By BRIAN CUNNIFF
A Wildwood Catholic High School graduate will be playing in the NCAA Division III men’s basketball tournament this weekend.
And his first game in the tournament will be played right here in South Jersey.
Ryan Legler, a 2017 graduate of Wildwood Catholic, and Rowan University captured the New Jersey Athletic Conference title with an 80-77 win over Jersey City University on Friday, giving the Profs an automatic bid to the Division III tournament.
An added bonus came when the tournament field was announced Monday. The Profs are a host site and will play at home Friday against Emerson College at 7:30 p.m. That game follows a contest between Nichols College and Middlebury College at 5:30. The winners of Friday’s games will play in the second round Saturday at Rowan at 7 p.m.
“This has been such a great experience I’ve had this year,” Legler said by phone from Rowan’s campus in Glassboro. “I think we’re poised to make a run here.”
Rowan put together a fine regular season, finishing 19-6 overall, 13-5 in the NJAC, before winning both of its NJAC Tournament games. The Profs beat Montclair State, 95-86, in the semifinal prior to winning at Jersey City in the title game.
It is the 11th NJAC title for Rowan but first since 1999.
Legler, a sophomore backup guard, averages 5.0 points in 11.4 minutes per game for the Profs this season. He’s one of only four Rowan players to see action in all 27 of the team’s games.
Legler expects Rowan to enjoy strong fan support for its NCAA opener on Friday.
“For sure. Even early in the season we had a decent amount of people at our home games,” he said. “But then especially in our NJAC (playoff semifinal) game and now that we’ve made the tournament for the first time in 20 years, the vibe around campus is great. Everywhere we go people are saying congratulations and they’re asking when we’re playing next. I know they’re putting in an extra set of seats under the basket for the fans. We’re expecting it to sell out Friday. When our fans are here and our gym is rocking we’re hard to beat.”
Legler, who was a three-year starter at point guard for Wildwood Catholic, helps provide offense off the bench for a Rowan team that plays an up-tempo style. He’s third on the team in three-pointers made with 38, shooting a solid 37.6 percent from that distance.
“My role is to play as hard as I can and get open shots,” Legler. “Like my coach (Joe Crispin) says, go out there and hunt down shots. Coach Crispin has confidence in me and is always telling me I’m one of the best shooters on the team. My job is to shoot the ball when I’m open, get loose balls, grab a rebound, get a steal or two and get 50-50 balls. I’m more of a utility guy.”
Despite the team success, college basketball has been a bit of an adjustment for Legler. He said his father, Tim, a former NBA player and now an NBA analyst for ESPN, has helped him with that adjustment. Legler plays behind guard-playing brothers Nick and Rob DePersia, a pair of seniors from Haddonfield who both average in double figures.
“My dad just told me to be patient. That’s been his message the whole time,” Legler said. “He told me how there’s some established players here and that I shouldn’t expect to play all these minutes my freshman and sophomore years. You have to work hard for everything you get at this level. Nothing is promised to you or just given to you. You have to earn your minutes. You have to earn everything you get.
“It’s different because in high school I was always on the floor at the end of games. But now I’m learning under some of the best guards to ever play here. I’m competitive and I want to be on the floor to help make the play to win a game at the end. Obviously I don’t have that opportunity right now so I do my best to cheer on from my position on the bench. But I get to see the best every day in practice. I have Nick and Robbie picking me up fullcourt and trapping me in practice all the time.”
Legler, a business management major, still has two more seasons to play for Rowan and his role could expand as some of the older players graduate. But right now, he can’t wait for Friday’s NCAA Tournament game.
“College basketball has been everything that I wanted,” Legler said. “It’s a competitive level every single day. Playing in the NCAA Tournament is something that I’ve never experienced before, obviously. This is a pretty great experience I’ve had here so far. Coming here was the best decision I’ve made.”