By Phil Anastasia
A few years ago, Jake Silpe was a middle-school hotshot who used to sit in the stands at Cherry Hill East and watch the Cougars under long-time coach John Valore.
"He has a great reputation in Cherry Hill," Silpe said of Valore. "Everyone loves him."
On Friday, Silpe ruined Valore's return to the court that bears his name.
With 14 points, seven assists and near-flawless ball-handling against pressure defense, the junior point guard led Cherry Hill East to a 58-51 victory over Camden.
"The secret behind that team is Jake," Valore said after the emotional game before a large crowd at the Virginia Whittaker Holiday Tournament at Cherry Hill East.
Senior guard Austin Wetzler added 18 points, making four three-point jumpers, and sophomore center Tim Perry, the son of the former Temple and NBA player of the same name, added 16 points, six rebounds and four blocks for Cherry Hill East (3-0).
Sophomore forward Jamal Holloway generated 21 points with 11 rebounds and sophomore guard Brad Hawkins had 21 points and four steals for Camden (3-1), the No. 9 team in The Inquirer rankings.
"Our big guys, who are inexperienced, rose to the occasion in a playoff atmosphere," said Cherry Hill East coach Dave Allen, referring to Perry and senior forward Tom Smierciak (seven points, eight rebounds, five assists).
Valore admitted it was "strange" to be the visiting coach on John Valore Court, emerging from the visititng locker room and standing in front of the visitors bench in the gymnasium where he coached Cherry Hill East for 36 years.
Allen, a 1989 Cherry Hill East graduate who played under Valore and served two stints as an assistant coach for the man he considers a father figure, said the crowd that filled nearly the entire double-deck seating section across from the benches was a tribute to Valore.
"I told his wife before the game, 'Win or lose, he's already won today,'" Allen said. "You had people here from Florida, from North Carolina, from Maryland. That was because of him (Valore).
"He built a tradition here that's unlike any other. Now he has Cherry Hill people rooting for Camden, and we used to be such big rivals."
In its first season under Valore, Camden broke to a 3-0 start despite the absence of senior guard Tavaris Headen, a first-team All-South Jersey selection last season who remains out of the lineup for personal reasons.
The Panthers struggled to shoot from distance against the Cougars. Camden was just 3-for-24 from three-point range.
"Our weakness got exposed," Valore said. "We played hard, did some good things . . . It's a journey. It's going to take a little bit of time."
Valore said Silpe's ball-handling was the key to the game.
"He's a very fine guard," Valore said of Silpe. "He created openings. He handled our pressure."
Cherry Hill East seized command in the second quarter, as Wetzler hit a pair of three-pointers, Perry grabbed four rebounds and Silpe dished a pair of assists. The Cougars took a 28-18 lead at the break as the Panthers were 1-for-13 from three-point range.
Silple found Perry for layups on the first two possessions of the second half. That stretched the lead to 14, and the Cougars patiently protected the advantage with smart ball-handling, the occasional three-pointer and good free-throw shooting.
"The difference in the game was that we didn't let them create a lot of turnovers," Silpe said. "We wanted to control the tempo, play at our pace."
Camden 12 6 13 20 -- 51
Cherry Hill East 14 14 15 15 -- 58
C: Brad Hawkins 21, Jamal Holloway 21, Will McCants 6, Rasool Hinson 3, Jamil Maddred 0.
CHE: Jake Silpe 14, Austin Wetzler 18, Phil Cunha 3, Tim Perry 16, Tom Smierciak 7.
-- Contact Phil Anastasia at email@example.com