By BRIAN CUNNIFF
When Keith Palek III signed a National Letter of Intent to accept a combined basketball and academic scholarship offer from Division II University of Sciences in Philadelphia in November, the Woodbine resident was relieved to have the next four years of his life mapped out.
A few months later, that all changed.
In early February, University of the Sciences announced it is about to commence with a merger with St. Joseph’s University. While not yet official, there has been major speculation that this new partnership will lead to the end of the athletic program at Sciences. According to reports, Sciences has committed to fielding sports teams only for next scholastic year.
That left Palek, a senior at St. Augustine Prep, scrambling for a new place to play college basketball.
“It was definitely a rough couple days,” Palek said after learning of the impending Sciences-St. Joseph’s merger and the probable loss of the Sciences athletic program.
The men’s basketball program at Sciences did the right thing in releasing Palek from his Letter of Intent, freeing him to explore other options. But in these pandemic-affected times, those other options were as plentiful as they might have been in a normal season, considering college seniors are being given another year of eligibility. There simply isn’t a lot of room for new players on rosters for next season. And in Palek’s case, he was getting a late start to his second recruitment.
“I basically had to restart the recruitment process,” Palek said, “so I opened up my recruitment to see if there were coaches interested. Luckily, I had a few call.”
Earlier this month, Palek found a new home at Division II California University of Pennsylvania, which offered him a full scholarship.
“I’m extremely thankful,” Palek said. “It was a bad couple days for me, but it ended up working out. I’m going to a really good school in Cal U.”
Palek was in demand because of his unique skill set. At 6-7, Palek did his best work facing the basket as a lethal three-point shooter for St. Augustine, one of South Jersey’s top programs. He averaged 8.7 points per game while making a team-best 22 three-pointers this winter, helping the Hermits to a 13-2 record and a share of the Cape-Atlantic West Division title.
As a junior, Palek started every game and helped St. Augustine to a 24-5 record. The Hermits reached the CAL playoff tournament final and eventually won the South Jersey Non-Public A title. Palek and his teammates never got to play for a state championship after the remainder of the state tournament was canceled at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Palek averaged 7.8 points per game and made a team-high 38 three-pointers as a junior. He was at his best in the state playoffs, averaging 14.0 points and making seven three-pointers over three tournament games.
“Last year was great,” Palek said. “One of my favorite games was (against) the Patrick School last year. The crowd was rocking. That was a lot of fun. Then obviously the South Jersey championship run. A bunch of our fans were at every game. It was a ton of fun.”
Palek, who played grammar school basketball at Bishop McHugh Regional Catholic School, took a chance with his basketball future by attending a high school with such a high-profile basketball program in St. Augustine. He worked his way through the program, playing a season each on the freshmen and junior varsity teams before becoming a varsity starter as a junior.
“I talked to Coach (Paul) Rodio when I first got there and he talked to me about it being a process,” Palek said. “Once I got up there and stepped on the court the first time, I knew it was the best decision I ever made. Thankfully, I grew a few inches, which helped me, too.
“It was a blessing. Not a lot of people get to play varsity basketball at The Prep. It’s a tough program to get through. I had to wait my turn. My first two years I really didn’t get to the play varsity but these last two I was fortunate enough to start both years and I had a lot of fun with my guys.”
Next winter, Palek will join a solid program at California University of Pennsylvania, which competes in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference. The Vulcans did not play this winter after the PSAC canceled the season due to the pandemic. They were 19-11 overall, 14-8 PSAC, in 2019-20.
California University is located in California, Pa., about 45 minutes south of Pittsburgh.
Palek hails from a basketball family. His father, Keith II, and mother, Jenessa, were the first male and female 1,000-point scorers at Cape May Tech in the early 2000s. His father is also a top South Jersey high school basketball official and recently put together the successful South Jersey Madness Tournament. Palek’s younger sister, Madison, is a promising freshman basketball player at Our Lady of Mercy Academy.