By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
RICHLAND — As the winningest coach in South Jersey boys basketball history, St. Augustine Prep skipper Paul Rodio casts a long shadow. That shadow is even tougher to get out of when you’re Rodio’s son, and share the same first name.
Every time the younger Paul Rodio walks into Paul Rodio Gymnasium on the Richland campus he is surrounded by championship banners — heck, even his father’s signature is etched into the court, a-la Coach K at Duke. And as much as he respects and admires his father, boy, it should would be nice to get a win against the old man one of these days.
That day was today, as Rodio’s St. Joseph Academy — which was shut down in 2020 by the Catholic diocese before garnering enough financial support, mostly from alumni, to reopen this past fall as an independent academy — scored its first road win over the Hermits since the 2007-2008 season. It didn’t come easily, as the host Hermits kept coming up with big buckets in the final two minutes. But in the end, St. Joseph’s athleticism was simply too much, and the Wildcats hit enough free throws down the stretch to secure a 57-51 victory in a game that featured not only two of the top teams in South Jersey, but two of the best in the state.
“I grew up here. My son was in here a few weeks ago with my dad — we’re just a family here. We just want to emulate what they’ve done here at Prep. Wildwood Catholic has been the hot new team, but they’ve done it here for decades and that’s what we want to try to emulate. We’re trying,” St. Joe’s Rodio said. “It feels good to get the win, but it’s against my dad and we all have fathers — part of me feels bad for him, but he’s beaten me up a couple times and he doesn’t like it, either. The emotional roller coaster, I don’t love it, to be honest, but I’m so happy for the kids. We went through a school closure and to come in here and be one of the top teams in South Jersey, it’s unbelievable.”
“This is a very big win,” said St. Joe senior Marcus Pierce, who led his team with 20 points. “I know my coach takes this personally, it’s his dad and he hadn’t gotten a win yet (against him), so this is big. We just want our respect. We had a school closure but our guys stayed together and, as you can see, we play hard for each other the whole game and we’re happy to come out on top.”
The Wildcats (3-0, 3-0 Cape-Atlantic League West) took a 22-19 lead into halftime but the second half featured a much faster pace as the teams traded buckets before a driving layup from Pierce gave St. Joe a 41-37 lead headed into the fourth quarter. Prep (1-1, 0-1 CAL West) got a traditional 3-point play from senior Xavier Earnest to start the final frame to pull within 41-40, but that’s as close as the Hermits could get. They got back within 48-45 but then with 3:14 to go St. Joe sophomore Arnaldo Rodriguez came through with a dagger, a 3-pointer from the wing that pushed St. Joe’s lead to 51-45.
“That’s what he does,” Pierce said of Rodriguez. “Last year, as a freshman, he even came into games and did things like that. Against Pleasantville, he had never played in a varsity game and he came in and had, I want to say, 19 off the bench. The kid is talented, he’s going to be special. He has confidence, and we believe in him.”
St. Augustine closed to within 55-51 on a couple of big threes from Keith Palek and Ethan Fox but the Wildcats were able to hit pair of free throws in the final 20 seconds to seal the win.
“We just stayed together. We listened to our coaches, stayed with the game plan. We knew they were going to make a run, we just had to be able to stay together and make one of our own, and we were able to do that tonight,” Pierce said. “Our last two games, we didn’t play our best basketball. I’d say we were a little selfish — and I take responsibility for that. As a leader, I have to come out here and keep my guys together. We were just making the extra pass. Our coach told us we’ll beat the big teams if everybody contributes — it can’t be one man or two men, it has to be the whole five or eight people who play the entire game.”
St. Joe got 11 points from Dom Thomas, 10 from Ja’son Prevard and a combined 14 from Jordan Stafford (9 rebounds, 3 assists) and Rodriguez, but Pierce was the biggest factor in the second half. After halftime he scored 11 points, including going 3-for-4 from the foul line in the fourth quarter. Matt Delaney had a huge game for the Hermits, matching Pierce’s 20 points while adding 10 rebounds for a double-double, and Earnest finished with 10.
“Pierce is unbelievable and the fact that colleges haven’t jumped on him, maybe they don’t know him as much, but he’s a big-time player who makes big-time plays,” Rodio said of his star player.
There won’t be any championships to play for in the COVID-shortened 2021 season, but the Wildcats still have some marquee games on the schedule. They’ll take on Prep again on Feb. 18 and Atlantic City and defending CAL Tournament champion Wildwood Catholic in the first week of March. All of St. Joseph Academy’s games are on the road this year, as the Wildcats have no home gym.
“It’s sad that we can’t compete for a Cape-Atlantic League championship, but we’re just taking it one game at a time,” Pierce said. “We’re just blessed to be able to play. It’s hard times right now with COVID-19, so we’re just taking the moment in and running with it.”
“I really thought this group could be special when we beat Wildwood Catholic last year and then we beat Atlantic City on the road, and then to come in here and regardless of whether there are fans or not, it’s still tough to win here,” Rodio added. “They are still Prep and they’re still one of the top teams around. We’re happy, but we don’t want any letdowns now. I don’t want us getting too comfortable.”
What’s next: St. Joseph Academy travels to Vineland on Friday at 5:30 p.m. St. Augustine Prep travels to Millville on Friday at 4 p.m.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays