By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Staff Writer
Navigating the landscape of college basketball — or any college sport, for that matter — hasn’t been easy for talented players. The Covid-19 global pandemic created a back-log of players staying in college to make up for the time that was lost in 2020, and that has had a ripple effect as subsequent high school graduating classes found it even more difficult to earn a spot on a college roster.
Thousands of athletes staying in college for an extra year has meant less spots for incoming freshmen, so a lot of athletes have had to figure out how they want to approach their college careers. Some chose the junior college rout while others decided to do a post-graduate year in the hopes that more roster spots would open up in 2022 and 2023.
Blaise Vespe, a 20-year-old Cherry Hill native and former basketball player at St. Augustine Prep and Neumann-Goretti in Philadelphia, took what you might call the scenic route on his way to Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, Fla.
“I decided to go post-grad because when I was at Neuman-Goretti our team was ranked No. 9 in the country, our best player was Jordan Hall, who now plays for the San Antonio Spurs, our point guard was Hysier Miller, who starts for Temple, Che Evans played for San Diego State — the list goes on and on, like 10 Division I players,” said Vespe, who fielded offers from Fairleigh Dickenson, IUPUI and Central Connecticut State while in high school. “I started and played a lot, but my role wasn’t to score. I was like a Swiss Army knife, I did a little bit of everything. My job basically was to stop the other team’s best player. Some college coaches took notice of that, some didn’t.”
Vespe, a 2021 high school graduate, talks about how he missed his senior season because of covid, and now with the new transfer portal in college sports it’s like the Wild West when it comes to recruiting. He said if a kid gets an offer that he likes, he better jump on it because college coaches will give that scholarship to somebody else in a week. In the supply-and-demand of college sports, there’s an overload of supply right now.
“I missed summer AAU and all of my senior season because of covid, so that really messed me up,” Vespe explained. “And with the transfer portal and all those kids in college getting an extra year — it’s even affecting me now, as a college freshman. Normally a lot of guys would be leaving next year and I’d be starting, but they all get to come back for a covid year, so there’s a chance I might not start next year as a sophomore.”
After the disappointing end to his high school career, Vespe decided to do a post-graduate year at the prestigious IMG Academy in Florida.
“During some training I met a kid named Quadir Copeland, who plays for Syracuse now, and he was committed to go to IMG for a post-grad year, so we talked about it. I sent the coaches there my film and then they started recruiting me,” Vespe said. “IMG was a great experience. When I first started there, our team was ridiculous — we had Alex Karaban from UConn, A.J. Storr from St. John’s, two kids who are now at Syracuse — the list goes on and on. The team had 13 players and 11 of them went on to play Division I. Competing for a spot on that team was tough. I worked hard all year and finally broke into the lineup about halfway through the season, and I started averaging about 20 points and 12 rebounds per game, and that’s when I picked up my offer from FGCU.”
It’s been what seems like a long and winding road for Vespe to end up at Florida Gulf Coast, but he said he couldn’t be happier with the way things worked out. The Eagles went 17-15 this past season, finishing eighth in the 14-team Atlantic Sun Conference. Vespe appeared in 11 games, averaging 2.5 points and 1.5 rebounds in a limited role off the bench, but he said he’s hoping he can contribute a lot more over the next few years now that he’s settled in and knows where his college career is going.
“I just love everything about the coaching staff here,” he said. “As soon as I got the offer to come here, this is where I wanted to go. Junior college was an option out of Neumann-Goretti, and I also had some Division I offers.
“My parents and my personal trainers know what my skill set is,” Vespe added. “I can play point guard, but when I was at Neumann-Goretti they were having me play center because I was the most physical guy on the team. I’m 220 pounds, 6-foot-7, so I could hold my own against other centers. I was the tallest and biggest kid on the team, but I didn’t really get to show off all my skills. It was an easy decision to go the post-grad route.”
It might be tough to understand just how competitive the recruiting world is these days, especially for college basketball. Coaches are under enormous pressure to win, Vespe said, so they need players who can be impactful right away. How college coaches recruit has changed dramatically in the post-covid/transfer portal era.
“There are a lot of guys I know who are in high school right now who are good enough to play Division I, but they can’t even get a spot in Division II because these coaches are under three- or four-year deals and they’ll get fired if they don’t produce. If they want to keep their job and they need to win, they’re not going to go recruit a kid out of high school, they want to get a kid who is already averaging 15 points per game in college and who can transfer in and help right away,” Vespe said. “They don’t want to wait, because it’s their job on the line, and I don’t blame them. The transfer portal has 2,000 kids in it, so it was ridiculously hard (to find a place to play). All the kids getting an extra year, redshirt years, covid years — those scholarships that are supposed to be going to incoming freshmen just aren’t there.
“So, being able to get a Division I offer was a blessing,” he continued. “My IMG coaches told me averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds you’d pick up at least five-to-10 offers off that. FGCU was the first offer I had, and I was talking to my family and we knew the offer could be here now and gone in two weeks. They can easily give your offer to somebody in the transfer portal, so you don’t have much time to sit and think about it. It was a tough situation, but I’m happy with the way it worked out. This is a really good program.”
Vespe has some pretty good athletic genes, as his father, Will, a Gloucester Catholic graduate, played baseball at the University of Miami before having a career in the minors with the Twins and Indians. Blaise said he is focusing on entrepreneurship as part of a business major and he may minor in broadcasting. He wants to continue to be around the sport of basketball when his college playing days are over — preferably on the professional level, but if that doesn’t come to fruition he said he’d love to get into broadcasting.
“Every minute I’ve played this year I feel like I’ve done pretty well,” Vespe said. “I’ve tried to make the most out of my minutes this year, even though they’ve been limited. We have a senior and junior-heavy team, but I have big goals for myself so I want to make a bigger impact next year. As the years go on, I’m expecting to take off.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sullyglorydays@gmail.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays

Blaise Vespe, who attended St. Augustine Prep and Neumann-Goretti high schools, has landed at Florida Gulf Coast University after a winding road through a global pandemic and a year at a post-graduate powerhouse. (Photos courtesy of Adam Koszo)