By BRIAN CUNNIFF
A long, exciting and extremely rewarding season of high school basketball has come to an end.
What a season it was.
Cape May County produced no state champions and just one South Jersey champion in 2017-18. But the basketball was played at a high level, producing a number of memorable games and impressive individual performances.
On the boys side, Wildwood Catholic emerged as one of the best teams in the region. The Crusaders set a program record in victories in finishing 26-3 and won the Cape-Atlantic League title by beating Atlantic City in overtime in front of more than 2,000 people at Richard Stockton University. They also won two state playoff games in the always-difficult South Jersey Non-Public B sectional.
Lower Cape May emerged as a community favorite. The Caper Tigers, without a player in its starting lineup taller than 6-1, went 21-7 and made an extraordinary run in the South Jersey Group II Tournament, reaching the sectional title game and losing to eventual state champion Haddonfield. No one associated with the program will forget the thrilling overtime win at home over Barnegat in the sectional semifinal round.
Ocean City was a fun watch as well. Despite returning no starters, the Raiders won 20 games for the first time in longtime coach John Bruno’s career, qualified for the CAL playoff tournament and won a pair of state playoff games in South Jersey Group III.
Middle Township had its moments. The Panthers were a bit up and down, finishing at 14-12. But they earned some nice wins along the way, particularly over St. Joseph, Millville, Lower Cape May twice and Burlington City.
Wildwood was rather competitive. The Warriors won a share of the Tri-County Classic Division title, finished 17-10 overall and won a first-round state playoff game.
Cape May Tech was under .500 at 12-13. But the Hawks also won a pair of thrilling games against Cape May County opponents, rallying to beat both Middle Township and Wildwood.
One of the themes for high school girls basketball in Cape May County this winter was the emergence of talented young players.
Ocean City, with just one starter returning from last year’s state finalist, overachieved big time. The Raiders finished 22-9, lost a thrilling CAL title game to Mainland in overtime but then returned nine days later to beat Mainland to win their third straight South Jersey title. And may of their key players are back.
Wildwood won 20 games for the third time in four seasons, shared the Tri-County Classic Division championship and lost a heartbreaking game in the second round of the state playoffs, rallying from a 16-point first-half deficit to take a late lead, only to lose by a point to Woodbury. The Lady Warriors are projected to return three starters.
Middle Township, with a sophomore and freshman emerging as its top two players, went 15-10 and played quite competitively against a tough schedule. The Lady Panthers lose just one starter to graduation.
Wildwood Catholic won 15 games as well, with four freshmen in the regular rotation, including the rather dynamic Marianna Papazoglou.
Cape May Tech struggled, but had a couple of younger players in the lineup, lending hope that some better days are ahead.
Some other highlights from the season:
Youth is served: Quite a few younger players, some of them debutants, made quite an impact this season, especially on the girls side. Wildwood Catholic’s Marianna Papazoglou (19.3 ppg, 10.7 rpg, 5.1 apg) proved to be one of the top freshmen in South Jersey. Middle Township had a pair of key young contributors in sophomore Kira Sides (16.2 ppg, 5.0 rpg) and freshman Kate Herlihy (10.3 ppg). Ocean City sophomore Emma Finnegan (7.1 ppg) was a major cog for a South Jersey championship team. Other players such as freshmen Chloe Lawler of Lower Cape May, Aliyah Gray-Rivera and Lauren McCallion of Wildwood Catholic, Jenna Hans and Leah Benichou of Wildwood and sophomores Maddie Barber and Aubrey Huner of Middle Township and Helena Roesing of Lower Cape May also showed promise. On the boys side, freshman Martin Anguelov of Lower Cape May averaged right around 14 points per game while making more than 100 three-pointers in his first high school season. Sophomores Taj Thweatt (13.0 ppg, 7.6 rpg) and Jahlil White (7.9 ppg) were major contributors for Wildwood Catholic’s CAL champion team. Sophomore Jacob Hopping was a key role player for the Crusaders.
Prolific scorers: The 2017-18 season featured quite a few high-volume scorers. In fact, we watched three boys players who are their respective programs’ all-time leading scorers. They include Cape May Tech’s Josh Wright (1,782 points with a season to go), Lower Cape May’s Pat Holden (2,103 points) and Wildwood’s Kyion Flanders (2,131 points). Wildwood Catholic senior Caleb Fields was also an elite scorer, ending his career with 1,665 points. All four of those aforementioned players averaged at least 20 points per game this season. Meanwhile, Wildwood junior Tyler Tomlin averared 19.3 points per game. On the girls side, Wildwood Catholic’s Marianna Papazoglou (19.3 ppg) and Wildwood’s Maddie McCracken (23.4 ppg) were among the top scorers in South Jersey.
The playmakers: We saw some outstanding point guard play this winter. Pat Holden of Lower Cape May, Joey Sacco of Ocean City, Jalen Freeman of Middle Township and Caleb Fields of Wildwood Catholic were among the best at the position in the CAL. Danielle Donoghue of Ocean City, Maddie McCracken of Wildwood and Kate Herlihy of Middle Township were equally adept on the girls side. And then there’s Wildwood Catholic freshman Marianna Papazoglou, who emerged as an outstanding “point forward.”
Inspiring comeback: Lower Cape May’s Olivia Levin suffered a devastating knee injury that cut short her junior season. She was medically cleared to play this winter only a couple of weeks prior to the start of the season and managed to average close to 13 points per game for the Lady Tigers.
All defensive: Boys – Jalen Freeman, Middle Township; Charles Fields, Wildwood Catholic; Taj Thweatt, Wildwood Catholic; Caleb Fields, Wildwood Catholic; Pat Holden, Lower Cape May; Jake McQuarrie, Ocean City. Girls – Maddie Barber, Middle Township; Tayanis Torres, Lower Cape May; Michelle Lugo, Wildwood; Michaela Baker, Ocean City; Tori Rolls, Ocean City.
Games of the Year: Boys – Lower Cape May and Ocean City played two games that were decided in the final minute. Wildwood beat Lower Cape May in a spirited Saturday afternoon game. Cape May Tech upset Middle Township and rallied from an 18-point deficit to beat Wildwood. Lower Cape May scored an overtime win over Barnegat in a state playoff game. Wildwood beat Penns Grove at home by two. But Wildwood Catholic was in quite a few thrillers with some of the top teams in the region. The best? We’ll go with the Crusaders’ overtime win over Atlantic City in the CAL title game in front of more than 2,000 people at Stockton University. Girls – Can’t start this list unless you mention all four Mainland-Ocean City games, the first three of which were won in overtime by the Mustangs. Wildwood rallied from an 11-point second-half deficit to beat a good Delsea team and also rallied from a 16-point first-half deficit to take a one-point lead on Woodbury in a state playoff game, only to lose by one. Middle Township edged Wildwood Catholic twice in two wonderful games that were decided late. Middle also had a big comeback to nip Holy Spirit. The winner? We’ll go with the CAL girls title game, when Ocean City rallied from a 16-point deficit at the close of three quarters to force overtime, only to see Mainland pull away for a 41-39 win. Ocean City had a three-point shot in the air just prior to the buzzer that would have won it.
Milestones reached: Wildwood’s Kyion Flanders and Lower’s Pat Holden each reached 2,000 career points. Wildwood’s Maddie McCracken went past 1,000 career points. Wildwood’s Tyler Tomlin made a Cape May County record 11 three-pointers in a game in a late-season win over Gloucester. Wildwood Catholic boys coach Dave DeWeese surpassed 250 career victories early in the season. Wildwood Catholic girls coach Steve DiPatri was announced as an inductee into the New Jersey Coaches Hall of Fame and surpassed 450 career victories.
Potential milestones: Cape May Tech’s Josh Wright is on pace to run past the 2,000-point mark next season. Middle Township junior Jalen Freeman and Wildwood junior Tyler Tomlin are both on pace to reach 1,000 career points. Wildwood’s Maddie McCracken needs 641 points in her senior season next winter to become just the third female career 2,000-point scorer in county history. And, after posting 502 points as a freshman, Wildwood Catholic’s Marianna Papazoglou has a chance to reach 1,000 career points in just her second high school season.
Looking ahead: There will be a little bit of rebuilding taking place on the boys side, with Lower Cape May, Wildwood and Wildwood Catholic each losing transcendent players to graduation. But Wildwood will return a proven scorer in Tyler Tomlin and should do fine in a realigned Tri-County Classic Division. And Wildwood Catholic is still bringing back a good group of juniors with experience and should still be among the top teams in the region. Middle has a good group returning and should challenge for a CAL playoff berth and a deep run in the state tournament. Cape May Tech will look to improve as Josh Wright returns for his final season. Wright is on pace to easily surpass 2,000 career points. There is a ton of talent projected to return on the girls side. Ocean City will bring back a handful of starters and contributors from this year’s South Jersey championship team. Wildwood Catholic and Middle Township could each improve significantly by bringing back lots of young players with experience. And Wildwood should still be a contender in the Tri-Co Classic and in Group I with Maddie McCracken back for her senior season.
Only 35 weeks until the first official practice of the 2018-19 season.