St. Joseph ready to break out
HAMMONTON—Since becoming head boys basketball coach at St. Joseph High School (now St. Joseph Academy) in 2014, Paul Rodio has sought respect for his team within the South Jersey basketball community.
After back-to-back 20-win seasons, a few state playoff wins and an appearance in the Cape Atlantic League semifinals last year, the Wildcats are beginning to be viewed as one of the region’s top programs.
St. Joe enters this year as one of the top-ranked teams in southern New Jersey, one expected to win every time it takes the floor.
Rodio doesn’t want it any other way.
“We’ve worked hard for a long time to earn some respect. I don’t think we’ve gotten what we’ve deserved and now people are starting to take notice of how good a team we are and how good we have been,” Rodio said.
St. Joe posted a 22-6 mark last season, its best since Rodio took over prior to the 2014-15 season. The Wildcats will play an abbreviated Cape Atlantic League schedule this year, and are expected to be at the top of their division standings. There will be no CAL or state playoffs this season, so winning the division will be the lone title the Wildcats can earn this winter.
“We’re looking at every game as a kind of mini-championship,” Rodio said.
“We open with Millville, so that’s a championship game for us. Just one championship game at a time for 15 games,” he said.
Rodio and the Wildcats have many reasons to be confident about this season. Despite losing some key players to graduation and transfer, St. Joe returns one of the deepest and most talented rosters in the Cape Atlantic League.
“We had some guys who chose to leave, but we’ll overcome that. We have a great group back and we added some really good players to the roster,” Rodio said.
Leading the way is senior guard Marcus Pierce, who topped the 1,000-point mark for his career late last season and is St. Joe’s top scorer.
“Marcus is our leader on the court. He was great last year and has gotten so much better,” Rodio said.
The 6-foot-3 Pierce averaged 19.7 points a game last year.
Pierce had not committed to a college yet, and knows this season is the time to showcase his talents.
“This is a big year for me. I want to let everyone know I can be a leader and one of the best players around,” Pierce said.
Joining Pierce in the backcourt will be senior Jordan Stafford, who enters his third year as a starter for the Wildcats.
Stafford is a strong ball-handler and defender who often gets overlooked by opponents.
“Jordan does everything we ask him to do. He’s one of our most versatile players. He’s quiet and sometimes you don’t really know how great he played until you look at the stat sheet and he’s leading us in every stat,” Rodio said.
Stafford has embraced a leadership role for the Wildcats and hopes to end his high school career on a high note.
“I believe I can be one of the best players in South Jersey. I can score, pass, rebound and defend,” Stafford said.
Also back is junior guard Ja’son Prevard, who was one of the Wildcats’ top players down the stretch last season.
“The sky’s the limit for him [Prevard],” Rodio said.
“I think he’s going to be huge for us this year,” he said.
The Wildcats lost Daniel Skillings, one of their top scorers from last year to transfer, but Rodio was able to add three transfers of his own who will have an impact this season.
Dom Thomas averaged 10.8 points per game for Clearview last year and will be another strong offensive player for St. Joseph.
Antonio Sydnor, a junior, scored 15.2 points per game at Bridgeton a year ago, and gives the Wildcats yet another scoring threat.
Another transfer, Darryl McGraw, a 6-foot-9 center from Ledyard, Connecticut, provides inside scoring and rebounding.
“Dom [Thomas] is an impact player for us. I think he’s going to help us a lot. And the other two kids [Sydnor and McGraw] just make us better. Those guys are difference makers for us,” Rodio said.
Scoring shouldn’t be an issue for St. Joseph, but the Wildcats may have trouble matching up with bigger teams.
“We’re smaller than some teams but I think we’re much faster. That’s OK for us, because we want to press and play at a fast pace. I think some of the new kids will help us improve our half court offense, too,” Rodio said.
In a division that includes Bridgeton, Buena, Hammonton, Millville, St. Augustine Prep and Vineland, St. Joseph should be able to challenge for the title. Add in games late in the year at Atlantic City and Wildwood Catholic, two of the CAL’s best, and St. Joe has a chance to solidify its claim as an elite team in the region.
“People are starting to take notice of us. It put more pressure on us to live up to that, but we’re ready for the challenge,” Rodio said.
St. Joseph opened the season on January 25 at Millville. The Wildcats visit Hammonton on January 29 at 4 p.m.