COLUMN: NJ’s final basketball TOCs begin tomorrow

By TOM WILLIAMS

The NJSIAA Tournaments of Champions – competitions that paired the six state group champions into a season-ending tournament – have ended the basketball season in the Garden State since 1989.

The 2022 version begins tomorrow with a boys doubleheader at Barnabas Arena in Toms River – Woodrow Wilson will play Bergen Catholic and Elizabeth will take on Paterson Charter. The top two seeds – Camden and Roselle Catholic – will play the winners on Thursday night at Rutgers.

On Wednesday, there will be two girls games between state champions in Toms River with Sparta, the team that eliminated Mainland, facing Westfield and Rutgers Prep, which eliminated Wildwood Catholic, taking on University. Those winners will play Friday night in Toms River against the top two seeds – St. John Vianney and Manasquan.

The championship doubleheader will be Sunday at Rutgers.

And then the Basketball Tournament of Champions, with its great history, will disappear.

Looking back at Cape-Atlantic League teams in the boys TOC, in 1993 Middle Township lost in the final to St. Anthony. In 1994, Middle played in the TOC again, losing to Piscataway in the first round. Pleasantville won its first round game in 1995 but lost to Shawnee in the semifinals. Pleasantville lost to Shawnee again in the 1996 semifinals. St. Augustine lost in overtime to Teaneck in the 1999 semifinals.

The Prep was back again in 2004, losing to Bloomfield Tech in the semifinals. Atlantic City won its opener in 2005 but lost to Seton Hall Prep in the semis. The next CAL team in the boys TOC was St. Augustine in 2011 when the Hermits lost to Plainfield in the semis. Atlantic City played in 2012 and 2013, losing in semifinals to St. Anthony and St. Joseph-Metuchen. The Hermits returned again in 2016, losing to Linden in the semis.

Among CAL girls teams, Wildwood lost to St. Peter’s in the first round in 1991. Egg Harbor Township lost to St. Peter’s in the 1992 final. Middle Township lost to Delsea in the 1994 first round but the Panthers got to the semis in 1995 before losing to West MIlford.

Wildwood played three straight years – losing first round games to Willingboro (2000) and Columbia (2001) and in the semis to Willingboro (2002). Sacred Heart lost in OT to Marlboro in the 2003 semis and returned again in 2005, the only year two CAL teams were among the six. The Lions lost to Pascack Valley in the 2005 opening round and Absegami lost to St. John Vianney in the semis. In 2006, Absegami was back in the semis again where they lost to Shabazz. The Ocean City girls lost to Red Bank Catholic in the 2013 first round and Mainland lost to Manchester in the first round of 2019.

No TOC basketball championships for the CAL. And only two teams – Tom Feraco’s 1993 Middle Township boys and Sam Botta’s 1992 Egg Harbor Township girls – reached the championship games.

One of the reasons given to eliminate these quality tournaments is that only one team can win and losing spoils the excitement of being a group state champion.

But that is silly.

Does losing in the state final ruin your pride at winning the South Jersey title? Is Yale worried about playing in the NCAA Tournament, which they have very little chance of winning, because it will take away the accomplishment of winning the Ivy League?

Another reason used to eliminate the TOCs is that the same teams always win. Well, in the last 10 years six different teams have won the boys basketball TOC and six different teams in girls basketball. There have been five each in boys and girls lacrosse, five in girls tennis, seven in girls cross country and three teams in the four years of the softball TOC. The only two sports to really be dominated by one school in the last decade have been Christian Brothers in boys cross country and Eastern in field hockey.

And, of course, there is the complaining about Non-Public schools dominating. Non-Public teams have had a lot of success, especially in basketball. But there is one way to soften that. Have the four public state group champions play to determine the New Jersey Public School champion. And the two Non-Publics play for their own state title. Those winners could play for the TOC championship.

By eliminating the TOCs, the NJSIAA claims it has solved the problem of squeezing the regular season games into a shortened season. Because there is no TOC, the regular season can be extended by a week. That does give teams an extra week to play their games and it does solve a problem – a problem, incidentally, that the NJSIAA created by shortening the seasons.

The length of most sports seasons will be shortened starting with the 2022-23 school year. We say “most” because while other sports are being reduced, football is blowing up. It was less than two decades ago when football season started the third weekend in September and ended on Thanksgiving weekend. Now it starts in the last week of August and won’t end for some teams until early December.

Without the TOC we would not have had the incredible experience of Eastern’s Ryleigh Heck scoring the field hockey championship game-winner in November with no time on the clock. And that goal made Heck the greatest single-season scorer in the history of high school field hockey in America.

Then there was a personal favorite, when Pitman’s Jon Crispin had probably the greatest shooting performance in state history. He scored 45 points in a double overtime loss to Rancocas Valley at the Dunn Center in Elizabeth on March 19, 1998.

Two great moments that would not have happened without the Tournament of Champions.

There have been so many other great moments through the years in the tournaments of champions in basketball, field hockey, lacrosse, girls volleyball, tennis, bowling and softball. They have been great events that brought together the elite of each sport.

It is hard to understand why so many New Jersey schools would want to end these memorable tournaments basically because they thought they’d probably lose.

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