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TOM WILLIAMS COLUMN: That final basketball review

High school basketball ended in the Cape-Atlantic League last Saturday with a doubleheader in the Dixie Howell Memorial Gymnasium. You can see a photo gallery from the day here –

Spring is already here with no-hitters, service aces, birdies, draw controls, baton exchanges and power 10s. But, even though it’s a little later than usual, let’s take one last look at the high school basketball season.

There was one state champion from the CAL this year. The Mainland girls won the first state title in program history and, along the way, made it nine straight seasons the CAL has boasted a South Jersey champ in girls basketball. Between boys and girls basketball, at least one CAL team has won a South Jersey title in 48 of the last 49 years.

Wildwood Catholic won the CAL Tournament for the third time. Among the girls, Ocean City won for the sixth time in girls basketball, the most by any girls program. Paul Baruffi has won 16 games in the CAL Tournament, more than any coach of girls or boys.

Now it is time for the annual basketball buffet, a list of the best of the just completed season from one point of view.

Scoring champions: D.J. Campbell (29.4) and Briel Herbert (21.0), above, both of Vineland, scored the most points per game this year. Campbell is only the eighth boys player in nearly 60 years to win the scoring title in back-to-back years, joining St. Augustine’s Sa’eed Nelson, Tim Burns of St. Joseph, Terence Ward of Egg Harbor Township, LaMarr Greer of Middle Township, Middle’s Rick Harmon, Walt Montford of Atlantic City and Skip Castaldi of Mainland. And Campbell and Herbert winning marks the third time in CAL history that the scoring champions were from the same school – in 2000 Wildwood’s Tylee Thomas and Monica Johnson were winners and in 1982 it was Atlantic City’s Ralph Tally and Valeria Jones.

All Cape-Atlantic Boys: D.J. Campbell, Vineland; Marcellus Ross, St. Joseph, Taj Thweatt, Wildwood Catholic; Jahlil White, Wildwood Catholic; Josh Wright, Cape May Tech.

All Cape-Atlantic Girls: Ionyonia Alves, Oakcrest; Danielle Donoghue, Ocean City; Briel Herbert, Vineland; Marianna Papazoglou, Wildwood Catholic; Kylee Watson, Mainland.

Players of the Year: Taj Thweatt and Kylee Watson (below).

New Jersey’s Best: The Gatorade New Jersey Players of the Year were junior Jabri Abdur-Rahim of Blair Academy and senior Diamond Miller of Franklin. Miller will be heading to Maryland while Abdur-Rahim has offers from Arizona, Florida, Kansas, Rutgers, St. John’s and Texas A&M.

The Predicted 2020-21 CAL Boys All Star Team: Martin Anguelov, Wildwood Catholic; Gannon Brady, Ocean City; Matt Delaney, St. Augustine; DaSean Lopez, Wildwood Catholic; Jordan Stafford, St. Joseph.

The Predicted 2020-21 CAL Girls All Star Team: Kaitlyn Boggs, Mainland; Camryn Dirkes, Mainland; Sanai Garrison-Macon, Atlantic City; Cea’anai Jackson, Atlantic Tech; Marianna Papazoglou, Wildwood Catholic.

All Transfer Team: Andrew Delaney (Blair Academy to St. Augustine); Jalen Freeman (Middle Township to Pleasantville); Noel Gonzalez (St. Joseph to Pleasantville); Jordan Stafford (Absegami to St. Joseph); Gabby Turco (Washington Township to Wildwood Catholic).

Championship Regulars: The CAL completed its eighth basketball tournaments this season. It is a real accomplishment to be one of the eight teams that qualifies to play in the tournament and an even bigger accomplishment to reach the championship game at Stockton University. For two girls, however, it was a regular thing. Seniors Tori Rolls and Danielle Donoghue (above) of Ocean City played in the championship game all four years. They are the only players, boy or girl, to complete all four of their regular seasons in the CAL tournament finale.

Home Court Advantage: Only three teams were undefeated on their home court this year – Mainland girls were 14-0, Middle Township girls 11-0 and Wildwood Catholic boys 9-0. The Vineland girls had the biggest home court advantage, though – 6-2 at home and 6-10 on the road.

Biggest Improvement: The biggest jumps in wins from 2017-18 among boys teams this year was six by Millville and Mainland. But the biggest overall gain was the 12 more wins this year by the Oakcrest girls.

Injury of the Year: The Holy Spirit boys were in first place in the National Conference when Isaiah Gerena went down with a season-ending injury. A 6-4 junior better known as a tough tight end in football, Gerena brought inside strength to the Spartans and could also contribute from the outside with his perimeter shot.

Wildwood Days: Their teams don’t play in the CAL anymore (they must enjoy those long bus rides) but the basketball season was special at Wildwood High School this year. The girls only two Tri-County Classic losses were to powerful Gloucester Catholic and they were seeded No. 1 in NJSIAA South Jersey Group 1. They reached the championship game but lost a close decision to Haddon Township. The Warrior boys were seeded No. 14, meaning they should have been gone in the first round. But they also reached the final, losing a ridiculously close game to Clayton. Add to that, senior Maddie McCracken passed 2,000 career points for the girls and girls coach Teresa Cunniff was inducted into the South Jersey Basketball Hall of Fame. As Bobby Rydell said, “Oh, those Wildwood days.”    

Another Verizon Fios Salute: Coverage of CAL basketball expanded through the broadcast media – the league’s coverage is probably as thorough as any league in the state. And, while live radio coverage has been around for decades, video streaming continued to progress this season. Matt Ulmer, the Dean of Stream, again covered games online all over South Jersey with his camera and laptop this year. WSNJ streamed St. Augustine Prep home games. Coastal Broadcasting covered Cape May County like a beach blanket. And 97.3-ESPN expanded its coverage. Look for the expansion to continue next year.

Whistle at the keyboard: The multi-tasking challenge used to go out to Brian Cunniff. One of the area’s top basketball officials and a solid radio play-by-play guy, could he do both in the same game (maybe with a wireless headset)? Well, add Joe Fussner to the challenge. The son of the retired coaching legend at Atlantic City High School and Stockton University, Fussner has been printing out stats at the keyboard for more than a decade. This year he was selected the top new official around. So, could Joe Fussner officiate a game and do the stats at the same time?

Speaking of whistles: There was some tension among basketball officials this season. The majority of officials were assigned their games by the traditional methods, through the area board. But there was a new face in the picture. John Rodio, who created the Basketball Summit social gathering and awards night six years ago and brought back The Seagull Classic, also independently assigned quite a few games. In addition to the usual faces, he brought in quality officials from nearby areas and opened up more games to women. There were some who were not happy with the changes but area basketball benefited. Rodio’s decisions brought new energy to the games and gave the officials who could see the progress many new opportunities.  

Four coaches: A quartet of area basketball coaches (above) had interesting years. Read about them here –  

CAL Boys Coach of the Year: First of all, understand one thing – no league in South Jersey, possibly in the entire state, has a trio of boys basketball coaches as good as Paul Rodio, Gene Allen and Dave DeWeese. These three men are the coaches others are measured against. They could be picked as coach of the year any year. But sometimes other coaches earn the nod because of an exceptional season. John Bruno had one at Ocean City, Butch Warner at Pleasantville, Dan Williams at Mainland and Paul M. Rodio at St. Joseph. But the nod goes to Mike Jones of Millville who guided his team of free spirits to a 23-win season and a spot in the South Jersey final in the highly-competitive Group 4 tournament.

CAL Girls Coach of the Year: Paul Baruffi is another guy you can pick almost every year. So are Steve DiPatri and John Leahy. This year Scott Meile did a great job turning around the Oakcrest program, Bob Lasko made a strong debut at Absegami and both Atlantic City’s Jason Lantz and Atlantic Tech’s Jason Vander Ryk kept their programs advancing. But Mainland’s Scott Betson produced a state champion after losing four starters to graduation and has won 56 games in two seasons, earning him the nod again as the top girls coach this season.  

Shot of the Year: There were thunderous dunks by Taj Thweatt, Jahlil White and Andrew Delaney. Three-pointers by Jacob Hopping, D.J. Campbell and Martin Anguelov. Slashing drives to the basket by Marcellus Ross, Josh Wright and Rynell Lawrence. Buzzer beaters by Luke Varallo. And a missile from half court by Luke Mazur. There were a lot of great shots. But there was one shot that won a championship. Cedar Creek led Ocean City, 59-58, with seconds left when Gannon Brady found Donovan Graham near the lane and the senior drilled a 14-footer at the buzzer that won the game for the Raiders and, as it turned out, also won the National Conference title.

Game of the Year: There were lots of talented players and very good teams in the Cape-Atlantic League. When they got together they produced many exciting games. But THE game this season was at Jackson Liberty High School where Ranney School defeated Wildwood Catholic, 54-50, in overtime to win the South Jersey title. They were ranked one-two in South Jersey and Ranney went on to become the top team in the state and earned the No. 11 ranking nationally in USA Today. But Wildwood Catholic’s boys proved to everyone against that team just how outstanding they were.

The Cape-Atlantic League was successful again during the 2018-19 basketball season. A lot of talent graduates and there will also be some coaching changes. But there are a great many exciting players returning, so things should be entertaining again next year.

Spring sports have started but it will be just 37 weeks until basketball returns.

Check out the Online 25 final South Jersey rankings, CAL standings and dozens of brackets, box scores and links here –