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MUST WIN

Next four weeks show sadness no longer part of March Madness: Must Win

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On March 13 2021, in Atlantic City, in the finals of the MAAC Men’s Basketball Tournament, the Iona Gaels play the Fairfield Stags .

The best four weeks of the local sports calendar start Friday.

The fun begins with the first rounds of the Cape-Atlantic League boys and girls basketball tournaments, which culminate with the championship games on Feb. 26 at Absegami High school.

The CAL tournament is followed by the state high school girls and boys basketball tournaments, which begin Feb. 28.

Then there are the MAAC Men’s and Women’s Basketball Championships at Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall from March 8-12.

Let’s not forget the Stockton University men’s basketball team, which is a New Jersey Athletic Conference contender. And throw in the state high school individual wrestling championships at Boardwalk Hall on March 3-5.

These next four weeks mean raucous student sections, tense elimination games, memorable baskets, exhilarating victories and crushing defeats.

And for the first time since 2019, we get these four weeks back.

Let’s remember where we all were in 2020 when there was no “March Madness,” only sadness.

COVID-19 loomed ominously in the background as the Wildwood Catholic and St. Augustine Prep boys basketball teams took the court to play for South Jersey titles at Jackson Liberty High School on March 11, 2020. By the end of that night, the virus would dominate all our lives.

Both St. Augustine and Wildwood Catholic won and celebrated with their fans rushing the floor — an image we wouldn’t see repeated until just recently.

The biggest sign that night that life was about to drastically change came when word quickly spread through Jackson Liberty that Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz had become the first NBA player to test positive for the virus and the professional league was shutting down games.

The Wildwood Catholic players talked of winning a state championship or even the Tournament of Champions after their dominating 80-67 win over Rutgers Prep that night.

I remember thinking the state championship games would be played, but the TOC had no shot.

I was wrong.

The next day the Ocean City girls beat Westampton Tech 50-38 in a state Group III basketball semifinal before no fans at Deptford High School.

It was one of the last high school sports events played in New Jersey for months.

I remember thinking the sports scene would shutdown and reopen a few weeks later for the spring high school season.

Again, I was wrong.

There wasn’t another high school sports event played in New Jersey until the middle of September 2020. The 2020 MAAC Tournament was canceled. The 2021 MAAC Tournament was held before limited crowds.

There was no state or CAL high school basketball tournaments last season.

The virus is still with us but fans are for the most part back in gyms with few restrictions. The MAAC tournament, which has never had a chance to show how big of an attraction it could be in Atlantic City, will get the opportunity.

The next three weeks will bring us Iona men’s basketball coach Rick Pitino on the sidelines.

The Mainland Regional girls and Egg Harbor Township boys basketball teams will be chasing CAL and South Jersey titles.

There will be buzzer beaters and wrestling tech falls.

There will be games and matches that bring tears to the eyes of both winners and losers.

I’m going to relish every second.

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