Middle to face Prep in CAL National showdown

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Two of the top boys basketball teams in the area are set for a very important showdown this week.

Middle Township and St. Augustine Prep, without question two of the biggest rivals in the Cape-Atlantic League regardless of sport, will meet Friday evening – weather permitting – in a crucial game in the CAL’s National Conference. The game is scheduled for 6 p.m. in Richland and will be broadcast live by 98.7 FM radio. A live video stream can be found at www.987thecoast.com.

Middle, which beat Bridgeton on Tuesday to improve to 11-2 overall, is the lone remaining unbeaten team in the National Conference at 7-0. The Panthers handed St. Augustine (12-1, 6-1) their lone loss of the season, back on Dec. 18, when they shot the ball extremely well in a surprising 67-47 decision.

Middle and The Prep are far and away among southern New Jersey’s top teams. Middle’s lone losses are to St. Anthony and Atlantic City, teams that are ranked first and fourth in the state according to the Newark Star-Ledger.

Speaking of those rankings, both Middle and St. Augustine are included among the state’s top 20. The Panthers entered this week at No. 17, while St. Augustine, which beat Ocean City Tuesday for its 10th straight win since that early-season setback at Middle, is ranked 19th.

Middle, while not overly tall or athletic, can be one of the most lethal three-point shooting teams in the state. The team entered this week having made a whopping 88 three-pointers through its first 13 games, an average of nearly seven per outing. The senior-laden Panthers are also one of the most remarkably balanced clubs in the region in terms of scoring, with four players averaging between roughly 10 and 14 points per game, led by Darrell Shelton’s 13.9 clip. Tom Catanoso, Tommy Feraco and LaMarr Greer Jr. also average double figures. Feraco is among the CAL leaders in assists per game at 4.6. As a team, Middle is averaging more than 13 assists on its 20 field goals per game.

The Panthers made 9 of 14 three-point attempts and shot 26 for 46 overall in their victory over the Hermits in December.

St. Augustine counters with solid guard play, plus a much greater inside presence. Senior point guard Mike Greenman leads the team in scoring at 14.4 points per game, with forward Dave Sullivan close behind at 14.1 points per game. The athletic Joe Gatto, 6-5 freshman Mike Vasturia and 6-6 senior Blake Rossell, among others, are also major factors for St. Augustine.

Friday’s game will also feature the two winningest coaches in CAL history. Paul Rodio, in his 36th season at the Prep, is 770-214. Tom Feraco, in his 32nd season at Middle, is 658-207. So that’ll be a combined 1,428 wins and 68 seasons of coaching experience roaming the sidelines.

A win will all but lock up the National Conference title for Middle Township, which would hold what essentially would amount to a three-game lead with four conference games remaining. But a win by St. Augustine would create a virtual tie for first place and leave the winner of the conference in doubt all the way to the finish of the regular season.

Regardless of the result of Friday’s game, both Middle and St. Augustine appear to be locks to be among the eight teams selected to participate in the Cape-Atlantic League playoff tournament.

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