February 29, 2012

New football alignment continues changes in the Cape-Atlantic League

Sports Columnist

Change can be a good thing. If we don’t change we don’t make progress.

The Cape-Atlantic League has made another change in its football alignment, the third different alignment in four seasons.

For the next two seasons, the American Conference will comprise Absegami, Atlantic City, Egg Harbor Township, Hammonton, Holy Spirit, Mainland, Millville, Oakcrest and St. Joseph. The National Conference will be Bridgeton, Buena, Cedar Creek, Lower Cape May, Middle Township, Ocean City, Pleasantville, St. Augustine and Vineland.

In effect, the American Conference consists of the haves and the National is the have nots – at least based on the results of the last two seasons.

In 2009 and before, CAL football teams were aligned into two conferences by enrollment. During 2010 and 2011 there were three conferences, with the public schools aligned by enrollment and one non-public school assigned to each conference.

You see, in football, just about every public school football coach seems to be paranoid about the non-publics. After all, they recruit. Or, at least, that is the phrase you hear all the time. Recruiting, as it happens in the college ranks, is not allowed. You cannot offer a student-athlete an athletic scholarship or free tuition. You cannot even promise them anything if they come to your school, like a starting position. If you know that is taking place and can prove it, turn them in.

But, when you have the kind of success in football that St. Joseph has had over the last two decades; or that Holy Spirit has enjoyed the past eight or nine years, talented young players want to play for you. They don’t need to be convinced. They can read the papers and listen to the radio broadcasts and watch the TV sportscasts. They know which programs are good.

At one point, the Diocese of Camden divided its schools into sections. If you lived in Cape May County there was Wildwood Catholic. In Eastern Atlantic County there was Holy Spirit, Western Atlantic County was St. Joseph territory and Cumberland County had Sacred Heart. St. Augustine Prep does not fall under control of the diocese.

But those sections no longer apply. Anybody can attend any non-public school, no matter where they live. Michael Gilchrist, the University of Kentucky freshman star, traveled almost two hours each way every day from South Jersey so he could attend St. Patrick in Elizabeth.

On the other hand, the public schools don’t have to worry about a bishop deciding to close the school. And they have taxpayer’s dollars to cover most of their expenses.

Public school coaches worry too much about the non-public schools. They even included a regulation in the new CAL alignment that says no public school will have to play all three non-public schools during the same season.

Quite frankly, this new alignment should produce a few more good games. St. Joseph, for example, will be playing large schools it has rarely played before. But the three-conference format produced a lot of NJSIAA playoff teams for the CAL the last two years. Now, the programs that have been good will knock heads with each other and a couple teams good enough for the playoffs might not make it. And, in the have-not conference, if a team like Vineland turns it around and goes 7-1 it might not make the Group 4 playoffs because of its schedule.

Just because a team has been good for two years is no indication it will be good again for the next two. Players graduate – like Dustin Thomas, Matt Szczur, Brent Caprio and Mike Isgro. And they can be hard to replace. Coaches change, sometimes for the better, sometimes not. Large schools, like Vineland, Absegami and EHT, actually have the best chance of maintaining a consistent program because of the school’s size.

There is a feeling among some CAL athletics directors that the league is not consistent. Football will be aligned by performance over the next two seasons. Basketball is aligned by enrollment. Baseball and softball are…well, nobody’s absolutely sure how baseball and softball are aligned. There is a championship tournament in basketball but the championship games in all other sports were discontinued years ago and have never returned.

Should every sport be treated equally? Should there just be one system of alignment used for all sports? Should the league return to championship games in all sports?

Probably, but everybody has an opinion. And football coaches seem to complain and whine a whole lot louder than everybody else.

Read more of Tom Williams' columns