COLUMN: “The day basketball ended in New Jersey”

By TOM WILLIAMS

It was a Thursday – March 12, 2020 – and we turned off Fox Run Road into the parking lot at Deptford High School around 4 p.m. George McNally was in the passenger seat, checking his phone to see if Penn State or Indiana were playing later. We were there to broadcast a state high school semifinal basketball game.

The Ocean City High School girls, who had just won the South Jersey Group 3 championship, were playing Central Jersey champ Westampton Tech in the first game of a doubleheader. Woodbury was going to play Bound Brook in a Group 1 state semifinal in the second game.

George was at the center of media operations

St. Augustine and Wildwood Catholic had both won South Jersey titles the night before and were scheduled to move into state championship games over the weekend. The Atlantic City boys, the South Jersey Group 4 champs, were supposed to play South Brunswick on March 12 at Egg Harbor Township but the game was cancelled after EHT withdrew as host and the NJSIAA declined to give South Brunswick a postponement while it investigated possible virus exposure.

Things were starting to happen.

When we arrived at the door to the school it was locked. A sign told fans they would not be permitted to enter. While we were waiting for someone to open the door, the game officials arrived. Instead of shaking hands, we all waved.

Earlier in the day, the ATP Mens Tennis Tour cancelled for six weeks; the Big Ten, SEC, ACC and Pac 12 cancelled post-season tournaments; the NHL suspended play; Major League Baseball delayed the start of its season by two weeks; and then, in the biggest blow, the NCAA cancelled its March Madness Basketball Tournament.

But these high school games in Deptford were going to be played.

Ocean City defeated Westampton Tech, 50-38, to advance to the state championship game on Sunday in Toms River against North Jersey champ Ramapo. Bound Brook defeated Woodbury, 48-32, in the second game of the doubleheader.

As you can see, the Raiders were pretty excited about earning a spot in the state finals.

Larry White, the NJSIAA’s executive director at the time, was a halftime guest on our radio broadcast and he said the organization was hoping to complete the season but that they “meet many times a day to discuss the latest information”. He indicated they would next meet later that night.

George and I left Deptford High School that night thinking about the trip to Toms River on Sunday for the state final. We also wondered about coverage of St. Augustine and Wildwood Catholic. And what would happen to Atlantic City in Group 4.

But, by the time we got home, everything had changed. For example, only once in the last year has somebody else been in my car.

There would be no more basketball in New Jersey. The NJSIAA announced late that night that they were ending the basketball tournaments. There would not be another high school basketball game in the Garden State during the remaining nine months of 2020.

Sitting at the table next to us in the Deptford gym were former Mainland coach Roy Heck (nobody was quite sure how he got in) and referee Marty Derer, who would officiate the second game. Derer was a former athlete at Camden Catholic who had become a highly respected official. He would die three weeks later of complications from COVID-19. Marty was 56.

At the time, the mindset was like experiencing a blizzard that forced cancellations or the terrible flooding during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. It was a shame but things would normalize soon.

But that didn’t happen. And look what we’ve missed.

Not only did the remaining basketball games get cancelled but there were no spring sports in 2020. We never got to see Alejandro Rosado, Bridgette Gilliano, Mahogany Wheeler or Kevin Foreman in the batter’s box. Or Ben Church, Nicole Ortega and Luke Vaks on the mound. Kira Sides had a chance to set a South Jersey lacrosse scoring record but never got to play. Neither did Colin Cooke, Maddie Barber, Noam Levy-Smith or Abbey Fenton. Drue Nicholas and Michael Mitnick never got to tee off; Phil Ritchie never hit a single backhand shot; and who knows what Gabriel Moronta, Max Melton, Lane Owens, Fatimah Owens and Casey McLees would have done in the big track meets.

Bridgette Gilliano was three hits away from the school career record

There was a football season but without championships. Other fall sports had a season a little closer to normal. We did get to experience the remarkable talents of Holy Spirit’s Patrick Smith, the two Jakes (Schneider and Inserra) from Ocean City, Jordan Marcucci of Absegami, Ahmad Ross of St. Joseph Academy, LaQuint Allen of Millville, Ocean City’s Joe Repetti and Jojo Bermudez of Cedar Creek, among others.

Patrick Smith gained 1700 yards and scored 16 times in seven games

But strange things happened. Football teams were forced to back out of scheduled games at the last minute. One game was scheduled almost while the visiting team was loading its bus. Another game was ended at halftime when the visitors discovered they had COVID exposure.

The basketball season had championships (though the official CAL winners have not yet been confirmed) and the Tri-County Conference stole the spotlight with an exciting tournament. Teams played limited schedules. The boys from Atlantic City and Wildwood Catholic, two of the teams left hanging at the end of the 2020 season, only played a combined 12 games in 2021.

The swimmers seem to be moving right along, the indoor track meets have moved outdoors and decided not to keep score and the wrestling season begins next week. Spring sports will be right behind planning on a full season, including the NJSIAA state tournament.

If we have learned anything in the last year it is that most people are adaptable.

No fans were allowed throughout most of the 2021 winter season and only parents were permitted at the end. Video streaming and radio coverage provided those who were interested with a chance to keep track of the games. It will be a season to remember.

Though there were no tournaments for CAL teams, we did get to see Gannon Brady, Matt Delaney and Noel Gonzalez score their 1,000th career points and, while Senior Nights were not the same, schools came up with creative ideas (like for the 2020 graduations) to celebrate.

Gannon Brady led South Jersey scoring with a 28.6 average

Things seem to be getting better. A weekend-long football event is being planned in Ocean City for late August and plans are for a normal fall season starting at the regular time and allowing lots more fans. Hopefully the 2021-22 winter season will be close to normal, too.

A lot of that, however, is up to all of us.

If you have not received the vaccine yet, work hard to get it. THIS is a good place to start. You should also help your relatives and friends get vaccinated.

And remember to wear a mask. Even if you have received the vaccine, you need to wear a mask in public because, while the vaccine protects you from serious illness, it does not mean you cannot become infected with the virus and pass it on to others.

Nobody likes these damn masks, or staying six feet apart or some of the other things we need to do to protect each other and get things back to normal. But we have to do it. The Oxford dictionary created a new word this year for “a person who annoys other people by refusing to obey the social distancing rules developed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The word is “covidiot”.

Your cooperation is needed so that athletes like Cohl Mercado, Ray Weed, Egypt Owens, Summer Reimet, Dylan Delvecchio, Carlos Lopez, Claudia Booth, Tom Finnegan, Jahmir Smith and Trevor Cohen get to compete under normal circumstances in 2021-22.

Quite frankly, the last year has been hell. And the masks have actually made it more uncomfortable. But there is a way out of this and it requires vaccinations and masks.

So, lets do what needs to be done to make sure the next 12 months become memorable for all the right reasons.

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