RICHLAND — St. Joseph Academy came into St. Augustine Prep on Friday night with a sparkling 8-0 record and a ton of confidence, having already defeated the host Hermits once this season. But the Hermits have three experienced senior forwards and their young guards are picking things up in record time.

Give legendary coach Paul Rodio, he of the 900-plus victories, some practice time and he can work wonders with just about any lineup, and this year’s Hermits squad is no different. Star guard Elmarko Jackson transferred out, but guys such as sophomores Ethan Fox and Jack Schleicher, as well as freshman Elijah Brown, have quickly been learning what coach Rodio expects of them, and now that they are able to implement those instructions at game speed this team has become what many thought it could be to start the year.

St. Augustine went on a 21-0 run that carried over from late in the first quarter through much of the second, turning a close game into a blowout. The final margin was just 11 points, 67-56, but the Hermits thoroughly dominated the rematch and led by anywhere from 14 to 20 points throughout much of the second half. Both teams came into the game ranked in the Top 20 in the state by nj.com, St. Joseph Academy at No. 15 and St. Augustine Prep at No. 16.

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Everybody got in on the action during the decisive 21-0 run. Kenny Selby had an acrobatic layup after a steal early on to make it 13-9. John Horner made a steal and dished to Brown, who finished with a dunk on the other end. Fox completed a traditional 3-point play, Matt Delaney added some inside buckets. Eventually the lead swelled to 32-9 before Dom Thomas stopped the bleeding with a free throw with 3:19 left in the second quarter — St. Joseph’s first point of the quarter.

“I feel like we came in a lot more prepared this time. We were expecting more of what they were doing and we really came together as a team to execute the game plan and come out with the win. We just executed the game plan — we got the ball inside, tried to play as smart as we could and keep them from penetrating the lane,” said Horner, a senior from Ventnor who finished with 16 points. “I definitely went in with a lot more confidence this game. I was struggling a little bit at the beginning (of the season) but this game helped me turn it around. If it weren’t for my teammates I definitely wouldn’t be able to do it.”

“Defensively, we’re starting to get it. Horner played very well, (Keith) Palek played well, and Delaney played well again. And the guards played well. I thought the freshman (Brown) had a good first half for us, scored for us when we needed it. We’re coming together, little by little. I wish we had a little more time,” coach Rodio said. “The last time we played them we played our 2-3 matchup (zone defense), we hadn’t practiced enough and we weren’t really ready for all our stuff we do a lot. We’ve been practicing it and working on it. We turned it around and made them force (shots) a little bit, got a break going and got some easy baskets down the other end. We got that break, that run that you’ve seen a lot of times.”

What compounded the Wildcats’ struggles in the first half was star guard Marcus Pierce getting into foul trouble. He had three before the break and was whistled for a fourth personal foul in the third quarter. Still, St. Joe (8-1, 8-1 Cape-Atlantic League West) was able to cut into the deficit behind some solid play from guys such as Jordan Stafford and Antonio Snyder, who combined for 19 points, including nine in the third quarter. Thomas stroked a 3-pointer late in the third quarter to get St. Joe within nine, 42-33, but that’s as close as the Wildcats could get the rest of the way. Pierce finished with 14 points to lead the Wildcats and Stafford added 12.

“Marcus Pierce was undeniably a great player in the first game. This game he got into a little bit of foul trouble and I think that helped us a little bit, but I also want to give credit to our team,” Delaney said. “Our young guards really handled the pressure better this time around. Marcus is a great player, you can’t take that away from him, and matching up with him — we’re not the same position, but I look at him and I have a ton of respect for how he handles the ball and handles his team. It was a blessing that we came out on top.”

Delaney, another of Prep’s senior forwards, was a huge factor as he scored 16 points and added 16 rebounds to help the Hermits improve to 7-1 overall and 6-1 in the CAL West. In St. Augustine’s only loss, a 57-51 setback against St. Joe on Feb. 3, Delaney had 20 points and 10 rebounds, and he’s notched a double-double in five of the Hermits’ eight games this season.

“He’s a great leader, very consistent and gives us great numbers every night,” Horner said of his teammate. “We wouldn’t be nearly the team we are without him. He’s a great player to have on your team. He brings a lot of energy and he’s a great leader.”

Delaney credits a bolstered workout regimen — as well as his demanding coach — during the pandemic with his increased production this season.

“Coach is one of the greatest leaders in South Jersey and one of the greatest leaders I’ve ever had. I just want to be known as a hard worker for him; I never wanted him to question my work ethic or me on the floor being a liability,” Delaney said. “I did a lot of weight lifting and push-ups (in the offseason). Not really basketball work because from March through May (of last year) I couldn’t really get into a gym because of COVID. So it was a lot of body weight and weight lifting, and that’s helped with my rebounding and running the floor. I lost a little bit of weight and it really did help.”

“He’s taking care of his body. When the pandemic hit in March, he did push-ups on top of push-ups, he got his body ready to play at the next level. He’s been good,” Rodio said. “We think he’s the best player in the league. He’s going to be tough to replace because he’s a very good rebounder, he controls things inside for us, he’s the most prepared. He’s given us a great year. He’s put a lot into it to make himself a good player.”

What’s next: St. Augustine Prep travels to Vineland on Saturday at 11:30 a.m. St. Joseph travels to Vineland on Tuesday at 5:30 p.m.

Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sully@acglorydays.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays

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