The Cape-Atlantic League Tournament for boys and girls basketball begins on Friday night and the seedings are out. It’s no surprise that the Egg Harbor Township boys and Mainland Regional girls are the top seeds, as they’ve been dominating league competition all year.
So, can anyone knock off the Eagles and Mustangs? Here’s a quick look at the matchup and how each team has been playing heading into the tournament. First-round games can be played Friday, Saturday or Monday.
Seeds (records): 1. EHT (20-2). 2. St. Augustine Prep (18-2). 3. Middle Township (15-5). 4. St. Joseph Academy (15-6). 5. Millville (15-4). 6. Holy Spirit (13-7). 7. Bridgeton (13-8). 8. Mainland Regional (11-10).
Bubble teams that didn’t make it: ACIT (13-6), Vineland (12-7), Hammonton (10-9).
(8) Mainland at (1) EHT: The top-seeded Eagles just continue to prove any and all doubters wrong. Last week they took down the parochial trifecta of St. Joseph Academy, St. Augustine Prep and Holy Spirit, then followed that up with a big-time win over Westampton Tech on Sunday. The Eagles are 20-2 and, unfortunately for Mainland, will have plenty of rest ahead of the first-round matchup. The Stangs played EHT close, losing 55-52 in late January, and are coming off a 20-point win over Hammonton that probably knocked the Blue Devils out of the tournament.
(5) Millville at (4) St. Joseph Academy: The Joes are looking to prove they have what it takes to win this thing, but they’ll have to first get past a Bolts team that has lost just once since Jan. 21. Millville has won five straight and 7-of-8, and its last two wins have been nail-biters, so you know the Bolts don’t mind being in close games. Ja’son Prevard missed a few games for St. Joe earlier this month but he’s back and is a definite game-changer for the Wildcats.
(6) Holy Spirit at (3) Middle Township: That is one tough No. 6 seed! Spirit has won eight of its last 10 games, with its only losses coming against EHT and Camden — two of the best teams in South Jersey. Middle Township had been hot in February, winning six straight, but has cooled off lately with consecutive losses to Cedar Creek and Overbrook. An X-factor here could be Spirit junior forward Jayden Llanos. In the loss to EHT he had 17 points, eight rebounds and four steals, and he’s scored in double digits in each of the last two games, both wins.
(7) Bridgeton at (2) St. Augustine Prep: The Auggies had been rolling, getting off to a 17-0 start, but have lost two of the last three. Granted, those losses came against EHT and Camden, but Prep also has two games this week — tonight vs. Paul VI and on Thursday vs. Pleasantville, so the Hermits will have to be wary about having tired legs going into the weekend. Bridgeton wouldn’t mind getting into a high-scoring game. In half their wins the Bulldogs have scored 60+ points, including two wins in which they topped 80 points.
Most intriguing first-round matchup: Holy Spirit at Middle. It’s always tough to take that long ride down the Parkway and play at Middle. It’s a tight gym and the crowd can get loud down there. Spirit’s lineup also has kind of evolved since the beginning of the season, with senior George Coles assuming more of a point guard role, which has opened up scoring opportunities for junior guard Jahmir Smith and junior forward Jamil Wilkins.
Players to Watch: Arnaldo Rodriguez (Junior, St. Joseph Academy), kind of the Swiss Army Knife for the Wildcats, he does a little bit of everything. He’ll need to be that second scorer alongside Prevard if the Wildcats hope to make a deep run in this tournament; Anthony Colon (Senior, EHT), if you haven’t seen this kid, pay your 5 bucks and get to the gym, it’s worth it. He’s 6-5 with grown man strength and has been absolutely torching people lately. Against St. Augustine Prep he had 21 points, nine rebounds, four assists and four blocks, and he followed that up with 27/7/2/2 in a win over Holy Spirit. He’s scored in double figures in each of his last five games; Jamir McNeil (Freshman, Middle Township) has been so steady all year, leading the Panthers in scoring, assists and steals, and he’s also one of the team’s top rebounders; Jaden Merrill (Junior, Millville), the kid has nearly 200 points AND 200 rebounds this season for the Thunderbolts and also is one of the team leaders in steals; Elijah Brown (Sophomore, St. Augustine Prep) is definitely a rising star in this league, and this year’s tournament could be the showcase he needs to show he’s going to be one of the best post players in the league the next couple of seasons. He’s scored 20+ points in two of his last five games and really is just scratching the surface.
Seeds (Records): 1. Mainland (19-2). 2. Ocean City (14-6). 3. Wildwood Catholic (19-4). 4. Atlantic City (10-9). 5. Holy Spirit (13-6). 6. Middle Township (15-7). 7. Absegami (12-7). 8. EHT (14-7).
Bubble teams that didn’t make it: Our Lady of Mercy Academy (11-10), Vineland (9-9), Hammonton (10-7).
(8) EHT at (1) Mainland: The road to Absegami and the tournament final goes through Linwood. The Eagles have been playing very well lately — at one point they were 5-6, now they are 14-7 — and have a couple of freshmen who are really coming along, namely point guard Lila Brown. They’ll need to value every possession and make this as low scoring as possible to have a shot at pulling off the upset.
(7) Absegami at (2) Ocean City: The Red Raiders need to be on high upset alert, because this is no ordinary No. 7 seed. The Braves nearly knocked off Mainland in late January and have wins over two CAL Tournament teams. Freshman point guard Reese Downey has become more aggressive offensively, scoring 66 points the last three games heading into tonight’s matchup against Atlantic City. Ocean City, on the other hand, has gotten used to winning games dramatically, as the Raiders scored back-to-back wins over Vineland in the final seconds earlier this month. O.C. also has won five straight and 8-of-10.
(6) Middle Township at (3) Wildwood Catholic: A great Cape May County rivalry heats up even more as two legendary coaches — Middle’s John Leahy and Catholic’s Steve DiPatri — play their chess game once more. The Crusaders no doubt will do everything they can to shut down Middle star Jada Elston, who has helped lead her team to five straight wins, while the Panthers have to work on stopping Wildwood Catholic’s prolific 3-point shooting. The Crusaders have hit 149 threes this year — or nearly 6.5 per game.
(5) Holy Spirit at (4) Atlantic City: This could be an interesting game as both teams like to get up and down the court and neither is a big fan of running through endless half-court sets. Spirit coach Tim Whitworth likes to see his players shooting — and scoring — as much as possible. Coach Jason Lantz has some outstanding athletes on his side as well, including guards Sanai Garrison Macon, Sasha Lemons and Naysha Suarez-Rivera. The key for the Vikings, though, is junior forward Quanirah Montague. She’s one of the best players in the league, and true matchup nightmare, and A.C. will have to keep her out of foul trouble and in the paint where she is a rebounding machine. She has eight double-doubles this season and has had as many as 17 rebounds in a game.
Most intriguing first-round matchup: Middle at Wildwood Catholic. That gym at Catholic is one of the most unique on the East coast — it’s basically like playing on a middle school floor; the fans are so close the people in the first row nearly have their feet on court, and it can be a tough place to shoot. Wildwood Catholic is 7-0 at home this year, but Middle is 9-3 on the road.
Players to Watch: Jada Elston (Junior, Middle Township), maybe the most skilled player in the league this could really be her coming out party as a dominant player if the Panthers can get past Wildwood Catholic in the first round; Reese Downey (Freshman, Absegami), she’s been lighting it up lately as coach Bobby Lasko has been coaxing her to be more aggressive on the offensive end; Kasey Bretones (Sophomore, Mainland), she’s established herself not only as the Mustangs’ point guard, but one of their most consistent scoring threats. Like Downey, she’s getting much more comfortable with being a scoring option first, passer second; Naysha Suarez-Rivera (Senior, Atlantic City) is one of the most aggressive guards in terms of driving the lane and getting to the foul line. She’s also solid defensively and has more than 30 steals this season; Avery Jackson (Junior, Ocean City) has the potential to win any game in the second half with her deadly long-range shooting. When she gets hot, she can turn a 10-point deficit into a lead in just a few possessions.