Madi Hafetz was barely five feet tall when she entered Mainland Regional High School four years ago. She’s still barely five feet tall. But the little girl with the big heart never let her height become a disadvantage on the basketball court, and during an exemplary career on the hardwood she helped lead the Mustangs to a Cape-Atlantic League title and an overall Group 3 state championship — the first one in program history — as well as dozens of other big wins.

Hafetz is a case study in perseverance. She did her time on the junior varsity, getting spot minutes on varsity as a freshman and sophomore as part of the mop-up crew when the Mustangs had a big lead in the fourth quarter. She battled through nagging injuries throughout her career. She worked hard every offseason to improve components of her game, and in her final two seasons became a starter and one of the better defensive guards in the CAL, not to mention a deadly outside shooter to compliment the daunting inside presence of superstar Kylee Watson.

Mainland never would have been near a state championship in 2019 without a player like Watson, who played for the United States U16 national team after her freshman year and will be continuing her career at the University of Oregon this fall. But it’s also true that the Stangs probably wouldn’t have won that title with Watson alone. Players such as Hafetz, Claudia Mairone, Jillian Gatley, Kaitlyn Boggs, Taylor Dalzell, Lauren Toner and Camryn Dirkes all played huge roles during a season in which Mainland went 28-4, including just two losses in the regular season.

Mustangs coach Scott Betson admits Hafetz was none too thrilled about being a bench player her first two seasons, but he kept telling her that if she stuck with it she would make a big impact on the program.

“Her whole career arch was pretty cool. It’s what you’re looking for in a high school athlete. Early on she hoped to play a little more her freshman and sophomores years and we had conversations where I told her to just keep plugging away, it’s going to come. And that’s what happened. She was really important for us the last two years and you really couldn’t build a kid who was better suited to play around Kylee than her. With all the attention Kylee draws, she just had to find Madi and she would knock down shots more often than not,” Betson said. “She plugged away at it, and in all honesty, part of the conversation I had with her was it wasn’t so much how good she was as a player, it was just some of the older players we had in the program. Madi would have been a four-year starter on a lot of teams, she just happened to walk into a program that was loaded with a bunch of really good juniors and seniors her first two years. She had the ability, it was just about her putting in her time and continuing to work at her game.”

“My expectations with basketball was I just wanted to play my best. Freshman year I was playing with all these great older girls who were so talented, so that was a little intimidating. But going in I was really excited. I knew some of the coaches beforehand, so I had a positive outlook. Never did I think it was going to go the way it did. (Winning a state championship) was a fun surprise,” said Hafetz, who plans to enroll at the University of Delaware this fall to study business. “I actually remember my freshman year, during the summer workouts, I was so nervous. I had a shot at the top of the key and I didn’t take it. Coach Betson took me out and said, ‘I don’t know what you did in middle school, but here in high school that’s the best shot you’re going to get. I get it, the girl was a lot taller than you and coming at you, but in high school that’s the best shot you’re going to get, so you better learn to take those.’ That memory is stuck in my head, and I’m glad he told me that because I would shoot whenever I had a split second.

“Freshman year I got some minutes, I would get into games we were dominating, so I got some experience,” she added. “But sophomore year is when I really started to get some minutes, and junior year was a very special year for me, the coaches and the rest of my teammates, and for the impact we made at the school. It took some time (for me to feel comfortable) but I came around.”
As a junior, Hafetz and Mairone were two of the premier outside shooters in the CAL, and with Watson and Boggs in the middle, there’s a reason Mainland was so difficult to beat. This year was a much different story, as Dirkes went down with a season-ending injury in December, forcing Hafetz into a much different role as a part-time point guard, part-time shooting guard. She had to add ball-handling duties to her importance as an outside shooter and off-the-ball defender.

“My role changed this year. That was such a bummer and I would have loved to have played my senior year with Cam. She has a great future at Mainland. It was something we didn’t expect, but that’s sports. You get thrown a curveball and you just have to adapt,” Hafetz said. “Our team this year, the players and coaches, did our best to have the best season we could, and we proved that whatever you threw our way we could push through the adversity. It wasn’t the ending we all would have liked, but it some ways maybe it was the ending we needed to show that no matter how hard you work, sometimes it’s not enough and you have to keep going harder.”

“When Cam went down this year it kind of became a point-guard-by-committee type of thing and everybody had to do a little bit of ball-handling and running the offense,” Betson said. “I thought the biggest thing for Madi was her understanding of situations and the stuff we like to run. She was a presence and a leader, and when things were tough she was the one who would tell everybody we were fine, we just had to gather ourselves.”

There was no fairytale ending, as Mainland failed to defend its state title, losing to the hated Ocean City Red Raiders in the South Jersey Group 3 championship game. But Hafetz said she isn’t bitter about the loss, knowing it taught her and her teammates a life lesson.

“It was hard in that moment because we were up in that game and we lost it in the second half. It was hard to absorb everything in that moment, but I feel like all the good that basketball brought me outweighed that moment,” she said. “Even losing against Atlantic City at Stockton (in the CAL final), at least we can say we lost to two really great teams that both really deserved those wins. I genuinely feel like all the good I had in four years outweighed the bad.”

Part of the good Hafetz talks about is playing alongside Watson, perhaps the greatest high school girls basketball player South Jersey has ever seen. She’s been a star since she was in middle school, receiving NCAA Division I offers before even playing in her first high school game. She was interviewed by media after nearly every game she played, but there were never any ill feelings among teammates or jealousy that Watson was getting all the headlines. Hafetz and Watson are the best of friends and have grown up playing basketball together since they could walk.

“(Jealousy) might have been the case if not for two things: if Kylee weren’t so likeable and if Madi didn’t love Kylee like a sister. Those two were inseparable,” Betson said. “I used to call them ‘the odd couple’ because of how tall Kylee is and having little Madi right next to her. Those two are about as tight as you can get. And Madi knew her game was so well-suited to playing next to Ky. Kylee gets the ball inside and draws a lot of attention, and Madi is going to hurt you if sag off of her. Those are two special kids who really love each other.”

“Every gym we walked into it was like, ‘look, there’s Kylee Watson.’ But what a lot of people didn’t know — and something we proved to everyone — was, yes, we had Ky, but the rest of us were so close and our chemistry was so great that it didn’t come down to talent. We all loved the game, and we all loved playing alongside each other. I remember when Taylor was doing all those interviews after games we won (in 2019) she kept saying, ‘I just don’t want to lose. I want to play for everyone else.’ We wanted to play for one another. What took the pressure off was we knew we all had each other’s backs. That season didn’t just rely on talent and skill. That was a decade’s worth of playing with one another that won us that state championship,” Hafetz said.

“That ring we got is sitting next to my bed and I’ll have that forever, but what I’ll remember are the little things. Practices, having fun with the coaches — behind the scenes they are so much fun. All the thought and effort they put in to making sure our careers was more than just the wins and losses — we have this tradition before the start of playoffs every year where we go out to dinner as a team. Stuff like that, I credit my coaches and all the teammates I’ve had from freshman year to my last game, they made it worthwhile. I have awesome memories because of them, and I’ll always appreciate them for that.

“Every part of my high school athletic career was kind of a surprise with the success and downfalls, but every part of it — the good and the bad — I’ll cherish.”

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