Two weeks ago, after the end of the North Bergen basketball season, juniors Mawel Soler and Paul Williams, considered to be among the top underclass players in New Jersey, signed themselves out of North Bergen High School and enrolled two days later at St. Patrick's.
Soler, a 6-foot-5 forward, averaged 17 points per game and Williams, a 6-foot-8 center, averaged 18 points and 11 rebounds for the Bruins, which finished the season at 14-9, after being eliminated from the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV playoffs.
However, after the season, the two left North Bergen, telling head coach John Barone that they were not happy with "their development" as players.
"They came to see me when they signed themselves out," Barone said. "And they were very remorseful and in tears. But they told me that it was in their best interests as players. The rumors were always there that they were going to leave, that they were disgruntled, but the kids never tell you the truth. I know that they [St. Patrick's] were always interested in these guys."
Last week, when St. Patrick's was playing against St. Anthony for the NJSIAA Parochial B North championship at St. Peter's College, both Soler and Williams were sitting on the St. Patrick's bench, in full view, wearing St. Patrick's uniforms.
St. Patrick's coach Kevin Boyle denied that he had anything to do with the transfers, stating that both Soler and Williams had transferred to the Elizabeth school on their own free will.
"They both transferred to the school about three or four days ago," Boyle said after the 37-32 loss to St. Anthony. "I don't know the reasons behind it. We have a lot of kids who call us and say that they want to transfer and our school takes a lot of transfers. Nobody from our school went after these kids. We don't do that. If a kid wants to come on their own, that's one thing. But we don't look for kids or solicit kids. It's really no big deal."
However, when the students were asked about their reasons for leaving North Bergen, they were already being coached.
"[Coach] Boyle told me not to say anything about it," Soler said. "So I have nothing to say."
"I don't feel comfortable talking about it," Williams said.
Needless to say, an angry Barone was willing to talk about it.
"Something has to be done about the Catholic schools taking our kids," Barone said. "I'm so discouraged by this. I spent a lot of time nurturing these kids. Then, when the time comes for it to pay off for me, I lose them? I put in 30 years of coaching and you don't get chances like this often. How can this happen?"
Added Barone, "There's no way that they're going to tell me that they had nothing to do with the kids leaving. You can never prove that they influenced them. But they're already practicing with the team and sitting on their bench. Doesn't that tell you something?"
Barone felt that, at the very least, he deserved a phone call from Boyle or someone associated with St. Patrick's. "They don't even call you and tell you that your two kids are in the school," Barone said. "They just take them. I know that these two kids cannot afford the tuition at the school, so how are they going there? Who's paying the tuition?"
It has been rumored that the students are being transported to and from their new school by either one of two people - either a former North Bergen assistant coach or a current St. Patrick's assistant who currently resides in Hudson County. It's safe to say that neither is taking public transportation to and from the school on a daily basis. It would take two buses and one train, approximately 90 minutes in travel time, to get from North Bergen to Elizabeth daily.
NJSIAA Executive Director Boyd Sands that the association will fully investigate the transfers.
"We will be looking into the situation after the Tournament of Champions [next week] and after the athletic directors' convention," Sands said. "It's a very difficult situation, when once school accuses another of recruiting, because it's so hard to prove. But we are aware of the situation and we will look into it in great detail."
If it is ruled that Soler and Williams transferred solely for athletic reasons, then the NJSIAA can declare that the two are ineligible for transferring for "athletic advantage." The NJSIAA could move that both students would have to return to North Bergen to regain athletic eligibility, although that option is highly unlikely.
Letter of inquiry
North Bergen Superintendent of Schools Peter Fischbach said that the district has written a formal letter of inquiry to St. Patrick's regarding the transfers.
"I know that before they are to allow a transfer student to enroll, they're supposed to request a waiver form," Fischbach said. "Well, we will not grant a waiver. We would like the state to look into this situation further. We do believe that it is a dubious incident. One of the student's parents have already moved to Jersey City to subjugate the matter. We simply vehemently object to the transfer. We heard rumors that this school was after these same two players before. We're interested to see what kind of response we're going to get. They have to prove some certain things to us."
Added Fischbach, "But we are not the ones who want to have our students primed to be plucked by their private little kingdom. I am deeply disturbed by this incident."
Fischbach said that the North Bergen could consider legal action in the matter, but the district has not decided whether to pursue any litigation at this point.
"We want to hear what they have to say first," Fischbach said.
What also makes the situation even stickier is the academic standing of the two students. One was reportedly in danger of becoming academically ineligible for the next athletic season and the other was enrolled in the special needs classes at North Bergen.
Barone said that he had taken his time in bringing the two talented youngsters along.
"We played games all over the place, to get them recognition," Barone said. "I knew we weren't going to win against some of the teams we played. We played St. Anthony and Lawrenceville and Union, because it was the right thing to do for their development. Now, it's going to be their senior year, their time to do something and win something for us, and they're gone. I can't believe they took both kids. It's ridiculous. I'm just sick about it." Ironically, one of the independent games that Barone scheduled last year was a Saturday night game at Stevens Tech in Hoboken - against none other than St. Patrick's of Elizabeth. Barone thought he was doing the best thing in getting the best competition for his talented players. Little did he know that the game would allow them to strut their stuff before their eventual new coach.