Throughout the course of the season, there are a host of tournaments, showcases, nonleague games and conference clashes that all amount to exciting experiences for high school boys’ basketball fans.
Just this year, Schalick hosted a cancer-fundraising event that featured Delsea against St. Benedict’s of Newark — the No. 1 ranked team in the state. While the atmosphere during that five-game showcase was filled with excitement, in my experience few showdowns match the intensity that comes with the annual Vineland and Sacred Heart City Series rivalry clash.
The two sides renewed their rivalry on Saturday night inside a steamy Jim Mogan Auditorium at Sacred Heart. The game lived up to the hype, as Vineland erased a 19-point deficit to force a tie in the fourth quarter, only to see the Lions hang on for a 57-53 win.
The packed crowd was active, even more so when the Fighting Clan mounted their comeback. It looked as though Vineland coach Travis Amstutz and Sacred Heart coach Kevin Nash wanted to be out on the floor scoring buckets themselves.
Though the game has no real impact on the league race, it’s obvious where the in-town battle ranks on the list of Vineland and Sacred Heart’s players.
“It gives us bragging right till next year,” Sacred Heart senior Khyle Lee-Williams said. “We know it doesn’t mean much in terms of standings, but it was a big turnaround game for us in the schedule. It was right in the middle of a lot of division games and we needed it for momentum.”
The storylines out of the Vineland-Sacred Heart games each year are near endless.
Lions freshman Tyler Lunsford was not only playing for the first time in the rivalry, he got to do so against his brother, Nigel Lunsford, of the Fighting Clan.
“It was exciting, I got to play against my own brother,” said Tyler, who scored 10 points, including six in the fourth quarter, against Vineland. “We had them in the beginning of the game, then we fell apart a little bit and had to pick it up.”
Tyler Lunsford figures to be a force for Sacred Heart in this rivalry well into the future. It didn’t take him long to realize the intensity that goes along with playing against the Fighting Clan.
“The crowd was crazy, both teams were going 100 percent, it was just a lot of fun,” Lunsford said. “These are the kind of games you want to play in.”
Of course, the joy wasn’t as prevalent on the Vineland side. The teams played twice last year with each earning a victory, but, barring a schedule addition, that won’t be the case this year. So Saturday’s game carried even more importance than in years past.
Players like Vineland’s Eddie Thomas and Kevin Ellis were disappointed with the result, but did savor the atmosphere.
“It was hyped up in here,” Ellis said of Sacred Heart’s gym. “It was wild.”
For Thomas, who led all scorers in the game with 21 points, it’s a game he looks forward to every year.
“It’s a great feeling, it’s something that’s unexplainable,” Thomas said. “It’s something that you want to have when you play in a rivalry. It’s something that’s an amazing feeling, especially when we tied the game, you hear the crowd going nuts and the seconds are ticking down and you need to make a big shot. It’s just unexplainable.”
Bridgeton battling youth well
Some struggles were expected for Bridgeton this season with an overhaul in the roster that saw the Bulldogs march five new starters onto the court this winter.
In reality, Bridgeton has no players on its roster with true varsity experience.
Those familiar with Bulldogs coach Osco Williams know he’s a man who uses no excuses, so the team’s inexperience will hardly be a way out for Bridgeton this year.
The Bulldogs (2-5) remain as athletic as any team in the area and the group has been trying to use that to its advantage. It was evident on Tuesday when Bridgeton hung tough with St. Augustine until the third quarter in a 67-52 loss. In the first two quarters, it was the Bulldogs’ willingness to run and crash the glass that kept them in the game until St. Augustine’s experience eventually shined through.
“When we’re getting up and down the court and running, working well in transition and being where we’re supposed to be, I think that definitely plays to our advantage,” Williams said. “We’re a young a team, we’re still learning the ins and outs of basketball, so teams try to get us in a half-court set and see how basketball savvy we are, but definitely getting up and down the court is a plus for us. And if we can get teams to run with us, I think we’ll be in better shape.
“In saying that, we still want to be a team that can mature and play in a half-court set because if you’re going to win in this league, some teams know how to force the tempo, and this was a team (St. Augustine) that knew how to force the tempo.”
The game against the Hermits provided a good learning experience for Bridgeton, particularly how St. Augustine was able to make adjustments.
“You could see in some instances they wanted to work the clock and get us standing flat-footed instead of getting up and down the court, and, like I said, taking advantage of our inexperience,” Williams said. “I have to give them kudos on that because they used that to their advantage.”
Nazir Williams, one of a host of sophomores contributing for the Bulldogs, likes how the young Bridgeton team is coming together. Williams led the Bulldogs with 12 points against St. Augustine and is the team’s leading scorer at 13.1 points per game.
“It’s been a learning experience, we have to get used to the varsity mentality, but I think we’re going to keep working our way up,” Nazir said. “We’re getting better every game, we just have to watch film, learn from our mistakes and make sure we keep getting better.”
St. Augustine coach Paul Rodio sees that improvement happening for Bridgeton. The Prep’s longtime leader was quick to credit the Bulldogs following his team’s win.
“They came and played with a lot of intensity, give them credit,” Rodio said of the Bulldogs. “Say what you want about Bridgeton, they’re young, they’re all sophomores, they’re kids, they had a tough summer. … (Osco Williams) had them at everything, he had them in a fall league, he’s got them playing and they came out and played with a lot of intensity and we did not match that early.”
Area Elite Rankings*
1. St. Augustine (6-1) — Hermits are unbeaten since Dec. 18.
2. Sacred Heart (6-3) — Lions are rolling with three straight victories.
3. Delsea (4-4) — Crusaders have won two straight and handed Haddonfield its first loss of the season.
4. Schalick (6-3) — Responded to a big nonleague loss to Camden Catholic with two straight wins.
Millville (3-5) — Bolts have lost three straight winnable games.
*Rankings reflect records as of Wednesday.