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TOM WILLIAMS COLUMN: Luke Meli & Ryley Burns helped make the Raiders champions

In their last home game of the regular season, most high schools celebrate Senior Night. It might have started with basketball decades ago but it has spread to almost every sport.

They introduce the seniors (including cheerleaders, managers and marching band members) along with their parents.

Some take the tribute even further, starting an entire lineup of seniors or, at least, starting as many seniors as possible.

John Bruno almost always starts five seniors on that special night. He usually gets his regular lineup out on the court sometime during the first quarter. There was 2004, however, when senior Will Myers shot the three-pointer so well on Senior Night that he earned additional playing time in the remaining games. He made nine straight over three games and finished the season with a .565 three-point percentage that is still the school record.

On Wednesday night Ocean City experienced another special Senior Night story.

You probably know the situation – Ocean City and Mainland were tied for first place in the National Conference and both were playing. It turned out that Ocean City beat Cedar Creek and Lower Cape May stunned Mainland, both in overtime.

That left Ocean City as the conference champ all by itself.

But a lot of things go into an overtime win (Bruno’s career record is 25-16 in those games) and three seniors – Joe Sacco, Luke Varallo and Donovan Graham – got the job done in overtime, scoring 12 of the Raiders’ 15 points in the extra period.

However, when you look back to the start of the game you find a couple other seniors scored some key points, too.

Luke Meli (above) is a senior who never got a chance to play basketball in high school because of a heart condition. And he was a pretty good player in middle school.

“Luke was one of the best defenders I’ve ever coached,” said Mike Williscroft, his middle school coach. “He understood how to get around a screen and how to be in a help position at all times. He has the potential to be a really good coach someday. I even had him teach his teammates how to play defense. He was just a great kid to coach.”

Bruno agrees. “I knew Luke loved basketball the first time I saw him play in eighth grade, especially when I saw how hard he played on defense.”

Raider Nation loves him, too, holding up a Big Head photo frequently.

Well, on Wednesday Bruno put Meli in his starting lineup with four other seniors. He couldn’t take a chance of contact that might place him in danger so he got Absegami coach Randy Dean to agree to start the game in unusual style. The ball would be tapped to Meli and he would dribble down and score two points. Two official points. They counted in all the stats.

Then, a bogus technical foul was charged against OCHS giving Cedar Creek two free throws. One of them was good, so Ocean City had a 2-1 lead. Meli was replaced to a standing ovation. Even though he still never got to play basketball in high school the way he hoped he could, this unique moment showed the respect his coach, teammates and OCHS fans had for him.

Then there is Ryley Burns. (Apologies for spelling his first name wrong most of the season.)

Burns (above) was another senior who got a Senior Night start. He had played in seven games this season, about four minutes in each.

On Wednesday, Burns grabbed a rebound with the Raiders trailing, 4-2, outlet the ball and hustled down court. He took a pass from Joe Sacco and drained a three-pointer from the right corner. It gave Ocean City a 5-4 lead and also got a great cheer from Raider Nation. Burns was replaced shortly after.

“In the end,” said Bruno, “Luke and Ryley turned out to be crucial – not only to a good start but their points were invaluable when the score ended up tied at 60 after four quarters.”

Luke and Ryley will not see their names on the record boards. They won’t be selected to all star teams. But they stuck it out because they love the game. And, in the end, they took an opportunity and cashed it in – to the tune of five critical points.

Ocean City is the Cape-Atlantic League’s National Conference champion but might not have held that distinction by itself if it wasn’t for the contributions of two seniors starting for the first time on Wednesday night.

When the CAL passes out its awards to the conference champions, Luke Meli and Ryley Burns will not be getting theirs because they showed up for practice and rode the bus all season.

They both played a key role in the Raiders winning it all.