By TOM WILLIAMS
It was more than three decades ago when Paul Baruffi journeyed down Route 49 from Vineland. He had been an undersized corner back and point guard for the Fighting Clan and he wanted to be a coach.
He certainly has succeeded.
He is an assistant football coach and assistant track coach at Ocedan City High School. And, after seasons as the junior varsity boys basketball coach – including one undefeated JV team – Baruffi took over the girls basketball program when Dr. Chris Lentz moved up to become athletics director.
Nineteen years later, Baruffi has won 422 girls basketball games and yesterday won his eighth South Jersey championship by upsetting Mainland in Linwood. It was the fourth straight year the two teams have played in the Group 3 sectional final with OCHS winning three of them.
The Raiders trailed by eight at the half, scoring just eight points in the first 16 minutes. But they caught the Mustangs in the third quarter and, after Mainland regained the lead, rallied again to win the game.
They did it because Lauren Minsky and others chased All-American Kylee Watson all over the court, double and even triple teaming her to prevent her from getting the ball in a good position. Watson scored only three points, all from the foul line.
They did it because Abbey Fenton, the Cape-Atlantic League’s leader in three-point baskets, drilled four of them – three in the second half – and led all scorers with 15 points.
They did it because Emma Finnegan battled hard inside at both ends of the court, like she always does; because Delaney Lappin made two key fourth quarter free throws, Avery Jackson came off the bench to score a clutch fourth quarter bucket, Marlee Brestle hit a layup and a critical foul shot in the fourth quarter and Marin Panico scored a pair of important baskets.
They did it because Mike Cappeletti, Tim Kelley and Jeff Sobrinski filled key roles on the coaching staff, preparing the team for the challenge.
Yesterday’s South Jersey championship game was won by a team with great balance and focused defensive intensity. But Baruffi, who has the league’s most intense game face, has won championships with many different teams.
There were teams led by high scorers like Julia Duggan, Kelly Brady and Nancy White and teams controlled by point guards Grace Sacco and Danielle Donoghue. Baruffi has had six straight teams win 20 or more games and 14 of his 19 teams have won 20. His teams have won 53 times in the NJSIAA Tournament.
Baruffi and John Bruno have both won more than 400 games in their careers at OCHS, the only time in Cape-Atlantic League history that the two active coaches at a school have both reached that milestone. Only two coaches in history have won more girls basketball games at a CAL school than Baruffi. And no coach has ever won more South Jersey girls basketball championships at a Cape-Atlantic school.
Tomorrow at 5 p.m. the Raiders will take on a very athletic Westampton Tech, the Central Jersey Group 3 champs, in a state semifinal at Deptford Township High School hoping for another shot at a state title.
Ocean City has won 422 girls basketball games over the last 19 seasons because they had players with talent and dedicated assistant coaches that helped prepare them. But, most of all, they have won 422 times because of Paul Baruffi, the person who brings it all together.
It was a good thing he found his way down Route 49.