By TOM WILLIAMS
For the past four years the basketball fans of the Cape-Atlantic League have had a chance to enjoy the career of the greatest girls basketball player in the league’s history.
If you look at the numbers – Mainland’s Kylee Watson scored more than 2,000 points, grabbed more than 1,000 rebounds, probably made more than 300 assists and blocked somewhere near 250 shots.
But it was more than numbers.
Watson changed the game, forcing teams to create special defenses to try to control her and offenses that tried avoid shooting too close to her. She was, at 6-foot-4 this season, a force inside. But she also could handle the ball and play away from the basket, skills that should serve her well as she moves on to one of the best women’s basketball programs in the country at the University of Oregon. And CAL coaches voted her to the All-Defense team this season.
She didn’t win every game (who does?) and suffered some disappointing losses. But the Mustangs won 99 games in her four seasons, including a state championship and four consecutive appearances in the South Jersey final.
Aside from her skills on the basketball court, Watson handled almost everything that came her way with poise, starting in eighth grade when she was front page news before playing a single high school game. She scored more than 1,000 points in middle school and already had a scholarship offer from Maryland.
Ocean City’s Paul Baruffi coached against Watson’s Mainland teams 13 times the last four years. The Mustangs won eight of them, though Baruffi’s teams won three South Jersey titles. “She is more than just a great basketball player,” Baruffi said, “she is a great person. I’m going to miss seeing her play but I won’t miss having to coach against her.”
Watson also holds a special place in the CAL’s history as the only girls basketball player from the league to win the Gatorade New Jersey Player of the Year Award (Middle Township’s LaMarr Greer is the only boy). And she is the first CAL girl to be named a McDonald’s All-American (though this year’s game was cancelled). Greer and Atlantic City’s Bobby Martin are the only two boys.
There have been a lot of great CAL players in the 50-plus years girls basketball has been played in the league. Here are the top four.
And here are 11 more, in alphabetical order, to round out a Top 15. (Trying to put them all in ranking order would just create a headache.)
There have been 7,500-9,000 girls play basketball in the CAL. To be considered among the top 15 is quite an honor. But there are many more great ones – Valeria Jones, Pam Elliott and Laurie Carter of Atlantic City; Chelsi Johnson, Kim Ordille and Jen Daniels at Holy Spirit; Angie Evans, Kim Osborne and Meghan McIntyre of Mainland; Jennifer Snyder, Merri Jones and Shelly Ridgway of Middle Township; Margaret Rowell, Diane Snow and Joi Johnson of Ocean City; Faye Gerald of Pleasantville; Kristine Miller of Cedar Creek; Teresa Polini of Wildwood; Jen MacNeill of Egg Harbor Township; Christina Smith of Hammonton; Melissa Coursey of Millville; Sally O’Donnell of Wildwood Catholic; Audrey Lundy of Vineland; and Darlene Johnson of Cumberland. Just two dozen from a long list.
(Don’t ever start one of those lists – you can’t include everyone and people get frustrated.)
The same thing happens in boys basketball, though. When you try to pick the best, the conversation usually starts with Holy Spirit’s Chris Ford, Reggie Miller of Pleasantville, LaMarr Greer and Rick Harmon of Middle Township and Sa’eed Nelson of St. Augustine.
But, like the girls, there are many more. (Here comes one of those lists, again.)
You also have Skip Castaldi, Dan Merrifield and Rob Higbee from Mainland; Lou Roe, Walt Montford and Willie Glass from Atlantic City; Stephano Anderson, John Leahy and Craig Roberson from Middle Township; Len Burrell, Alex Nelson and Matt Byrnes from Oakcrest; Mike Rowell, Bill Fisher and Ken Leary from Ocean City; Tony Davenport, Antwan Dozier and Clifton Jones from Pleasantville; Blake Morgan, Dennis Horner and Brian Hiltner of Holy Spirit; Charlie Wise, Pat Holden and John Halbruner of Lower Cape May; Isaiah Morton, Anthony Farmer and Dave Orlandini of St. Augustine; Tim Burns, Dave Ordille and Paul Ordille of St. Joseph; Brendan Connor, Tylee Thomas and Harry Hayward of Wildwood; Dan Leahy, Anthony Raffa and Taj Thweatt of Wildwood Catholic; Larry Jones of Bridgeton; Walter Heard of Buena; Terence Ward of Egg Harbor Township; Alan Shaw of Millville; Al Rochetti of Sacred Heart; and Ron Farina of Vineland.
Many of you see your favorites on these lists, some probably think they were left out. And you could be right. These types of lists are, after all, just opinions.
And the opinion here – the reason for this column – is that there have been many great girls basketball players in the Cape-Atlantic League. And we have just witnessed four seasons by the greatest of them all – Kylee Watson.