By DAVE O’SULLIVAN

Staff Writer

ABSECON — It’s a tough act to follow, trying to fill the shoes of one Paul Baruffi. The legendary Ocean City High girls basketball coach stepped down after earning 300 wins leading the Red Raiders, and for the first time in a few decades there is a new man at the helm. It’s Baruffi’s longtime assistant, Mike Cappelletti. 

He admitted he was a little nervous heading into Friday night’s season opener at Holy Spirit, and the game coming down to the final seconds worked his nerves even more. The scrappy Spartans continued to fight back from deficits all night long and pulled even at 47 with 40 seconds remaining on a steal and layup by Kendall Murphy. 

That set the stage for Ocean City junior Avery Jackson, who calmly nailed a 3-pointer with time winding under 10 seconds, lifting the Red Raiders to a heart-pumping 50-47 win over Spirit on Opening Night. The shot capped off a torrid second half for Jackson, who was in foul trouble in the first half and was limited to just two points. She hit a 3-pointer in the third and then racked up nine in the fourth quarter to finish with a team-high 14 points. 

“Capp always tells me to shoot, and shoot with confidence, so I was just doing my normal thing. Thanks to him, I was able to knock it down,” Jackson said. “I started off with two fouls but I tried to keep my head in the game. Capp is always rooting me on and I was able to get back into the groove a little bit. Having two years of experience helps a lot. I learned so much from Baruffi and Capp, and I’ve learned a lot from the older players. I try to follow what they’ve done and be a leader, too.”

“That shot came within our offense,” Cappelletti explained. “We talked about once the clock started winding down there are certain things we need to do to get certain players shots. Anytime we can get her a kick-out or a pull-up in open space, that’s a good shot for us and we can live with that every time.”

Both teams got off to a slow start offensively, as the game was tied 7-7 after one quarter before Ocean City (1-0, 1-0 Cape-Atlantic League National) took a 22-19 lead into the break. With time winding under five minutes to go in the game, Holy Spirit (0-1, 0-1 CAL National) took a 41-38 lead when Sabrina Little nailed a three coming out of a timeout. But Ocean City rallied back, taking a 44-41 lead on a pair of free throws from Maddie Monteleone and a converted steal by Ayanna Morton.  The Spartans had several chances to tie the game at 47 but misfired on free throws, finally knotting the score, 47-47, when Murphy converted a steal with 40 seconds left. 

That set up Jackson’s heroics. Spirit managed to get two more shots off before the buzzer sounded, but wasn’t able to force overtime. 

“Having those first-game jitters, I think we all got that out of our system in the first half and we were able to come alive,” Jackson said. “I go back to our practices — we work hard every day, we listen to Capp, Mr. Kelly and the other coaches and our seniors, and by doing that we were able to come out here and do what we did tonight.”

Cappelletti said he didn’t try to stray too far from the approach that made Baruffi so successful during his time leading the Red Raiders.  

“I think a lot of what we do is very similar. You couldn’t have a better template to follow as a coach. He was just fantastic at game management, and obviously that’s something I’m going to continue to try to get better at,” he said. “All you can do is your best and I tell the girls the same thing. I live by that motto — all I can do is work as hard as I can, and if I’m tirelessly working at it, everything will take care of itself. It’s nice (to win), it’s fun. This is the first one and obviously there is a long way to go. I just want us to keep getting better.”

Still, he admitted it was a bit different being the guy calling the shots after being Baruffi’s right-hand man for so long. 

“It’s definitely different. I’m super excited about the staff I have — we have two past players in Emily Gillian and Nicole Piergross, and coach (Tim) Kelly has been with us for about eight years now. So, there are people who have been around the program and know what it takes. We just have to try to get better every single day, and that’s really our motto,” Cappelletti said. “Anybody who competes wants to win, and it doesn’t matter what it is — it could be playing cards, fishing with your son — in all honesty, I’d feel the same way, top-to-bottom, if I was coaching a JV game. I just want the girls to perform and anytime you are putting a product on the floor you want to put a good thing out there. I love the team I’m coaching and they are really fighting hard.”

The players may miss Baruffi, but they are all-in when it comes to supporting Cappelletti and his staff.

“Capp is awesome. He’s so encouraging every day in practice and he gives us all the confidence in the world. I couldn’t ask for a better coach,” Jackson said. “I love Baruffi and we all miss him, but we couldn’t be happier to have Capp here. The team and I, we’re all in this 100 percent and we work hard every day in practice to keep doing what we’re going, and go out there and perform.”

Hannah Cappelletti finished with eight points for Ocean City and Monteleone chipped in eight as well. Kira Murray led the way for Spirit, nailing four 3-pointers and finishing with 15 points, while Murphy had 14, including eight in the first half. 

What’s next: Ocean City hosts Mainland on Sunday at 5:15 p.m. Holy Spirit hosts Delsea on Dec. 29 at 3:30 p.m.

Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sullyglorydays@gmail.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays