• Dan Russoman

Local basketball teams begin preseason workouts this week


St. Joseph’s Marcus Pierce (5) guards a Southern Regional player during a game last season. Pierce and the Wildcats began practice this week. (THG/Dan Russoman.To purchase photos in The Gazette, call (609) 704-1940.)

HAMMONTON—High school basketball and bowling teams around the state began preseason workouts this week as they prepare for the start of an abbreviated season later this month.


With Governor Phil Murphy opting not to extend his ban on indoor sporting activities early this month, teams were allowed to begin practicing on January 11. While many chose to begin on that date, others, including Hammonton High School, were waiting at least another week to open workouts.


Hammonton students are not scheduled to return to hybrid, in-school lessons until January 19, and is not allowing any indoor activities until that date. As a result, the basketball teams will have less time than others to prepare for the season. The Blue Devils opening-night basketball games originally scheduled for January 26 against St. Augustine Prep and Our Lady of Mercy Academy, have been postponed until later in the season. Hammonton’s teams will now open with a boys/girls doubleheader against St. Joseph on January 28.


“We’re not allowed to start until the 19th,” Hammonton boys basketball coach Joe Martino said.


“So, we’re going to lose seven practices. We’ve moved our opener, but with the tryout period, we might have three, maybe four actual practices before we play,” Martino said.


That’s not a lot of preparation time, but Martino said Hammonton will work with it and try to be ready for the season-opener.


“We do our best. We want to make sure our kids are in condition and ready to play from a safety and health perspective,” Martino said.


Mike Velardi is the new girls basketball coach at Hammonton, and he also expressed both frustration and understanding of the situation his team faces as the season approaches.


“It’s certainly not ideal, but it’s what we have to work with. As a first-year coach, I’m a little concerned that we won’t have time to put in everything we want to before the season starts. We’ll just have to work things in as we go, but that just becomes another challenge for us to overcome,” Velardi said.


Like the boys team, the girls have held virtual workouts while also sharpening their skills on their own at home.


“We’ve provided them with some structure, things we want them doing on their own. Have they all done it? I guess we’ll find out when we get in the gym,” Velardi said.


Like, Martino, Velardi feels the safety and well-being of the players and staff are the most important thing.


“Sure, it’s frustrating to not be able to work out with the team, but I know why these decisions are being made at every level. Safety is most important with the current situation,” Velardi said.


St. Joseph Academy boys basketball coach Paul Rodio has expressed his own frustration and is eager to be back in the gym.


“It can’t come soon enough [the start of practice]. I’m chomping at the bit. I think we’re going to have a really good team, but we have a lot of new players and not having the practice time might hurt us,” Rodio said.


Rodio is concerned about his schedule as well as preparing for what could be a tough season.


St. Joe and Hammonton are both in the same division this season, along with Bridgeton, Buena, Millville, Our Lady of Mercy Academy (girls), St. Augustine Prep (boys) and Vineland.


“We have some really tough games on our schedule. Our division isn’t easy, so hopefully, we’ll be ready to play,” Rodio said.


On the girls side, St. Joseph has a new head coach in Matt O’Keefe, who will also have less time to prepare an already rebuilding team.


The boys and girls bowling teams at Hammonton will also begin practice on January 19 and open their season on January 26.


The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association announced in December that indoor track and field and swimming will begin practicing on February 1, with competitions beginning on February 16. Gymnastics, girls volleyball and wrestling were moved to a new “season 3” and can open practices on March 1, with their seasons beginning on March 16.