Sacred Heart High School's Themba Lungu, left, looks to drive past Wildwood Catholic's Kevin McWade during a regular-season Cape-Atlantic League game last month. Both teams qualified for the CAL tournament, which begins today.

Staff photo by Edward Lea

Ed McWade of the Wildwood Catholic High School boys basketball team didn't hear about the seedings for the Cape-Atlantic League tournament from his coach Wednesday.

He didn't need to check a website himself.

Word spread quickly around the North Wildwood school that the fourth-seeded Crusaders would host fifth-seeded Holy Spirit at 7 p.m. today.

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"People were telling me we had a home game that I didn't even know were basketball (fans)," McWade, a junior forward, said. "I think we're going to have the biggest crowd this year."

The second annual CAL tournament begins tonight with eight boys and eight girls teams competing for the championship. The title games will be played Feb. 23 at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. A committee of league athletic directors seeded the teams Wednesday based on the teams' overall performances.

The tournament has quickly become one of the highlights of the high school sports year.

"We treat this like it's the biggest event of our season," Wildwood Catholic coach David DeWeese said. "We know the state tournament is important, but we think the new format makes this a great event. Our kids are very, very excited."

The tournament gives schools a chance to win a championship. It is hard for most local programs to win a South Jersey or state title.

Wildwood Catholic would probably have to beat one of the state's top teams in Roselle Catholic or Gill St. Bernard to win a South Jersey Non-Public B title. The Crusaders would probably have to beat one of the nation's top teams in St. Anthony of Jersey City to win a state Non-Pubic B title.

"It's realistic for our kids to win a CAL title," DeWeese said. "These are teams we play against all year round in summer leagues and fall leagues and AAU. Our kids feel like we can compete with them."

The CAL began the tournament last year with six boys and six girls teams qualifying. The Atlantic City boys and the Sacred Heart girls won. Atlantic City rode the momentum from the tournament to a state Group IV championship.

"No matter what happens these games are going to prepare us for the state tournament," DeWeese said.

The tournament in its brief existence has increased interest in local high school basketball.

The CAL began to hold a title game in 1992. But the two teams in that game were sometimes determined by the middle or end of January.

The tournament keeps more teams involved. Last weekend, fans and coaches sat around the Olympic-Cape Challenge at St. Augustine Prep debating the seeding.

"This really keeps people involved in terms of jockeying for seeds and wondering even if they're going to make the tournament," said Holy Spirit coach Jamie Gillespie, who lobbied hard in the past for the league to start the tournament. "A lot of teams are still playing meaningful games in the middle of February."

The tournament also adds a excitement to a time of the season when high school basketball meant little. Teams are seeded for the state tournament based on their records after the first weekend in February.

Most teams played February games that didn't affect their state tournament seedings or their chances of winning a league title.

"It adds excitement to a dead period," CAL president and Mainland athletic director Mike Gatley said. "Typically, all you're doing is filling in non-conference games right now."

The rest of the state plays county or league tournaments in February. But the CAL is only the South Jersey league to hold a tournament.

Many South Jersey schools participate in showcase events such as this weekend's Cherry Hill East Invitational.

These events offer some enticing matchups but the games do not decide championships and really only affect newspaper rankings.

"I don't think there's any comparison between the two," Gillespie said. "The tournament puts your kids in the position of having to win to move on or lose and you're out. The pressure of that can't be simulated in an invitational event."

Tonight's Holy Spirit vs. Wildwood Catholic matchup epitomizes why the tournament is so enticing.

Wildwood Catholic (19-3) plays in the CAL United Division and has not faced any of the league's traditional powers this seasons.

The tournament offers the Crusaders a chance to prove themselves against the league's best.

"We're going to get an opportunity to play the best teams we've played all season long," DeWeese said. "It's important for our kids to know where they stand.

Holy Spirit (14-8) began the season with high expectations., But the Spartans haven't had a signature win.

The tournament offers Spirit a chance to redeem itself.

"Why we may be disappointed in our results in terms of the regular season," Gillespie said, "this starts our second season."

And wins in the tournament can make regular season triumphs and disappointments quickly fade away.

"It's whose playing the best at the right time," Gatley said, "and isn't that the goal of any program?"

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