Local Sports Take Center Stage in Atlantic City, NJ
Local sports fans searching for a cure for their Super Bowl hangover can find the remedy at Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall and other arenas.
This weekend's New Jersey State Individual High School Wrestling Championships at Boardwalk Hall mark the start of an exciting string of sports events in our area. The schedule also features the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference men's and women's college basketball tournaments next week, followed by a professional boxing card at Boardwalk Hall's Adrian Phillips Ballroom.
This winter has also been an outstanding one for our local high school girls' and boys' basketball programs. Don't be surprised to see a few of them vying for state titles next weekend at Rutgers University (boys) and RWJ Barnabas Center in Toms River (girls).
The upcoming state wrestling championships rank among my favorite events. Very few sports can match it in terms of drama, tension, and excitement. Over 10,000 fans attend each of the sessions, filling Boardwalk Hall arena with cheers and screams while watching some of the best high school wrestlers in the country vie for spots atop the podium.
Kudos to the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association - the state's governing body for high school sports - for moving the girl's finals back to Boardwalk Hall after a one-year hiatus, thus providing them the same chance to experience the thrilling atmosphere boys wrestlers have experienced for over 20 years.
Cedar Creek senior Riley Lerner will attempt to become the first local girls wrestler to win a state title in the 120-pound final Saturday. On the boy's side, Lower Cape May Regional freshman 132-pounder Chase Hansen (40-0) - the only undefeated freshman wrestler in the state - will be attempting to become Lower's first state champ since Shawn Laughlin won the second of back-to-back titles in 1997. Absegami senior George Rhodes (190) will be trying to become his school's first state champ since Nick Bridge and Ryan Goodman in 2004.
Hansen and Rhodes are among 44 boys wrestlers from Atlantic, Cape May, and Cumberland County high schools trying to become the first local state champ since Holy Spirit's Pat D'Arcy won the 126-pound crown in 2015.
Over the years, the tournament has featured legendary performances that are noted at Boardwalk Hall's Hall of Fame. In 2006, Delbarton's Mike Grey earned induction by becoming New Jersey's first four-time state champion. In 2012, South Plainfield's Anthony Ashnault joined Grey in the Hall of Fame. He became the state's first four-time undefeated state champion there, capping a 170-0 career with a win in the 135-pound state final.
Wrestling mats will be replaced with a basketball court at the arena the following weekend when the MAAC tournament hits the boardwalk March 7-11.
It marks the fourth straight year the MAAC has held its conference championships in Atlantic City. Iona University and coach Rick Pitino is the top seed in the men's tournament, followed by Rider and Siena. Defending tournament champion Saint Peter's left Boardwalk Hall last season to go on a magical run that saw it reach the Elite 8 of the NCAA tournament. Iona is also the top seed in the women's bracket, followed by Quinnipiac and Niagra.
In addition, the MAAC E-Sports Championships will be held at Showboat Hotel in A.C. on March 9-11 featuring competitions in Super Mario Smash Bros. Ultimate, Overwatch 2, Rocket League, League of Legends and Valorant.
Boxing will be back in Atlantic City on March 25 with a card from Millville-based Rising Star Promotions. Unbeaten junior-middleweight Justin Figueroa (3-0, 3 KOs), an Atlantic City lifeguard and Holy Spirit High School graduate, is scheduled to be on the card, as is Atlantic City super-featherweight Francisco Rodriguez (0-0), who is a Pleasantville High School grad.
I'm hoping to see as many of the events as possible. My plan is calls for my annual trip to Atlantic City Convention Center for the Atlantic City Boat Show, which is being held Wednesday through Sunday.
I try to go every year as a way of honoring my late father-in-law, Charles "Newt" Newton, who upon moving to the Cape May area in the 1960s spent his spare time fishing for flounder aboard the "Shirley E." - named after my late mother-in law - before passing away in 2008.
The closest I've come to owning a boat is a standup paddleboard, which I use to cruise across the Cape May Harbor and other local waterways as soon as the water temperature climbs above 55 degrees. During my sessions, I check out the names of the boats docked at the various marinas.
Come summer, it means paddling past luxury yachts docked at South Jersey Marina. I'm still waiting to get invited aboard for brunch.
The good news for Philly sports fans is the Phillies have reported to spring training in Clearwater, Florida and have begun playing Grapefruit League exhibition games.
The Phils didn’t always train on Gulf Coast, however. As I discovered during a Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts trolley tour last Sunday, they also held spring training in Cape May in 1888, 1891 and 1898.
Those teams headed to Exit Zero primarily to get in shape after a winter’s worth of relaxation. On at least two occasions, the Phils stayed at the Hotel Aldeen on Decatur Street while practicing at venues such at Columbia Ballpark across from where the water tower now sits and Seaview Baseball Park near the beachfront.
Inclement weather limited the workouts, but large crowds frequently showed up to watch, according to MAC tour guide Mary Stewart.
Guess there was no such thing as the “Cape May Bubble” back in those days.