By BRIAN CUNNIFF
Well, here we are, at a place many of us have seen coming for a few years now.
Word has filtered that Wildwood High School has made the decision to no longer play Wildwood Catholic in boys basketball at the Boardwalk Basketball Classic in late December. The Boardwalk Basketball Classic’s Facebook page made the announcement Friday.
The girls basketball teams from the two schools haven’t faced each other for a few years now.
Of course, people are upset. And people from one side are accusing the other side of insidious behavior in the matter. As well as in many other matters.
In other words, typical Wildwood-Wildwood Catholic rivalry stuff.
Except now, apparently there is no rivalry anymore.
The two schools will still work side by side to run a Christmas tournament together to raise college scholarship money for their graduating high school seniors, but they won’t play each other.
Yeah, that makes sense.
Look, I get it. Wildwood Catholic is drawing athletes – some, maybe even many, would say they’re recruiting them – from all over the place. Last winter’s boys basketball team, for example, featured only one player in its regular rotation who hails from the Wildwoods. The rest all came from the vast area known to parochial Wildwoods residents as “offshore.”
The girls basketball team, in recent years, featured players from Cumberland County and beyond. The baseball and softball teams have also had and currently have players from as far off as Cumberland County.
Wildwood, on the other hand, can only draw athletes from a small, sparsely-populated island that is also sending students to Wildwood Catholic, the county technical high school, St. Augustine Prep and other places through the public school-choice program. All of that helps create Wildwood’s standing as one of the smallest regular public high schools in the state.
So Wildwood feels it is at a gross disadvantage, which, whether people from Wildwood Catholic want to admit it, is true.
But I’ll argue that part of that gross disadvantage is self inflicted. Wildwood’s insistence on remaining in the Tri-County Conference, a move that was made nearly two decades ago to save its football program, is a major factor. I’ll argue that Wildwood is losing athletes to other local Cape-Atlantic League schools because it plays in a conference in which its closest away game is an hour and 30 minutes from home by bus against schools that, even after 16 years in the league, no one in Cape May County cares about. Wildwood gets hardly any fans for league basketball games against Clayton, Pitman and Gloucester. Yet a non-league game against Lower Cape May last season still produced close to a sellout. Wildwood’s second-largest boys basketball crowd of the season was for a scrimmage against Middle Township.
A scrimmage, for goodness sake.
Moreover, Wildwood’s football team no longer needs saving in that regard; the development of the West Jersey Football League ensures that the Warriors will only play small public schools like itself in football.
You also can’t blame Wildwood Catholic for being good.
Sure, Wildwood doesn’t want to feel like a sacrificial lamb, placed in a boys basketball game against Wildwood Catholic it has virtually no chance to win these days, just so the community can see the game and have a nice night out and the fans and alumni can get together after the game at the various watering holes around town. Wildwood also doesn’t like receiving what it feels is an automatic loss so early in the season when so much is at stake with power points with respect to state tournament seeding.
Wildwood, and others, can be upset with Wildwood Catholic’s “recruiting” of basketball players and other athletes all it wants. But what some people don’t understand is that Catholic schools still exist only because they’re able to recruit students, despite the Church hierarchy’s obvious stance, however covert, that they’re not interested in education anymore. Some of those students just so happen to be athletes.
We’re in such a crazed society these days when it comes to high school athletics. No one cares if a world-class pianist shows up at a Catholic school as a freshman. But for some reason there’s hell to pay and there are calls for a Watergate-type investigation if a Division I-caliber basketball player shows up at one.
There’s this narrative playing out all over the state from public school people who say that Catholic schools are going after “our kids.” Well, just because a child goes to school in your public district through eighth grade doesn’t give you any greater right than another school to further educate that child in high school. Anyone thinking otherwise is delusional. And if you’re losing so many of “our kids” to other schools, maybe it’s time to look in the mirror for reasons why.
All that said, public schools really can’t dispatch people to watch grammar school athletes compete like private schools can and do. They really can’t benefit by creating ties with top-flight AAU programs. They’re limited to the number of schools from which potential athletes come. They can’t grab athletes from all over the place.
The other argument from the public school side is that some athletes attending private schools are there partly due to athletic scholarships. Athletic scholarships are illegal under state athletic association rules. But if you believe the rumors, some of these athletes aren’t paying full tuition or, in some cases, not paying any tuition at all because someone else – in college athletics they’re called boosters – is paying all or part of that tuition for them.
Is that true? Oh, I don’t know.
Does it matter? It does to some people.
Moreover, private schools seem to get an inordinate number of transfers. Do those transfers just drop into their laps by coincidence? Again, not sure. But who knows?
For full disclosure, yes, my wife just completed her first season as Wildwood High School’s head girls basketball coach. She’s been the head softball coach there for quite a while. She was not involved in the decision to not play Wildwood Catholic. In fact, she tried to schedule Wildwood Catholic in basketball this past season but the schools could not work it out. I also coached the freshmen boys basketball team at Wildwood for a couple years in the mid 1990s. But I will also tell you that I attended Catholic school for 12 years, played baseball at a Catholic prep school athletic powerhouse for the last four of those 12. So I get both sides. When I was part of the Boardwalk Basketball Classic committee, I sat through two-hour meetings during which at times more half of the meeting time was spent talking about past Wildwood-Wildwood Catholic games in all sports and arguing about which school was holier than the other.
So now that I’ve probably ticked off everyone from both sides, let’s get to a solution here.
Wildwood and Wildwood Catholic should be playing each other every season in all sports. The games should be played after the state tournament cutoff date for each sport, this way the outcome does nothing to affect the playoff standing of each team. The only thing tangible that occurs is another win on the final record for one side and another loss on the final record for the other, which is no big deal. The intangible benefits are boundless. We’ll get to that in a bit.
In basketball, the sport most of the fans of both schools care about the most, Wildwood and Wildwood Catholic should meet on the first Saturday after the playoff cutoff, which would be the second Saturday in February. Play the girls game in the afternoon in one school’s gym and the boys game in the evening at the other and then switch the venues the following year and so on. The kids will fight like hell, the fans will scream like hell and the coaches will look like hell when it’s all over. And they’ll all scatter to different bars, restaurants and house parties after the game and mingle and talk and laugh with one another because through all of this ridiculous mess they’re all still friends.
Ask anyone who’s played a sport at the high school level, most wouldn’t remember what their team’s record was during their senior year. But they do remember playing the games in front of rabid crowds. They do remember thrilling victories and crushing defeats against their rivals. They do remember things that happened during the games more vividly than the results of them.
Want an example? Wildwood Catholic’s boys basketball team once clinched a division title by beating St. Joseph on a cold February evening in North Wildwood in the early 1990s. But what’s remembered most about that game? A Wildwood Catholic player, in garbage time near the end, took the ball and ran up a wall to dunk on a side basket only used during gym class. Nearly all of those involved still laugh about it to this day, although then-head coach Fran St. John not so much.
I remember coaching a freshmen basketball game against Wildwood Catholic in their quirky little gym now named, aptly, for legendary Sister Mary Ellen Ford, a longtime, popular and impactful educator at the school. The game took more than two hours to play, partly because 79 free throws – yes, 79 in a freshmen game – were attempted by both teams combined. I remember how loud the gym got toward the end as fans took their seats in anticipation of the junior varsity and varsity games that followed. What I don’t remember is who won. I do remember that our teams split their two meetings that year but I have no idea who won in which gym.
People remember experiences. Memories of experiences are about all we get to take with us through our lives. Athletes from Wildwood and Wildwood Catholic should be able to take memories of playing their closest rivals with them and remember them fondly. They should be able to reminisce with their former teammates and rivals as they age because the result of a game played when they were 16 or 17 years old really means nothing when they’re 26 or 27. The experience of playing in the games does.
They shouldn’t have to explain, 20, 30 and 40 years on, why they didn’t play sports against kids – friends – from another high school located a five-minute drive from theirs.