The weather outside was delightful on a late July afternoon in Haddon Heights, but a healthy crowd of South Jersey athletes and coaches gathered inside the George A. Maier Jr. Memorial Gym at the high school.
While other folks were likely firing up the grill at dinner time, Williamstown High School basketball coach Grant Sporny spoke confidently with his seven players during a break in action. There were only a few minutes remaining in the Haddon Heights Summer League game and Sporny wanted to make sure his Braves were prepared.
“I want them to figure out varsity-level basketball,” Sporny said, “because a lot of them haven’t played (at that level yet).”
Williamstown responded well to the pep talk. They lost the game to Moorestown, 44-41, but a three-point defeat to a program that won a state championship four months ago was a rewarding learning experience.
“That’s what I love, you play all the best teams in the area,” Sporny said. “All quality teams, so you’re not going to hide from anyone. You can play the state champs from last year, obviously it’s not the same team (some players have graduated), but they’re still great.”
Most area coaches agree, and it’s part of the reason the Heights Summer League is thriving.
When Haddon Heights coach Mike Ricci started the league in 2008, there were 16 teams and 75 percent of the entrants were junior varsity teams. This summer, 28 varsity teams and 14 JV teams from across four counties (Camden, Burlington, Gloucester, Salem) take part in the 4 ½ week-long league.
“It’s amazing,” said Ricci, who, with help from assistant Pete Villa, took the league over from a previous iteration housed at Audubon High School. “When we first started out, we didn’t know how many teams we were going to get. We were going to kind of leave it like it was with the younger kids, but as we started to get interest from other teams it got the word out, more and more teams wanted to play. And they come from everywhere, Pennsville, Westampton Tech, Lenape. … They all come to play here.”
The formula is simple: an affordable summer basketball league for everyone where you’re guaranteed a lot of playing time and competitive opponents. The league fee (currently $675 per team) has only gone up $50 since the league began 11 years ago.
The 28 varsity teams in the league are split into four divisions, with the 14 teams in the first division playing in games held on Mondays and Wednesdays and the 14 others in the second division playing on Tuesdays and Thursdays (games are held between around 4 p.m. and 10 p.m.). The top four teams advance to the playoffs, with the championship game set for Monday, July 29 – exactly five weeks after Opening Day.
“I think for every team (the goals) are different,” Ricci said. “For teams with a lot of guys coming back like we do, or West Deptford, they’re trying to get their team chemistry together and prepare themselves for the season coming up. For other teams, they know their go-to guys; they’re trying to find those fifth, sixth, seventh, or eighth guys that can help them out next season. That’s what the summer league has done for a lot of coaches.”
Whether it’s learning how to handle the pressure of playing against tougher opponents at a higher level or just getting your players to begin to gel, the monthlong league appears to be an invaluable one for all 28 teams.
“It’s good to get your guys the experience,” Sporny said. “We have a lot of young guys that are learning, so it’s good to get them playing in a competitive environment.”