CAL Playoffs: Semi-Final Previews
The Cape-Atlantic League opening round arrived in a flurry Friday night. An epic eight-game slate took center stage after an unpredictable and contentious regular season.
Top-seeded Atlantic City survived a breakout performance by Khari Harley (32 points on 12-of-24 shooting). The Vikings jumped out to a 22-4 lead over EHT in the opening quarter and held on to win 68-55.
Holy Spirit was the only CAL boys squad to win on the road in playoff action. Junior Saintel displayed his big-play ability with a 22-point, 10-rebound game, leading the Spartans to a 51-45 win at Wildwood Catholic.
Middle Township dismantled Sacred Heart, tripling up the visiting Lions 39-13 at halftime. The Panthers surged to a 73-33 victory as five players scored in double digits (led by LaMarr Greer's 21 points).
St. Augustine protected home court by handing Hammonton a 65-42 defeat. Senior guard Mike Greenman led the Hermits with 16 points, while CAL scoring champion Christian Mortellite scored 15 for the Blue Devils.
These results provide a heavy dose of deja vu.
Just like the 2012 Cape-Atlantic League semifinals, St. Augustine meets National Conference rival Middle Township and Atlantic City faces American Conference foe Holy Spirit. The setting - Hammonton High School - also remains the same.
Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised by a repeat performance of a thrilling 2012 CAL Final Four. Each team returns with some of the league's savviest veterans and most impressive up-and-comers.
The stage is set for drama between familiar foes. Winners of each matchup advance to the Second Annual CAL championship game, set for 2 p.m. Saturday at Stockton College.
Here's how I think things shake out in the semifinal round Tuesday night.
5 p.m. - No. 2 Middle Township (18-5) versus No. 3 St. Augustine Prep (20-4)
Middle Township and St. Augustine simply can't stay out of each other's way on the road to CAL titles. When these perennial powerhouse programs square off, fans are in for a treat.
Hermits head coach Paul Radio recently passed Camden's Clarence Turner atop the South Jersey's all-time wins leaderboard. His 778 victories place him third all-time in New Jersey high school basketball.
Tom Feraco stands on the other side of the scorer's table. The legendary Panthers coach ranks fourth all-time in victories among South Jersey coaches.
The Hermits and Panthers played twice during the regular season. Each matchup was memorable for very different reasons.
Middle Township crushed St. Augustine 67-47 at home on Dec. 18, as Darrell Shelton hit four three-pointers and scored 23 points. The Hermits exacted revenge when the teams met on Jan. 25 and St. Augustine prevailed 63-61 in overtime.
The teams shared the court for a thriller in the 2012 CAL semifinals. A back-and-forth affair ended when Panthers guard Tom Catanoso connected on a game-winning jumper at the buzzer and Middle escaped with a 50-49 win.
Catanoso is back for the rematch, along with most of the young men who shared the court last February. The first six players in Middle Township's rotation are seniors.
Tom Feraco, Darrell Shelton and Catanoso take turns handling the ball, while LaMarr Greer has been lethal from outside lately. Greer, the son of a South Jersey hoops icon, torched Sacred Heart for 21 points in the playoff opener and has five three-pointers in the last two games.
Micah Moore is a consistent post player who comes down with clutch rebounds, while junior Tanner Kerr continues to see more playing time at the forward position. Senior sharpshooter Jacob Cowan could give Middle a major boost off the bench.
St. Augustine also leans on a strong senior group. Point guard Mike Greenman has weathered the storm against some of the CAL's stingiest defensive units and can heat up in a hurry from beyond the three-point arc.
Senior forwards David Sullivan and Blake Rossell are two of the league's most improved players, while juniors Joe Gatto and Brian Seward have served as excellent supplemental players.
Gatto and Rossell, the Hermits' primary post players, combined to score 20 points in the first-round victory over Hammonton. Against an height-challenged Middle Township interior, those two must account for more scoring in order for St. Augustine to stay ahead on the scoreboard.
The Hermits larger lineup presents matchup issues for Middle, but I believe the Panthers ultimately have too many high-percentage long distance shooters for St. Augustine to cover. If both Catanoso and Shelton struggle from the floor at the same time, as they did in the second half of Saturday's loss to Paul VI at the Cherry Hill East Invitational, then the Panthers are in serious trouble.
Prediction: Middle Township 51, St. Augustine 48
Game MVP: LaMarr Greer
7 p.m. - No. 1 Atlantic City (21-1) versus No. 5 Holy Spirit (15-9)
Since returning from covering sports in Southern California, I've spent two winters reporting on South Jersey basketball. No story has been more captivating than Atlantic City's emergence as one of New Jersey's elite programs.
The Vikings reputation today is much different than it was when I began covering the team in 2011. Prior to this borderline dynastic two-season stretch, Atlantic City was enduring a slight period of mediocrity.
The Vikings finished the 2010-'11 season with a 14-12 record and followed with a 5-4 start in 2011-'12. Atlantic City suffered its fourth loss last season against St. Augustine Prep on Jan. 13.
Coach Gene Allen and his squad are 29-0 against CAL opponents since that defeat. The streak includes a run to the league title in the inaugural CAL postseason tournament last February.
Atlantic City rarely wins pretty but playoff basketball isn't a beauty contest. The Vikings victimize teams defensively and repeatedly finish off games in the fourth quarter.
People point to plenty of attributes as the main ingredient to Atlantic City's recent success. I believe emotion is what fuels Allen's current crop of players, who would cement themselves as school legends with a Group IV state title repeat in March.
Vikings center Jahleem Montague, a 6-8 senior who ranks among the state's premier interior intimidators, describes Coach Allen as a "father figure" and calls his teammates "blood brothers". Think this team is tight?
Montague and teammate Gabriel Chandler provide Atlantic City with the league's best frontcourt. The senior duo are a force on the offensive glass, providing the Vikings with prolonged possessions and ample second chance opportunities.
Senior guard Dayshawn Reynolds, who was an important piece of the 2012 championship team, handles point guard duties for Atlantic City and could spend much of the semifinal matchup defending Holy Spirit leading scorer Paul Moore.
Moore, who scored his 1,000th career point this month, must have a signature game against Atlantic City. Teammate Junior Saintel is coming off one of the best games of his career and should carry confidence into Tuesday's matchup.
If Moore and Saintel can combine for at least 40 points, Holy Spirit's opportunity to pull off an upset increases exponentially. Spartans sophomore John Middleton will be counted on to provide help defense inside and draw out Atlantic City defenders with his respectable midrange game.
The Viking have won four straight against American Conference rival Holy Spirit, including a pair of regular season matchups (54-57 and 44-41). Atlantic City eliminated Holy Spirit in the 2012 CAL semifinals, courtesy of an offensively challenged 35-32 win.
Ultimately, it would seem Atlantic City has too much talent up its sleeve. Juniors Dennis White and Isaiah Graves give this version of the Vikings more firepower than the 2012 squad.
Atlantic City has won 31 of 33 games, suffering both losses against St. Anthony (during the team's 83-game in streak). The Vikings suffocated a talented Paulsboro squad on Sunday at the Cherry Hill East Invitational, forcing a 22-1 team into 41 turnovers during a 10-point victory.
Atlantic City forced 41 turnovers. In 32 minutes. Against a one-loss team.
It would be awfully hard to pick against the defending state champs at this point.
Prediction: Atlantic City 57, Holy Spirit 48
Game MVP: Jahleem Montague