By BRIAN CUNNIFF
Well, what can they do for an encore?
It’s been the burning question in the local basketball community ever since the Wildwood Catholic High School boys basketball team took eventual Tournament of Champions winner Ranney to the brink before falling in overtime in the South Jersey championship game last March.
With all but one of their rotation players back, including two Division I college signees, the Crusaders are about to embark on one of the most anticipated seasons in Cape May County high school basketball history.
Coming off a school-record 27-win season, expectations are extremely high. The team is ranked third in the preseason state poll.
But with those expectations come some caution.
“The expectations, so far, we’ve been fighting that somewhat,” said Wildwood Catholic coach Dave DeWeese. “When you start telling 16- to 18-year-olds how good they are, they start believing it.”
The fact is, though, they are good. Very good.
It all starts with seniors Taj Thweatt and Jahlil White.
Thweatt, a 6-8 forward, averaged 20.2 points and 10.7 rebounds, showed improved acumen as a three-point shooter (34 percent) and was easily one of the state’s best interior defenders last season. He committed to Bob Huggins and West Virginia in November.
White, a 6-7 guard/forward, averaged 18.5 points, 6.1 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game last season. He is also an outstanding ball handler for his size. He committed to Aaron McKie and Temple last month.
But the talent doesn’t stop there.
Senior Jacob Hopping, a 6-3 guard, averaged nearly 14 points per outing and showed no fear in any situation last season. Junior DaSean Lopez, a 6-4 guard, is a ball-hawking defender who should score more this season.
Other returnees with a good amount of varsity experience include 6-4 senior forward Ben Church and 6-1 junior guard David Zarfati.
Wildwood Catholic also gets a boost from a pair of transfers. Junior guard Martin Anguelov averaged more than 19 points per game and earned a reputation as one of the region’s top three-point shooters before he left Lower Cape May in late January. He’ll be eligible to play in the team’s fifth game. And senior guard Tommy Belansen, who had played at St. Augustine Prep, should also provide solid depth.
Others who could crack the varsity rotation include senior guard Tommy Bolle, junior forward Jared Hopping and sophomore forward Nick Montalbano.
The rest of the varsity roster includes senior guards Matt Vogdes, C.J. Wareham and Scott Fiore, junior guard Liam Grimes and sophomore guard Akeel Johnson.
Wildwood Catholic is expected to challenge for its third straight Cape-Atlantic League overall title. The Crusaders are also a threat to win their first South Jersey title since 2007, although teams such as Rutgers Prep, Trenton Catholic and others will certainly have their say.
The team also has state championship aspirations. But, if they get that far, they’ll most likely have to beat a Roselle Catholic or Patrick School — the two teams ranked ahead of them in the state preseason poll — to do so.
The non-league schedule is a minefield. Wildwood Catholic will face teams such as Notre Dame, Archbishop Wood (Pa.), Elizabeth, Paul VI, Camden, Patrick School, Christian Brothers Academy, St. Augustine Prep and many other standouts.
“After what we’ve done the last couple years, we know we’re going to get everybody’s best every single night,” DeWeese said. “It’s going to be like other teams’ Super Bowl. We’re going to get everyone’s hardest and best and we need to be prepared for that.”
Wildwood Catholic did not fare as well as it would have liked in its preseason scrimmages. Some of it can be chalked up to some minor knocks; the Crusaders did not play one scrimmage with their full arsenal of players. They’re expected to have everyone available for the opener at Holy Spirit Thursday at 7 p.m., which can be heard live on 98.7 The Coast radio and viewed online at CoastSportsToday.com.
Now that it’s go time, the Crusaders are set to begin a journey they hope results in multiple championships.
“Our chemistry’s not there yet, and some of that’s because we’ve had so many guys in and out of the lineup,” DeWeese said. “My expectations pretty much flow from them and they expect to be in the Tournament of Champions. These are higher expectations than any of our teams have had since I’ve been here. But they feel it’s realistic. We have to do our job as coaches and get them prepared to get to where they want to be.”
DeWeese is assisted by his son, Scott, Mark DiRugeris, Brendan Norris and Blake Rossell.