By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Nothing seems to ever faze Egg Harbor Township senior Christian Rando. He’s been a four-year starter at quarterback for the Eagles’ football team, and win or lose, Rando just gets right back out there at practice on Monday afternoon and gets to work for the next game. He’s also been playing basketball and baseball his whole life, and to him there’s no such things as pressure in high school sports. He just goes out there and plays ball, like he has his whole life, and let the chips fall where they may.
So when he found himself wide open at the top of the key Saturday afternoon with 16 seconds left — and the Cape-Atlantic League Tournament championship on the line — he just did what he always does. He stepped into his shot and drained it like he was the only one in the gym. That gave No. 3 Egg Harbor Township — playing as the away team in its home gym — a 61-60 lead over top-seeded St. Augustine Prep. Jamil Wilkins scored off a steal with five seconds left, and the Eagles survived a buzzer-beating three-point attempt from Hermits guard Semaji Bethea to hang on for a 63-60 victory. The Eagles captured the league title for the first time in school history.
“The ball came to me, and I just treated it like a practice shot. I was in rhythm and it felt good,” Rando said.
“This is just the beginning. I keep telling everybody we’re not done,” EHT coach Cameron Bell said. “The state playoffs start on Tuesday, and that’s our ultimate goal. This feels sweet and this is something that we talked about when we started four years ago with this group, and here we are.”
The Eagles (23-5) started out hot, hitting three 3-pointers in the first quarter to take a 13-11 lead, but St. Augustine Prep got a three from Rory Friel to take a 14-13 lead, and the Hermits (23-5) wouldn’t relinquish the lead until there were four minutes left in the game. EHT spent nearly 20 minutes of game time trying to claw its way back, but every time the Eagles made a run, Prep had an answer.
EHT got to within three points late in the third quarter, then got a big 3-pointer — one of seven on the day for the Eagles — from Keion Elliott to get to within 52-50 with just under five minutes to go in the fourth quarter. The Eagles took a 54-52 lead moments alter when Wilkins scored off a steal, and the game went back-and-forth the rest of the way.
Last year EHT was the No. 1 seed in the tournament and got upset by No. 8 Mainland Regional in the opening round, and that loss weighed heavily on the Eagles’ minds. They came into this season focused on proving they were the best team in the league, and that’s what fueled them through the final four minutes.
“It’s nothing we haven’t seen before. We were down, but we stuck together as a team. We’ve played them before and we know what they do, so we just had to play as a team and win as a team. We just had to stay focused and play our game,” Rando said. “We’ve been playing together since we were kids, so I definitely think it’s a chemistry thing. We have a lot of energy out there. This feels great. Last year, we lost in the first round, so this year was all about the get-back. We came in hungry. We had to stay hungry and just play as a team.”
St. Augustine Prep took a 59-56 lead with a minute to go when Elijah Brown, who scored a game-high 24 points, put back his own miss. But EHT responded with a pair of free throws from senior Jay-Nelly Reyes, who had 19 points and four rebounds, to shave the deficit to 59-58. A free throw from Bethea with 35 seconds left put the Hermits up, 60-58, setting the stage for Rando’s big shot.
“We never lost sight of who we are and what’s gotten us to this point all year long. We didn’t lose confidence, we just stayed the course. They kept believing in me and the coaching staff. They were locked in all week long, and they’ve really been locked in since the CAL playoffs began. What happened last year hurt them, a lot. Especially D.J. and Nelly. They guaranteed it wasn’t going to happen again, and it didn’t,” Bell said. “This is the core of who we are. D.J. Germann has started for me since his freshman year. The day he stepped on campus he’s been a starter. Him and Nelly are the leaders of this team.”
What’s Next: EHT hosts Millville on Tuesday at 6 p.m. in the opening round of the South Jersey Group 4 playoffs. St. Augustine Prep hosts either Rutgers Prep or Christian Brothers Academy on Friday in the Non-Public A South quarterfinals, time TBD.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays