A.C. boys begin basketball title defense today

Holy Spirit’s Val Garofalo, right, drives to the basket against Sacred Heart’s Ciani Carter during Saturday’s game in Galloway Township. Both teams begin their playoffs this week.

The Atlantic City High School boys basketball team will begin defense of its state Group IV title today.

Few other programs likely can appreciate how hard it is to repeat as champions. The Vikings know just how hard it is to win even one state title.

"It's going to be very tough," Atlantic City coach Gene Allen said. "But we've built the program up to the point where (state titles) are expected now. But so many things can happen. We're are just going to take it game by game."

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The state boys and girls basketball tournaments begins today. The state finals are scheduled for the weekend of March 9-10. The winners of the six enrollment groups will advance to the Tournament of Champions.

There was a time when Atlantic City found nothing but futility in the postseason. Despite having some of New Jersey's top players, the Vikings couldn't win a state title.

But that has changed under Allen. The Vikings earned their first Group IV state title in 2005 and won another last season. They are 23-1, ranked No. 1 in The Press Elite 11 and the top seed in the South Jersey Group IV bracket. Atlantic City will host 16th seed Toms River South at 7 p.m. today.

No team has repeated as the state Group IV boys champion since Linden in 2006-07. No South Jersey team has repeated as state Group IV champion since Shawnee in 1995-96.

The S.J. Group IV bracket is one of the state's toughest. In addition to Atlantic City, four teams - No. 5 Lenape; No. 6 Shawnee; No. 7 Eastern and No. 8 Toms River North - are in the Elite 11.

The games will be close. Playoff games tend to be low scoring and a missed shot or a turnover could be the difference between winning and losing.

"One bad possession and who knows?" Allen said.

But this Atlantic City team is suited for postseason play. The Vikings rely on defense. They are comfortable playing games with scores in the 40s and low 50s. They have the ability execute half-court sets. Atlantic City showed those attributes in beating Middle Township 57-51 to win the Cape-Atlantic League tournament title Saturday.

The inability to do those things is what cost the Vikings in the state tournament in the past.

"They can play fast and they can play halfcourt basketball," Middle Township coach Tom Feraco said of the Vikings. "Their basketball intelligence because of Gene's coaching is high. They have to do what Gene demands, and that's to get good shots."

The Cedar Creek girls also won a state title last season, the Group I crown. But Cedar Creek competes in Group II this year because of an increase in its enrollment.

Following is a preview of the South Jersey boys and girls playoff brackets (seeds in parentheses).


South Jersey Group IV

Defending champion: Atlantic City

2013 pick: Atlantic City

Local teams: Atlantic City (1); Southern Regional (8); Egg Harbor Township (10); Absegami (13).

Atlantic City faces a possible semifinal matchup with fifth-seeded Eastern, which features 6-foot-7 junior Matt Klinewski, who averages 18.7 points. Southern (13-9) hosts ninth-seeded Williamstown at 6:30 p.m. today. The winner probably will play Atlantic City on Wednesday. Absegami (11-10) and Egg Harbor Township (12-12) open on the road today against fourth-seeded Toms River North and seventh-seeded Triton, respectively.

South Jersey Group III

Defending champion: Camden

2013 pick: Camden

Local teams: Hammonton (1); Lacey Township (9); Ocean City (11); Oakcrest (12).

Christian Mortellite averages 21.4 points for the top-seeded Blue Devils (19-6). Hammonton and Camden are on opposite sides of the bracket. Second-seeded Camden established itself as the favorite with wins this month over St. Augustine Prep, Camden Catholic and Eastern.

South Jersey Group II

Defending champion: Willingboro

2013 pick: Middle Township

Local teams: Middle Township (2); Cedar Creek (10); Pleasantville (15).

Middle Township hosts Pleasantville at 7 p.m. today. Middle could meet talented third-seeded Medford Tech in the semifinals. The Panthers also could play at top-seeded Haddonfield in the final. But Middle is a veteran group that has played a tough schedule and gained valuable playoff experience last season when it won at Medford Tech and lost a close game at Willingboro.

South Jersey Group I

Defending champion: Paulsboro

2013 pick: Paulsboro

Local teams: Wildwood (9)

Paulsboro's only loss to a S.J. team this season came at the hands of Atlantic City. Wildwood could face Paulsboro in the quarterfinals if it wins at eighth-seeded Woodbury on Tuesday. Wildwood guard Francis Christian averages 20.2 points.

South Jersey Non-Public A

Defending champion: St. Joseph Metuchen

2013 pick: Notre Dame

Local teams: St. Augustine Prep (3); Holy Spirit (8).

St. Augustine (21-5) is favored to advance to a probable semifinal meeting at St. Joseph Metuchen. Holy Spirit (15-10) will host ninth-seeded Red Bank Catholic in Tuesday's first round. The winner will play at top-seeded Notre Dame. There is a tendency among the state's high school basketball fans to dismiss Notre Dame because the Irish play In Mercer County, which is a traditionally weak area for basketball. But Notre Dame features Trenton Catholic transfer Nazier Chew and high-scoring senior guard Isaiah Johnson.

South Jersey Non-Public B

Defending champion: Gill St. Bernard

2013 pick: The Patrick School

Local schools: Wildwood Catholic (3); Sacred Heart (9); St. Joseph (12).

This group is loaded with state powers. Wildwood Catholic (21-5) has the best chance of any local team to advance deep in this bracket. The Crusaders host 14th-seeded Mater Dei in Wednesday's first round. Wildwood Catholic faces a possible semifinal game at second-seeded Roselle Catholic.


South Jersey Group IV

Defending champion: Washington Township

2013 pick: Lenape:

Local teams: Millville (10); Mainland Regional (11); Atlantic City (12); Southern Regional (14); Egg Harbor Township (15).

Millville (16-8) is the local team to watch in this group. The Thunderbolts feature guard Lexi Bruno, who has plenty of postseason experience having played for Sacred Heart as a freshman and sophomore. Millville plays at Toms River South today and could travel to defending champion and No. 2 seeded Washington Township on Wednesday.

South Jersey Group III

Defending champion: Seneca

2013 pick: Ocean City

Local teams: Ocean City (1); Pinelands Regional (12); Hammonton (16).

Ocean City (20-4) must rebound from a disappointing showing in the CAL tournament . The Red Raiders lost to Sacred Heart 54-42 in the semifinals. Ocean City center Julia Duggan averages 16.7 points and 11 rebounds for Ocean City.

South Jersey Group II

Defending champion: Middle Township

2013 pick: Willingboro

Local teams: Middle Township (2); Cedar Creek (5); Lower Cape May (8); Buena Regional (11); Barnegat (13); Bridgeton (14).

Middle Township is on the opposite side of the bracket as Willingboro. Cedar Creek faces a potential tough quarterfinal matchup at Sterling.

South Jersey Group I

2012 champion: Cedar Creek

2013 pick: Haddon Township

Local teams: Wildwood (9)

Wildwood will play at No. 8 seed Salem on Tuesday. The Warriors (14-11) lost at Salem 51-47 on Feb. 15, but the Rams won their Jan. 10 matchup 78-51.

South Jersey Non-Public A

Defending champion: St. John Vianney

2013 pick: Red Bank Catholic

Local teams: Holy Spirit (4).

The Spartans (20-5) enter the tournament on a roll after winning the CAL tournament. Spirit will host 13th-seeded Pingry on Tuesday but then could meet defending champion and perennial power St. John Vianney on Thursday. The good news for Spirit is that game also would be at home.

South Jersey Non-Public B

Defending champion: Gill St. Bernards

2013 pick: Gill St. Bernards

Local teams: Sacred Heart (3); St. Joseph (5); OLMA (11); Wildwood Catholic (14).

Sacred Heart (19-7) advanced to the CAL tournament final and is playing as well as it has all season. The Lions could meet defending champion Gill St. Bernards in the semifinal.

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