Influx benefiting Wildwood Catholic

Posted: February 08, 2014

In April 2013, when the final decision was made - the end of a long and drawn-out and, at times, bizarre process - Steve DiPatri said it felt as if he had lost a loved one.

"It was like a death," he said of the Diocese of Camden's decision to close Sacred Heart High School. "I'd been there so long. I started there as a young man, grew as a coach, grew as a person. So to have the school close like that, it was like a death."

Sacred Heart was a small, private high school in Vineland, easy to overlook, burrowed in the middle of deep South Jersey. But in 16 seasons as the school's girls' basketball coach, DiPatri, 43, made Sacred Heart impossible to ignore. He won two state titles and finished with a 352-89 career record.

His measured, distinct coaching style and his passion for the game and for building and sustaining his program were signatures of the Cape-Atlantic League.

So it's no surprise that within two weeks of the announcement that Sacred Heart would close, DiPatri landed at Wildwood Catholic. But on its face, Wildwood Catholic's instant success is strange - a perennial .500 team with a new head coach suddenly among the top teams in South Jersey. The returning Wildwood Catholic players, a veteran group, had to quickly adapt to a new coach and new teammates, transfers from Sacred Heart.

It has worked, DiPatri said, not just because of his tried-and-true system, but because of the maturity of his players and their willingness to embrace him and to embrace each other.

"This has been a process where we needed to blend two teams together, two teams who played against each other three times last year," said DiPatri, whose Crusaders are 15-2 and ranked No. 4 in South Jersey by The Inquirer.

"But it's worked because we've supported each other. The school, the principal, the athletic director have been so supportive of me. And, most importantly, it's worked because of the character of the young ladies on this team."

On the court, the biggest change for Wildwood Catholic, and no small reason for its success, is the presence of senior center Kennedy Johnson. Johnson, a 6-foot-2 Michigan State recruit, is one of the state's true forces at her position. She averaged 19.5 points for Sacred Heart last season and is again averaging 19 this season and approaching her 1,000th career rebound.

It wasn't always a given that she and DiPatri were a package deal. Johnson, as any high school student would be, wasn't exactly pleased to have to transfer high schools before her senior year.

"I was really upset. It's hard not knowing where you're going to school before your senior year," Johnson said. "But [DiPatri] is such a great coach that, in the end, I went there because of him. He's taught me so much; he's prepared me to play in college. And he's helped me with other things in life, not just basketball. He's the type of coach who's always there when you need him."

Johnson is one of three Sacred Heart players, and the only starter, playing for Wildwood Catholic. She was such a presence in the league last season, such a bane to her opponents, that embracing her wasn't initially as easy as one might expect.

"We were leery about it at first, just because Sacred Heart had been such a rival of ours," said senior guard Katie MacCallion, one of a strong group of returning seniors for the Crusaders. "But we've meshed really well. Before the season, we talked with Kennedy, ironed everything out, and she's actually become a good friend of ours. It's been nothing but positive, a lot different than we expected.

"As soon as the season started, we realized the potential that we had. And it's been great. We've all been meshing well. Coach has been so motivational to all of us. He's helped us improve and have confidence in our game."

For DiPatri, the season has been something of a dream come true.

Just months after finding himself without a job, he is guiding a team to its most successful season in recent memory, one ready to compete for league and state titles. He is pacing the sidelines, building a program with a comfort that makes it easy to forget that he is still in his first year with Wildwood Catholic.

All of it speaks to the unity of his players, who look as if they have been playing with each other, not against each other, for years.

"To have this opportunity has been tremendous," DiPatri said. "It's been a great experience all around. We've been successful. More and more fans are showing up at our games. And we only hope it continues from here."

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