Opinion: Closing St. Joseph, Wildwood Catholic Would Hurt More Than Sports
St. Joseph High School in Hammonton plays its football home games at Bill Bendig Memorial Field, a barebones complex that lacks the plush amenities of most other local high school stadiums.
Games are on Saturday afternoons because there are no lights. The turf is made of grass and dirt. The metal bleachers are about five rows high. Its press box is just that, a wooden box on stilts with a couple stools.
St. Joe's basketball court, which is actually at the elementary school, is also quaint. The arena is so small, the stands are located above the court in balconies that stretch across the sidelines, where fans lean over the railing and peer down at the action. There is a stage behind one baseline, where the cheerleaders perform.
Wildwood Catholic High School's basketball gym in North Wildwood is even more rustic. It's the same court that's been used since the school opened in 1948. The floor itself is so small that it has a double center-court line. One side of the bleachers steeply rises to the ceiling, with pillars that make for tough viewing for some fans. The other sideline is located beneath raised baskets that are used for physical education classes. Faded, blue-and-white banners hang one wall, reminders of past glory.
Barring a financial buzzer-beater, those venues will be now be forever empty.
The Diocese of Camden announced Friday that those two high schools and their accompanying elementary schools would permanently closing as of June 30, along with Good Shepherd Regional Elementary School in Collingswood, due in part to declining enrollment and financial difficulties.
According to the Diocese of Camden, enrollment at St. Joe has declined by 38 percent, from 331 students to 206, since 2015. Wildwood Catholic/Cape Trinity has dropped from 382 to 337 in grades kindergarten through 12th in the same period, a 12 percent decrease.
Additionally, St. Joe has received $1.1 million in loans in the last five years and is $6.6 million in debut. Wildwood Catholic has gotten $750,000 in loans.
Officials and students from both schools are trying desperately to come up with plans to save the schools.
"The kids are upset," St. Joe football coach Paul Sacco told NJ.com Friday. "They're devastated, but I told them just be patient. We have some time and the number of people I've talked to today, I think we're going to be better than ever. There's a lot of support, we have a lot of alumni and I think something will be worked out. There's always a chance it won't, but I think the man upstairs has a plan."
Over at Wildwood Catholic, plans were made for students, faculty, and supporters to drive by the school at 7PM Friday in a show of support.
Wildwood Catholic as able to stave off a shutdown a a few years ago, raising $500,000 and making the school a K-through-12 building by adding Cape Trinity.
"Wildwood Catholic is family and you never give up on family," Crusaders junior girls basketball star Marianna Papazoglou wrote on Twitter. "We're not going down without a fight."
But that appears to be a long shot now, especially with local businesses struggling to stay afloat during the Coronavirus Pandemic. It's more likely St. Joe and Wildwood Catholic will follow the path of Sacred Heart High School in Vineland, which closed in 2013.
That would mean the second time St. Joe softball coach Les Olson and Wildwood Catholic girls basketball coach Steve DiPatri have endured that experience. Both previously coached at Sacred Heart.
"Les and I have built great teams at both places, and then we've had to go and find another place before unfortunately," DiPatri told NJ.com. "This one caught me totally offguard. … You just hope there's a chance to save the school and we get a chance to walk into Wildwood Catholic again."
The closings would mark the end of a tremendous tradition of academic and athletic excellence for both schools.
St. Joe has experienced its share of success in various sports such as baseball and softball, basketball, field hockey and wrestling, but is primarily known for his football prowess.
Under Sacco's guidance, the Wildcats have won 27 state championships since the playoff format was established in 1974. Along the way, it produced a number of outstanding players such as current senior Jada Byers, brothers Jack and Keith Corcoran, Gordon Hill, Kaiwan Lewis, Rich Rosa, the late Fred Stone and Max Valles.
Juniors Ahmad Ross, Jayden Shertel and Keshon Griffin were expected to continue the tradition next season. Instead, they will be wearing different uniforms.
The potential closing marks another setback in what has been a frustrating, disappointing end to the season for Wildwood Catholic's boys basketball team. The Crusaders last won a state title in 1960, but they appeared poised to break that slump this season. Led by West Virginia-bound Taj Thweatt and Temple recruit Jalil White, they reached the state championship game before the rest of the tournament was canceled by the state due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
"(Friday's announcement) was devastating, pretty unexpected," Crusaders coach Dave DeWeese told NJ.com. "I had no idea it was at this level and even being discussed. To get the news today was very devastating for me and my kids. My message to them was to stay strong, stay together and lean on each other. We'll fight through this together."
As expected, not everyone is shedding a tear over the closings.
Critics have complained for years about the competitive advantages non-public schools have enjoyed over their public-school rivals in terms of sports. The lineups at St. Joe, Wildwood Catholic, Holy Spirit and St. Augustine Prep/Our Lady of Mercy are frequently stacked with student-athletes who do not live in Hammonton, the Wildwoods, Absecon Island and Buena Vista Township, respectively. Some are able to attend via scholarships that may not be available if they couldn't throw touchdown passes, dunk basketballs or swat home runs.
But that's a debate for another day.
Closing those schools is heartbreaking for a lot more people than football and basketball players. Teachers who have been there for years will be forced to find other jobs. Likewise, non-senior students will be scrambling to find institutions to finish their academic careers.
It's a shame the St. Joe's football field and Wildwood Catholic's basketball court will be empty.
It's a bigger shame their classrooms, cafeterias and stages will be empty, too.