St. Patrick's, St. Anthony's and St. Benedict's once formed a triumvirate of obscene high-school basketball power in northern New Jersey. They employ coaches with more high-profile names than some NCAA division-1 head coaches, they played games on national television and they sent their players to play for the best college programs in the country. Finances have caused a number of small Catholic high schools to close their doors recently and no amount of basketball success or exposure can save them — not even St. Pats.
The formerly high-powered New Jersey high school had a hoops team that produced so much success that they even had their own signature Nike sneakers. They produced some of the best basketball players in the country, including Al Harrington of the Denver Nuggets, and Cleveland Cavaliers pointguard Kyrie Irving as well as recent Villanova players Mike Nardi and Corey Fisher. Markus Kennedy even spent a year commuting from Philadelphia to northern New Jersey to attend the school.
Years of declining enrollment at New Jersey's oldest parochial school, combined with the lowest SAT scores of any of the Archdiocese of Newark's 31 schools, have made it an easy target for budget cuts.
That leaves two major, national high school programs in the Garden State, and for programs that have leaned on that triumvirate for recruits in the past, it will be more important than ever to stay in their good graces. St. Anthony's High School is working hard to raise money and ensure their future, with hall of fame coach Bobby Hurley working the corporate donors to build a sustainable endowment for the school.
So far, so good for St. Ants. They are in much better financial position to survive than they were a few years ago.
For Villanova, recruiting the Jersey City school's stars hasn't always been easy. Before Dominic Cheek committed to play on the Main Line, it had been decades since the Wildcats had brought in one of Hurley's boys.
Without St. Pats' as a source of talent, Villanova's relationship with Hurley and St. Anthony's becomes vital. Northern New Jersey has been a recruiting hotbed for many programs, and has been the source of some of Jay Wright's top players.
Sure, Villanova has also been productive in recruiting the "DMV" area around Washington D.C. and recently at home in the Philadelphia area, but neither area in itself is so potent a source of elite basketball talent for Villanova that a hotbed like North Jersey can be ceded. That is especially true with coaches like Mark Turgeon generating buzz in the D.C.-area and Temple rising to the Big East ranks in Villanova's backyard — recruiting in the northeast will only become more competitive in the future.
That is why Dominic Cheek's success in 2012-13 is vital for the Villanova Wildcats. Jay Wright needs to build relationships at the Jersey City powerhouse that promises to become even more powerful in the recruiting scene. Cheek can provide a model for success to future St. Ants' players, just as Nardi's success drew the attention of Corey Fisher.
Jay Wright may have a plan to get Cheek some more offensive output.
"He’s different than the guards we’ve had here," Wright said. "I think he can get to be a defensive player like those guys, but he’s never going to be a breakdown guy. He’s going to be a guy who has to use screens, we’re going to have to set screens for him more, catch-and-shoot kind of guy."
It isn't just the players though, coaches follow their protege's as they progress through college as well. If Hurley believes that Villanova was a good thing for his former player, he might offer favorable advice to other players in his program.
It isn't as if Villanova has another opportunity to score brownie points with the North Jersey powers next season. The roster's only other New Jersey-based players are Ty Johnson, who transferred out of Plainfield High School to go to Montrose Christian Academy, and Nick McMahon, a walk-on guard from Christian Brothers Academy. Next season, the program adds just two players, both hailing from the Philadelphia-area.
There isn't much of a St. Benedicts connection for Villanova in recent memory either. Wright successfully recruited Corey Stokes, who had an up-and-down career at Villanova, including a bit-role in the 2009 Final Four run, but that has been the extent of the relationship with the other powerhouse program.
Maybe a third power will yet arise in the Garden State, but the only sure things right now are the programs at St. Anthony's and St. Benedict's — for now and for the foreseeable future, those programs will have talent that high major schools will want.
Villanova needs to build bridges to those programs. A successful Cheek in 2012-13 will go a long way to achieving that.