By BRIAN CUNNIFF
The abbreviated high school girls basketball season is scheduled to begin next Tuesday.
Teams are due to play as many as 15 regular-season games, although there is increasing pessimism that any one team will get to play that many due to expected shutdowns because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In addition to each team getting as many as 11 less regular-season games, the 2021 season has a much different setup. There will be no postseason at the state level, and the Cape-Atlantic League has announced that it will not hold its postseason tournament.
There is an intriguing dynamic to the schedule, however, as all of the CAL’s Cape May County schools have been placed in the same division along with Mainland and Atlantic City, meaning they’ll all play each other twice – something that should either rekindle some rivalry games that haven’t been played in recent seasons or further enhance the ones that have provided quite a few thrills in recent seasons.
Wildwood will be on an island of its own in the Tri-County Conference, with zero regular-season games against local competition due to all of the scheduling restrictions.
The following is a look at each of the area’s high school girls basketball teams:
CAPE MAY TECH
Head coach: Amber Waddington (third season, 15-33 career)
Assistant coach: Clancy Larkin
2019-20 record: 7-18
Key returnees: Senior – Sydney King (5-8 G); Juniors – Kennedy Campbell (5-7 G/F), Alex Garcia (5-4 G), Isabella Schmucker (5-2 G); Sophomores – McKenna Anderson (5-5 G), Alyssa Gery (5-4 G).
Varsity newcomers: Juniors – Abby McAllister (5-8 F), Hailey Pinto (5-7 F); Sophomore – Skylar Fincher-Butler (5-6 G/F).
Outlook: Cape May Tech is facing a classic rebuilding year after losing three starters, including its two leading scorers (Emily Pasceri and Leah Williams), to graduation. Moreover, the new divisional alignment created via the pandemic has the Lady Hawks facing a brutally tough schedule, with two games apiece against perennial CAL heavyweights Atlantic City, Mainland, Middle Township, Ocean City and Wildwood Catholic. The team will rely on the play of Campbell, Schmucker and Garcia – three of its most experienced players – to help them compete.
Head coach’s quote: “I think realistically – and this is something I tell the kids every day – every time we get the opportunity to step on the floor we should feel thankful and fortunate. We’re not guaranteed 15 games, we’re not guaranteed 10 games, we’re not even guaranteed to have practice tomorrow. So we have to take each day as it comes and be thankful for each opportunity we have to be together and play.
“I’m looking at this as a season to build, to work on our skill, to develop chemistry and to keep ourselves healthy, as well as trying to better ourselves for what our division will be next year so we can compete even more.”
Prediction: Victories may be difficult to come by, thanks to a realignment that has placed the young Lady Hawks in the CAL’s toughest division. With just one senior on the roster, this will be a season for Cape May Tech to learn as much as it can while playing the very best competition the CAL has to offer. The team should be better for the experience and better equipped to compete once the league goes back to its traditional divisional alignment next season.
LOWER CAPE MAY
Head coach: Mike Pittman (third season, 11-39 career)
Assistant coaches: Greg Douglass, Jen Anzelone
2019-20 record: 3-21
Key returnees: Seniors – Molly McGuigan (5-7 F), Alyssa Wagner (5-6 G); Junior – Lindsay Holden (5-3 G); Sophomore – Sara Donahue (5-5 G).
Varsity newcomers: Senior – Casiya Lewis (5-6 F); Juniors – Arianna Cataldo (5-6 G); Sophomore – Janaya Elam (5-10 F); Freshmen – Hailey Anzelone (5-5 G), Kaitlyn McGuigan (5-6 G), Kyra Ridgway (5-5 G/F).
Outlook: Low numbers and injuries left Lower Cape May with a very thin roster by the close of last season. That isn’t an issue at the beginning of this one, but there isn’t a whole lot of experience with just four players back who saw meaningful varsity time a season ago. The Lady Tigers feature one of the better young guards in the Cape-Atlantic League in Holden, a deft ballhandler who averaged 13 points per game as a sophomore last season. Holden, McGuigan and Wagner figure to be the team’s leaders while Donahue, who started some games last season, should also be able to contribute more in her second high school season. Lower also hopes to get a boost from Lewis, who is out for the first time at the high school level after suffering an injury as an eighth-grader. Lower will be facing an unforgiving schedule, having to face Atlantic City, Mainland, Middle Township, Ocean City and Wildwood Catholic twice each.
Head coach’s quote: “We’re just happy to be in the gym with the kids and happy for the kids that we can get back out there and play some games. It’s definitely a weird season. But we’re fairly young across the board with only a few seniors so we’ll look to improve and get out there and compete even though we have a very tough schedule. We just want them all to get out there and learn and develop and get better each day. Seeing improvement is our main goal.”
Prediction: The ball-handling and scoring abilities of Holden and the leadership of McGuigan and Wagner will help the Lady Tigers. But a punishing schedule may make this a rough season in terms of wins and losses. The Lady Tigers will use this season as a learning experience with the goal of being improved for 2021-22.
Head coach: John Leahy (17th season, 319-132 career)
Assistant coaches: Brynn Caraballo, Brandee Day, Renea Ravenell, Jordan Sykes
2019-20 record: 23-7 (CAL United Conference co-champs, South Jersey Group II finalists)
Key returnees: Senior – Kate Herlihy (5-7 G); Juniors – Kylie Graham (5-8 F), Lynasia Harris (5-7 G/F) Brianna Robinson (5-7 G); Sophomores – Mia Elisano (5-10 F), Jada Elston (5-7 G).
Varsity newcomers: Senior – Brynn Bock (5-9 F); Junior – Antoinette McNeil (5-4 G); Sophomores – Olivia Clarke (5-5 G), Taharra Daniels (5-5 G), C.C. DiMauro (5-7 G/F), Sydney Greer (5-9 F), Kylee Rothmel (5-3 G), Lily Zuzulock (5-6 F).
Outlook: Middle lost four starters to graduation, including the program’s all-time leading scorer in Kira Sides. But this has always been a program that reloads rather than rebuilds and this season is no different. Herlihy (15.1 ppg in ’19-20), the lone returning starter and already a career 1,000-point scorer, is one of the top guards in South Jersey. She’ll be counted on to shoulder the load with both her play and her leadership. Elston showed great promise as a key player off the bench as a freshman and Harris exhibited flashes of potential as last season progressed, particularly in the state playoffs. Graham, Robinson, Bock and Elisano are each expected to have increased roles after being on the fringes of the rotation last season. Middle will play its usual brand of stingy man-to-man defense and patient offense. It’s worked for years so there’s no reason for the program to change.
Head coach’s quote: “This is probably the first year, given the circumstances, that we haven’t put a number on anything, where usually you might say, ‘We’d like to win 20 games,’ or ‘We’d like to have home court advantage for the state tournament,’ different things like that. The goal now is really just to get to the next day because we don’t know what tomorrow will bring.
“Everyone’s in the same boat. I think most coaches will tell you this season is not so much about the (results of the) basketball but more about giving kids the opportunity to play, the opportunity to compete and the opportunity to be around their friends. That’s the approach we’re taking. The kids are working their tails off but they’re so happy to be together and working out and playing. You just have to make good decisions and keep rolling one day at a time.”
Prediction: The pandemic-created CAL East Division is a juggernaut, so Middle will face top competition on a regular basis. This team is certainly good enough and coached well enough to beat anyone on its schedule. But it will also have to overcome a relative lack of experience and depth to do it. The Lady Panthers may not be the favorite for top honors in the division but they’re surely one of the contenders.
Head coach: Teresa Cunniff (fourth season, 65-23 career)
Assistant coaches: Jim Clarke, Fred Daniel, Rich Hans
2019-20 record: 24-6 (Tri-County Classic Division co-champs, South Jersey Group I finalists)
Key returnees: Seniors – Leah Benichou (5-2 G), Jenna Hans (5-10 F); Juniors – Imene Fathi (5-4 G) Torence Gallo (5-3 G), Ava Troiano (5-6 G); Sophomore – Maya Benichou (5-5 G/F).
Varsity newcomers: Sophomores – Reagan Kobierowski (5-11 F), Abbey Pruszinski (5-8 F); Freshmen – Charlotte Kilian (5-4 F), Siara McGrath (5-7 F), Ashley Nagle (5-1 G), Kaliah Sumlin (5-2 G), Sinaia Stroman-Hills (5-11 F), Sophia Wilber (5-3 G).
Outlook: Wildwood lost just two starters and brings back six players who were in the regular rotation from last season. Included are three returning starters in Fathi (11.0 ppg), Hans (10.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg) and Leah Benichou (8.4 ppg), who helped the team reach the South Jersey Group I title game for the third time in four seasons, as well as capture a share of the Tri-County Classic Division title. Hans would have had an excellent chance to reach 1,000 career points had this been a full season. Troiano, Maya Benichou and Gallo also made solid contributions and will be counted on for more production in 2021. Wildwood, which is expected to field a junior varsity team for the first time in well over a decade, also features a solid freshmen class, with Wilber and Stroman-Hills expected to see roles with the varsity. Wildwood was one of the best outside shooting teams in the region last season (162 three-pointers as a team) and that trend should continue this winter.
Head coach’s quote: “The girls are working hard and they have goals they want to achieve, but more than anything, we just want this season to be about having fun. It’s been such a difficult last year for everyone in a lot of ways, so it’s great just to have the opportunity to play again. Hopefully we can make the best of it and see it all the way through. I just hope the players can get the best possible experience out of this, especially our two seniors.”
Prediction: With five of its top seven players returning, Wildwood is expecting to enjoy another fine season. Gloucester Catholic is probably the favorite to win the Tri-County Classic Division title, but the Lady Warriors are certainly a contender. With the right draw, Wildwood could also find some success in the newly-created Tri-County Conference playoff tournament.
WILDWOOD CATHOLIC ACADEMY
Head coach: Steve DiPatri (24th season overall, eighth at WCA; 496-136 career)
Assistant coaches: Kate Caruso, Caitlin McMullan, Fran St. John
2019-20 record: 22-5 (CAL United Conference co-champs)
Key returnees: Seniors – Alyia Gray Rivera (5-2 G), Leona Macrina (5-10 F) Lauren McCallion (5-9 F), Marianna Papazoglou (5-10 G/F); Juniors – Kimmy Casiello (5-3 G), Adrianna Gray-Rivera (5-2 G), Xiomara Walker (5-6 F); Sophomore – Carly Murphy (5-9 G/F).
Varsity newcomers: Senior – Riley Kane (5-6 G); Juniors – Julia Belansen (5-6 G/F), Rickii Davis (5-6 F); Sophomores – Zariah Walker (5-11 F); Freshmen – Simona Anguelov (5-6 G), Ella McCabe (5-10 F), Kaci Mikulski (5-7 G), Nola Quinn (5-5 G), Dani Shaw (5-5 G), Ava Vogdes (6-0 F).
Outlook: Even after losing standout 1,000-point scorer Gabby Turco to graduation, this is perhaps the most experienced Crusader team in program history and one of the most talented. Papazoglou, Alyia Gray-Rivera and McCallion are four-year starters and Casiello is a three-year starter who’ve all played in loads of important games over the past few seasons. With more than 1,500 career points, Papazoglou (17.5 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 5.1 apg, 3.0 spg in ’19-20) gives the Crusaders star power. The four-year starter and University of Pennsylvania signee is undoubtedly one of the top three or four players in program history and has a chance to finish as the program’s all-time leading scorer despite the fact that she’ll lose out on at least 12 games during her senior season. Casiello has proven to be a solid outside shooter, Alyia Gray-Rivera is a dependable point guard and McCallion does good work around the basket. Walker and Adrianna Gray-Rivera add depth, and some younger players, most notably Murphy, have improved from last season. Kane, who saw some varsity action as a freshman and sophomore, returns to the team after not playing as a junior. The program also is bolstered by a talented freshmen class, with Mikulski, McCabe and Vogdes in the running for places in the varsity rotation. While it may be difficult to truly determine due to this season’s schedule limitations, on the eye test the Crusaders should be considered among the very best teams in South Jersey.
Head coach’s quote: “It’s a strange year. We didn’t really do anything in the summer and we didn’t go to camp and with the short preseason, so we don’t know as much about ourselves at this point.
“More importantly, every day we have to take advantage of the opportunity to go in the gym and make the most out of the time we have. Whether we get 15 games or even if it’s only practice every day, just having the opportunity to coach our team and have our team work together, we’re very grateful for that.”
Prediction: Wildwood Catholic has enough talent and experience to win the pandemic-created CAL East Division. But the Crusaders will have to go through the very best teams in the Cape-Atlantic League to do so, as defending league playoff tournament champ Atlantic City, Ocean City, Middle Township and Mainland are also each in the division. Wildwood Catholic, however, is regarded by many to be the favorite. One thing’s for sure – the Crusaders will be competing in many pressure-packed games this season.