By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Cape-Atlantic League basketball teams are finishing up the first round of divisional games this week, so now is a good time to take an early look at how things are shaping up for the CAL boys and girls tournaments, which will begin in mid-February. Eight teams make each tournament, with the top two teams in each of the three conferences earning automatic bids, along with two wild-card entries.
Here’s a look at how I see things shaking out, and where teams might end up being slotted in their respective tournaments.
The Skinny: Wildwood Catholic and St. Augustine Prep clearly are the best teams in the league this year, and we’ll find out who has the edge on the No. 1 seed when they go at it tonight in Wildwood. There are a couple of teams capable of knocking off either of these squads in the early rounds if they play their best basketball — most notably Pleasantville and St. Joseph — but the Crusaders and Hermits cause some serious matchup problems that most teams simply aren’t equipped to deal with.
As it stands now (in Sully’s view, the best teams): 1. Wildwood Catholic (11-2). 2. St. Augustine Prep (10-2). 3. St. Joseph (8-2). 4. Atlantic City (9-3). 5. Mainland Regional (9-4). 6. Pleasantville (7-7). 7. Cedar Creek (6-4). 8. Millville (6-7). [In the hunt] ACIT, Holy Spirit, Ocean City.
What to watch for: Atlantic City has been hot lately, having won eight straight after a 1-3 start. Stephen Byard is one of the most athletic forwards in the league, and the Vikings will need a big February from him if they hope to challenge Wildwood Catholic and Prep. … Mainland has been playing well, but the big question come tournament time is where will scoring come from? Luke Mazur has been stepping up his game, but if teams can shut him down the Mustangs will need to find other ways to produce points, whether that comes from beyond the arc or at the foul line. … Keep an eye on Ocean City, Gannon Brady can score in bunches and they have plenty of height to match up with the top teams in terms of rebounding and controlling the paint. The Red Raiders also have a bunch of athletes who are used to competing in big games in other sports.
Bottom line: It’s asking a lot of the other six teams to have to knock off both St. Augustine and Wildwood Catholic in the same tournament.
The Skinny: Middle Township has proved itself to be the class of the CAL so far. The Panthers won 24 games a year ago, and might be even better this season. They ripped off eight straight wins following a loss to St. Thomas Aquinas in late December, and the win streak only ended in a 55-52 loss to Saddle River Day, one of the best teams in the state, on Monday. Kira Sides and Katie Herlihy are proven winners and clutch performers, and they have a very solid supporting cast. The X factor is Mainland senior Kylee Watson. Nobody in the league — and maybe not even in the state — can match up with her one-on-one, and she has the talent to take over a game and put up 25-30 points on her own, as she has shown throughout her career. Atlantic City and Wildwood Catholic also should be in the mix as both teams are athletic, have players who can score consistently, and have been playing well.
As it stands now (in Sully’s view, the best teams): 1. Middle Township (10-2). 2. Mainland Regional (8-3, Mustangs play Middle on Friday night). 3. Wildwood Catholic 11-2. 4. Atlantic CIty (10-2). 5. Ocean City (6-5). 6. OLMA (10-1). 7. Absegami (6-4). 8. ACIT (6-4). [In the hunt] Egg Harbor Township, Cedar Creek, Vineland, Holy Spirit.
What to watch for: Mainland lost starting point guard Camryn Dirkes early in the season, but the Mustangs have been figuring out how to create offense without her. Cadence Fitzgerald is beginning to emerge as another option at forward, and guard Madi Hafetz has proven she can be an effective long-range shooter. … After a season-opening win, Ocean City lost five straight and it looked like the wheels were coming off, but the Red Raiders have fixed things in a hurry, ripping off five straight wins. They have a tough stretch to close out January that includes games against Cedar Creek, Atlantic City, Mainland and Wildwood. … Wildwood Catholic has a big rematch against Middle on Jan. 28 that could go a long way in determining who the No. 1 seed is, and the Crusaders also face Atlantic City on Feb. 1.
Bottom line: Like on the boys side, there are several teams on the girls side that are just better than everybody else, except these teams are much more closely packed in terms of talent and potential. It wouldn’t be surprising to see any of the top four — Middle, Mainland, Wildwood Catholic or Atlantic City, get hot at the right time and win this thing. For the other teams, making the CAL Tournament is a big deal and could be a nice tune-up for the state playoffs.
(Editor’s note: the CAL Tournament Countdown will be updated each Wednesday until the tournament begins.)
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays