By BRIAN CUNNIFF
A lot of things will be different about the upcoming high school girls basketball season and many of them aren’t optimal.
The COVID-19 pandemic not only has delayed the start, but it has also reduced the length of the season. The regular season, which begins next Tuesday, will be played out over just six weeks and will consist of only 15 games.
There will be no state tournament. In addition, the Cape-Atlantic League has decided against holding its eight-team playoff tournament.
And fans will not be permitted to attend games.
There is, however, at least one interesting development that fans are eagerly anticipating, even if they can’t watch the games in person. In an effort to create an alignment that limits extensive travel among the teams, the Cape-Atlantic League has realigned its three divisions for one season only and produced a juggernaut of competition in the division that includes all of the league’s Cape May County teams.
The new seven-team East Division will feature all four of last season’s semifinalists from the Cape-Atlantic League playoff tournament, plus another that won 23 games and reached a South Jersey title game.
If this were a World Cup draw, the CAL East might be deemed the “Group of Death.”
“We couldn’t have been provided a more difficult schedule than what was provided to us by the Cape-Atlantic League,” said Steve DiPatri, the head coach at Wildwood Catholic, which might be a slight favorite to finish atop the division. “You want to play the best teams around, especially if you don’t have a Cape-Atlantic League tournament to look forward to or a state tournament to look forward to or the shootouts to play in. This schedule is going to challenge all of us to put our best efforts forward every night.”
In addition to the Crusaders, the East Division also features 2020 CAL playoff champion Atlantic City, along with Mainland and Ocean City. Those four teams made up the semifinal participants in last year’s CAL tournament. And don’t forget about Middle Township, which didn’t reach last year’s semis but posted victories over Atlantic City, Mainland and Wildwood Catholic during the season en route to a 23-win campaign.
All five of those teams won at least 20 games last winter. Three of them – Mainland, Middle and Ocean City – landed in South Jersey title games. Ocean City ran all the way to a state title game, which wasn’t played after the pandemic shut the season down after the state semifinal games.
Good teams, of course, feature good players. Some of the players to watch in the division include Atlantic City’s Mainland’s Kaitlin Boggs, Cadence Fitzgerald and Lila Schoen; Atlantic City’s Quanirah Cherry-Montague, Sanai Garrison-Macon and Naysha Suarez-Rivera; Middle’s Kate Herlihy and Jada Elston; Ocean City’s Marlee Brestle and Marin Panico; and Wildwood Catholic’s Marianna Papazoglou and Kimmy Casiello. Other talented players who could be stars on lesser teams will surely step forward for each club as well.
“I think it’s going to be good for all our kids,” Middle coach John Leahy said. “I think teams that have a lot back are going to have an advantage, especially in the beginning. Having said that, nobody really had an offseason so you just don’t know what you’re going to get. I could see a scenario where someone might lose two or three (division) games and still finish in first place. I think it could be that competitive.
“Everything about this season is so different. Normally, it’s a marathon. This is more like a sprint. You have to go right out and try to win as many as you can right away.”
Each team in the division will face its other division foes twice each, meaning division games will count for 12 of the 15 games each team is permitted to play this season.
The new alignment is far from perfect, however. While many fans will be looking forward to the battles the top five teams will have against one another, also included in the new CAL East Division are Cape May Tech and Lower Cape May, two programs that are young and rebuilding and will have to do their best to find their way against the division’s five heavyweights.
“It’s going to be tough, there’s no getting around that,” said Lower coach Mike Pittman, whose team won just three games last season. “I think it’ll be good for the girls just to be able to play 15 games and not have the season canceled. Obviously, we were all worried about just being able to play. But going against those kinds of teams night in and night out and against those caliber of players, this will be an eye-opening experience for us.
“The good way to look at it is, the end goal is to build a winning program so there’s no better way to get better than to play against teams like this. The main goal for us will be to show some improvement every time we play.”
Cape May Tech coach Amber Waddington pointed out that the framework of the schedule doesn’t allow for much competition outside divisional play. In a normal season, if a program sees that it may struggle within its division, it can usually schedule at least a few non-division contests in which it can better compete. With the CAL also assigning two crossover games in addition to divisional play, that leaves room for just one extra game to be added this season.
“You want to win. No one wants to lose or have a high probability of losing before a game even starts,” said Waddington, whose team went 7-18 last season. “But we’re going to take the focus off that and have this be more about mini goals and accomplishing little tasks as a team with more emphasis on keeping us together. But it’s definitely going to be hard.
“I tell the kids all the time – basketball is a wonderful tool that helps you deal with the ups and downs and the wins and losses of life. This season’s going to be very trying mentally but I think it’s going to make us stronger at the end of it.”
The battle for first place could be epic. Just about every game played among Atlantic City, Mainland, Middle Township, Ocean City and Wildwood Catholic last season was decided in the final few possessions. We probably shouldn’t expect differently over the next six weeks.
“Not only are you going up against some of the best teams in this division, but also some of the best coaches in South Jersey,” DiPatri said. “We’re all going to be battling it out against each other. There are going to be some great games. We’ve had some classic games with Middle the last few years. Now add Mainland, Atlantic City and Ocean City to the mix. It’s going to be interesting.”