays down the stretch in an opening-round win over Toms River South in the state playoffs, and she finished with 10 points, five rebounds, two assists and two steals. In the quarterfinals, she once again helped engineer a fourth-quarter comeback as the No. 4 Braves rallied to beat No. 5 Timber Creek, 48-44.

“My senior season was probably my best season of all my years at Absegami. With coach Bob coming in and this only being his second season with us, he really was able to get us all on the same page and make us gel. He saw what we had and really worked with us and put people in the best position to be successful. Our chemistry was so good and we would do anything for each other, which is why I love this team so much. And being able to go as far as we did just made it even more special. I give a lot of credit to coach Bob for being able to do that in just his second season,” Hafner said. “That first round — we knew no game in the playoffs was going to be easy — Jackie came back and we didn’t know how that would go because it was her first game back. She only had a couple of practices (in December, before she got hurt). But having her back really lit a fire under us and we thought, ‘we can do this.’ We didn’t let any adversity stop us. We didn’t get that far just to stop there. We just kept working for each other, and that’s why we made it as far as we did.”

“She doesn’t really get on kids, but she’s very positive and encouraging, and kids want to be around her. That’s the best thing about her,” Lasko said. “The cool thing about our team was there wasn’t really any jealousy or anything like that, and I put that on her, she really made sure our team was on point and was a real leader. She’s a tough kid who plays no matter what.”

The 13-year-old who used to look up to stars on the Absegami High School team has now become someone that kids at GTMS want to be like, and that’s a special feeling, Hafner said. The future Stockton University student said she hopes she has become the kind of role model that Dolan, now a star soccer player at Temple University, was for her.

“My career was even better than I thought it would be. We got to a position at the end of the season that I didn’t expect, and I think these girls worked so hard for each other. We might not be the best team, but we had the most heart, in my opinion. Looking back on it, I wouldn’t change anything. It made it special that we were able to put Absegami on the list of teams to look out for,” she said. “Playing for Absegami means everything to me. I grew up in Galloway my whole life, and going to GTMS and then Absegami — it’s like a family here. I looked up to Julia Dolan, she was my role model coming into high school, and when she wore that shirt with Absegami across the front, she did it with pride and I wanted to do the same thing. I hope I did, and I hope kids will look up to me. It warms my heart to see kids who want to be like me. I’ve made a lot of mistakes — as everyone does. I wish I could play every game perfectly, but I learned something in every game and I’m still going to keep learning throughout life. Basketball has taught me a lot of lessons, and I hope little girls can look up to me and say they tried their hardest and they worked hard, like I did. I wouldn’t be in the position I was in if I didn’t work hard on my own.”

“She has a nice little handle for a point guard and a good spin move, and all the younger kids see that and try to emulate that. We already know how much trouble we’re going to be in next year without her. We have to find somebody who can run our offense, and that’s a hard thing to do. Guards are at a premium, and she was a premium point guard. We know we can’t replace her, we just have to find somebody who can come close,” Lasko added. “The one thing to know about her is she never had anything easy, nothing was ever easy. She earned everything she got, and that’s the best thing you can say about anybody. She won me over, she took control of that team and really ran our team.”

Hafner is Absegami through-and-through, as mom Ann and dad John have sent four children through the school, including Hafner’s brother, Corey, and older sisters Carlyn and Bon. When asked to sum up what Absegami brown-and-gold has meant to her, Hafner said simply, “Once a Brave, always a Brave. I’m proud to be one.”

Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sully@acglorydays.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays