By BRIAN CUNNIFF
There’s been a lot of change around the Wildwood Catholic Academy boys basketball program.
For starters, Anthony Raffa, one of the best players in program history, has taken over as head coach after longtime leader Dave DeWeese stepped aside over the summer.
Going further, all of the players in the regular rotation from the South Jersey championship team from two seasons ago have graduated.
This year’s team also features a good number of transfers.
But even though things may be starting anew with the Crusaders, that doesn’t mean the program will settle for a rebuilding campaign.
“We have a lot of potential,” said Raffa, who led Wildwood Catholic to back-to-back South Jersey titles as a player in 2006 and 2007 before later playing Division I college basketball before a long professional career overseas. “We have a young squad, but we have some kids that can play.”
Wildwood Catholic features just one senior in 6-2 forward Akeel Johnson. Another senior, 6-7 center Nick Montalbano, injured his knee in the fall and is expected to miss the entire season. It’s a big blow, considering Montalbano enjoyed a bit of a breakout during last season’s brief five-game campaign.
The Crusaders will try to make up for Montalbano’s absence behind a pair of versatile transfers from Vineland in 6-4 guard/forward Justin Harper and 6-3 guard Azmir Kates. Both saw significant varsity time for Vineland as sophomores.
Other juniors expected to help include 6-3 forward Manny Weaver, a transfer from Lower Cape May, and 6-2 guard/forward Jimmy Kane.
There is some nice talent in the underclasses, too. Sophomore Rashee Bell, who missed his freshman season through injury, is a 6-3 forward with great strength. Another sophomore, 6-2 guard Landen Hart, is a lethal outside shooter.
Among the freshmen, 6-0 guard Tayshaun Jackson and 6-1 guard/forward Ryan McGrath could see varsity time.
Wildwood Catholic opens the season Friday at Ocean City for a game in the newly-aligned Cape-Atlantic American Conference, which also includes Cape May Tech, Middle Township, Absegami, Atlantic City and Bridgeton.
“For me, I’m going to take it game by game,” Raffa said. “All I’m worried about is Ocean City right now and then we’ll move on from there. It’s a new group so we’ll need time to gel together. It’s not going to happen overnight. It might take a while. But we’re pushing them to the max in the preseason here to get ready and hopefully the rest takes care of itself.”
Raffa, who is assisted by Zac DeWeese, Phil Kelly and Jim DiCarlo, said he’s glad to be back in Wildwood Catholic’s storied gymnasium.
“I’m happy to be back here. It gives me an opportunity to extend my career in the game,” Raffa said. “I love being back here at my high school. I’m very excited and I’m very fortunate to have this opportunity and to take over for Coach DeWeese. It’s great to follow in his footsteps”, considering what he’s done and how successful the program was with him.”