By BRIAN CUNNIFF
A pandemic-affected high school boys basketball season is finally here, as the Cape May County teams are set to begin their compressed season on Tuesday.
They’re only scheduled to play 15 games and they’ll do it in just six weeks.
There will be no fans.
And there will be no postseason for nearly all of them, although Wildwood has a chance to play in the newly-created Tri-County Conference Tournament.
So it’ll be a very unique season for everyone involved.
Wildwood Catholic has been the king of local boys basketball for quite a while now. That gap has closed a bit, although the Crusaders are still expected to be very good.
Wildwood could do very well in the Tri-County Conference. Lower Cape May hopes to take the next step after winning 10 games a season ago. Middle Township and Cape May Tech will each field young teams.
None of that is really all that important this season, however. Simply playing all 15 games might be the best accomplishment for any of them, even though the possibility of doing so could be out of their hands.
We’re all crossing our fingers that the players and coaches can get the most of what promises to be an extraordinary season.
The following is a look at each of the area’s high school boys basketball teams:
CAPE MAY TECH
Head coach: Sam Picketts (first season; previously coached two seasons at Bridgeton, 13-38 career)
Assistant coaches: Shane Adams, Travis Amstutz, Nick DeRitis, Josh Mercado
2019-20 record: 9-17
Key returnees: Senior – Judah Thomas (6-1 G/F); Junior – Dylan Delvecchio (6-3 F).
Varsity newcomers: Senior – Jon Torres (5-6 G); Juniors – Luke Czarnecki (6-3 F), Joel Hutchinson (6-3 F), Tyler McDaniel (6-0 G), Mark Richie (5-10 G); Sophomores – Adam Dille (5-7 G), Alan Ventura (5-8 G); Freshmen – Luke Basile (5-7 G), Patrick Bean (5-10 G/F), John Shoemaker (5-10 G/F).
Outlook: Cape May Tech has one of Cape May County’s top players in Dylan Delvecchio, who led the Hawks in scoring and rebounding as a sophomore last season. But he’s the only returning starter for what will otherwise be a team that’s very short on experience. Thomas, Tech’s sixth man last season, is expected to step into a more prominent role. New head coach Sam Picketts is high on a couple of the freshmen in the program.
Head coach’s quote: “Anytime you have a (head coaching) transition and then after we lost four of our five starters, I wouldn’t even call this a rebuilding phase but it’s a building phase. We’re really just trying to develop and continue on with the culture we’ve already been trying to establish. We don’t have a ton of experience but we do have some guys I’m excited about. With the divisions realigned, it’s going to be tough for us. This season will be about competing and showing we belong. That’s kind of our approach even more than wins and losses for this year.
“Anything is bound to happen. At some point we might play someone who has kids out and I’m sure some games will get canceled and rescheduled. We’re just going to focus on trying to accomplish some things and continue to try to develop and build.”
Prediction: Despite having one of the top returning players in the CAL in Delvecchio, this is a very inexperienced group that will be facing teams with much more varsity experience in virtually every game this season. Expect the Hawks to use this as a developmental season, particularly for the few freshmen that may see varsity action, with eyes on being improved for what hopefully will be a full season in 2021-22.
LOWER CAPE MAY
Head coach: Scott Holden (11th season, 116-151 career)
Assistant coaches: Pat Holden, Rocco Sansone
2019-20 record: 10-17
Key returnees: Seniors – James Jamison (6-1 F), Jordan Pierce (6-3 F); Sophomores – Jacob Bey (6-4 F), Mike Cronin (6-2 G), Archie Lawler (6-2 G/F).
Varsity newcomers: Junior – Jadan Farrow (5-10 G); Freshmen – Macky Bonner (5-10 G), Oguer Nunez (5-9 G), Kamauri Wright (5-9 G).
Outlook: Lower Cape May was much more competitive than its 10-17 record suggests last season, the Tigers losing 12 games by six points or less. With only two seniors and a first-year junior on the roster, this is still a very young team whose best days may be down the road. But Lower is still hoping for some improvement during this pandemic-truncated season. Pierce is a three-year starter who averaged in double figures in scoring last season and Lawler, who led the Tigers in scoring as a freshman, is undoubtedly one of the top sophomores in the Cape-Atlantic League. Bey is expected to take a step forward as an inside presence and Cronin should see more varsity minutes. Bonner, Nunez and Wright are integral parts of the program’s future and should all step into the rotation in various capacities during their debut seasons.
Head coach’s quote: “First of all, I’m ecstatic we’re even in the gym. Even if it means we don’t get all 15 games in, as long as we can keep practicing and use the time that’s been given to us, that’s great. Especially for a young team.
“I really don’t know where we’re at right now. But I do think we’ll get exponentially better as the season goes on. Whether that means we get a few extra wins, I don’t know. We’re still young. A lot will depend on how our younger kids do.”
Prediction: The Tigers’ defensive-minded and possession-oriented style of play and their toughness will make them a difficult matchup for almost all opponents. They’re good enough to give just about anyone on their schedule fits but the youth and relative lack of experience could also still create problems closing out close games. A .500 finish or better would be an excellent step for this up-and-coming program.
Head coach: Tom Feraco (37th season overall, 731-266 career)
Assistant coaches: Ryan Babnew, Ray Brown, LaMarr Greer, Rewi Thompson
2019-20 record: 12-15
Key returnees: Seniors – Jeremiah Camacho (6-1 G), Dom Caraballo (5-10 G), John Leahy (6-5 G/F), Charlie McNeal (5-8 G); Junior – Gavin Aftanis (6-5 F).
Varsity newcomers: Senior – Da’Shaw Hawkins (6-3 G/F); Juniors – Matt Barcas (5-10 G), Ben Harris (6-0 G), Tyler Roemhild (6-4 F); Sophomores – Devon Bock (6-3 F), Juwon McKinnon (5-10 G), Billy Murphy (5-9 G); Freshmen – Jermaine McNeil (5-9 G), Anthony Trombetta (5-11 G), Michael Zarfati (6-0 G).
Outlook: Middle is the only area team not returning a full-time starter from last season. That might not necessarily be a bad thing, however, as spots in the varsity rotation have opened for some younger, very talented players. While the few upperclassmen on the roster will certainly have their roles and are expected to provide leadership, this is a team that will be building for the future with as many four freshmen and sophomores seeing time in the regular seven- or eight-player rotation. It would not be a surprise if at least one of those freshmen or sophomores averages in double figures in scoring this season. This has the potential to be a good shooting team. Leahy, Camacho and a couple of the younger players can certainly knock down their share of three-pointers.
Head coach’s quote: “The first thing that comes to mind to me is how unfair this season is to the kids and their parents. You have kids, especially the juniors and seniors, who’ve worked their way up to the varsity level and for the parents not to be able to see their kids play, it’s a real shame. It’s just so unfair to everyone, even if we all understand why it has to be this way.
“From a basketball standpoint, we are big-time rebuilding. We only have one player with a lot of varsity experience, but we really like our future. We have some really good young kids. So I like where the program is in that regard but we could take our lumps a little bit this year.”
Prediction: With so many freshmen and sophomores expected to be among the top seven or eight in the regular varsity rotation, Middle is clearly a program building for the future. The Panthers will be well coached – would you expect anything less under Feraco? – and could spring an upset or two. But they’ll also struggle against deeper and more experienced opponents.
Head coach: Scott McCracken
Assistant coaches: Rip Engel, Jon Greene, Joe Murray
2019-20 record: 20-9 (Tri-County Classic Division champions)
Key returnees: Seniors – Ethan Burke (6-0 G), Miguel Claudio (5-11 G/F), Seamus Fynes (6-0 G), Diante Miles (6-1 G), Greg Mitchell (6-1 F); Juniors – Omarian McNeal (6-5 F), Dom Troiano (6-2 G/F), Ernie Troiano IV (6-0 G).
Varsity newcomers: Junior – Josh Vallese (6-0 G); Freshman – Junior Hans (5-11 G).
Outlook: In terms of team success, there may be no local team hurt more by the unique schedule created by the COVID-19 pandemic than Wildwood. With its three top scorers and other key players back, along with the addition of a talented freshman, the Warriors would have been a legitimate threat to win their first South Jersey title since 1979. Wildwood doesn’t have much size beyond the 6-5 McNeal (12.3 ppg, 7.1 rpg) but that usually isn’t much of an issue in the guard-dominant, small-school Tri-County Classic Division. Miles (19.8 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 4.0 apg, 3.1 spg) is a volume scorer and overall stat-sheet stuffer and Fynes (11.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg) is almost always the hardest-playing person on the floor in any given game. Point guard Ernie Troiano moved into the starting lineup early last season and should be better for the experience. Claudio, Dom Troiano and Burke will all see increased action this winter. Wildwood should also get a major boost from Hans, a gifted debutant expected to see significant playing time as a member of the regular rotation.
Head coach’s quote: “Obviously everyone has their fingers crossed that we can play all the games. That’s what we’re all striving for, but you never know what’s going to happen. We have to put our best foot forward and try to keep the kids healthy and ready to play. We all have to do whatever is necessary.
“I think we have a chance to do pretty well. We think we can certainly compete in our league and hopefully we’ll have a chance to repeat (as division champions). The last few years have been pretty good for us. We’ve had a couple nice seasons in a row now. We have some talented kids and we’re pretty athletic. Hopefully all of that leads us to a good season.”
Prediction: The talent and experience are there, so this has the potential to be a really good small-school team. The Warriors are the favorite to win their fourth Tri-Co Classic title in five seasons. With the right draw, they could also make a run in – and, yes, possibly even win – the newly-created Tri-County Conference Tournament.
Head coach: Dave DeWeese (18th season, 321-174 career)
Assistant coaches: Zach DeWeese, Brendan Norris, Blake Rossell, Matt Schiff
2019-20 record: 24-7 (Cape-Atlantic League Tournament champions; South Jersey Non-Public B champions)
Key returnees: Seniors – Martin Anguelov (6-2 G), DaSean Lopez (6-4 G), Jared Hopping (6-4 F), Matt Moretti (5-10 G), David Zarfati (6-1 G); Junior – Nick Montalbano (6-7 C).
Varsity newcomers: Seniors – Andrew Draghi (6-1 G), Liam Grimes (5-9 G), Matt Moretti (5-9 G); Junior – Akeel Johnson (6-3 G); Sophomore – Jimmy Kane (6-2 G); Freshmen – Rashee Bell (6-3 F), Troy Billiris (6-1 G), Landen Hart (6-2 F), Alex Konov (6-7 G/F), Lance Lillo (6-2 C).
Outlook: Wildwood Catholic lost two of the best players in program history in Taj Thweatt (West Virginia) and Jahlil White (Temple), along with another outstanding talent in Jacob Hopping (TCNJ), from last year’s CAL and South Jersey championship team. There’s no replacing that kind of talent but players such as Anguelov (10.2 ppg last season, career 1,000-point scorer), Lopez and Zarfati have collected tons of varsity experience and have the ability to shoulder much of the load in terms of scoring and leadership for this year’s club. There are very few teams across the state that feature a trio of players with as much experience. The younger Hopping is a good outside shooter for his size, Montalbano is one of the area’s most improved big men and Grimes should provide hustle and speed to the guard position. Konov is expected to make the most immediate impact among what is a very promising freshmen group. Lopez (quarantine) is expected to miss Tuesday’s opener against Cape May Tech but should be back for the second game against Atlantic City. Anguelov (foot injury) is expected to play but is at less than 100 percent.
Head coach’s quote: “Obviously there’s been some extra responsibilities, not only for the coaches but also for the players, and not just when we’re in the gym but when we’re out of the gym, too. It’s stressful because we just don’t know what’s going to happen from day to day. We hope everyone stays healthy and we’re hoping to get through one day at a time.
“We’re not playing for a Cape-Atlantic League championship or a South Jersey title or a state title but we have kids, especially our seniors, who’ve been in that environment and they’re not going to change their mentality. They want to win and they want to be competitive. The competitive spirit is still there. They’re going to go out every night knowing everyone wants to get a piece of them. They’re going to try to go through the season and try to win as many ballgames as they can.”
Prediction: Despite the massive loss of talent from last season’s group, the Crusaders are still expected to be among the top teams in the CAL. The experience and talent of Anguelov, Lopez and Zarfati will help lead an otherwise young group that will try to move up to speed quickly. One thing to watch – even with the loss of three college players from last year’s team, there’s no question a game against three-time defending league champ Wildwood Catholic is still the biggest on nearly all of its opponents’ schedules. How the Crusaders react to that will go a long way toward determining their overall fate. Expect Wildwood Catholic to challenge for top honors in the COVID-created CAL East Division.