By Phil Anastasia
Inquirer Staff Writer
PERTH AMBOY, N.J. -- His first coaching victory was in December of 1976, Cherry Hill East over Eastern.
"A long time ago," John Valore said.
Valore still is going strong and so is his Camden High School basketball team.
With junior Brad Hawkins leading the way with 25 points, Camden beat Manasquan 64-49 on Wednesday in the Group 2 state semifinals at Perth Amboy High School.
The victory was the 600th of Valore's career, which has encompassed 35 seasons at Cherry Hill East, one season at Cumberland and two seasons at Camden.
"It means a lot," Valore said of the milestone victory.
Valore was presented with the game ball by Camden athletic director Mark Phillips in the locker room.
"He's a great coach," said Hawkins, who also collected 10 rebounds and six assists.
Said junior forward Jamal Holloway: "He does a lot for us."
Holloway generated 13 points with 10 rebounds and senior guard Will McCants added 12 points for Camden (25-6), which advanced to Sunday's state championship game at Rutgers.
Camden will make its third consecutive appearance in the state final and will face the winner of Thursday night's state semifinal between Manchester and Newark Tech.
Camden lost to Newark Tech in last year's Group 2 state final and lost to Newark East Side in the Group 3 state final in 2013.
Camden has lost in its last five appearances in the state finals under five different coaches -- Glen Jackson in 2001, Clarence Turner in 2005, Mike Stargell in 2009, Cetsh Byrd in 2012 and Valore in 2013.
"It stayed with me all summer," Valore said of last season's loss in the state finals.
With many Camden fans who made the trip up the New Jersey Turnpike still settling into their seats, the Panthers burst from the gate and took a 29-12 lead as Hawkins scored 14 and McCants added nine with a pair of three-pointers.
"Intensity," Hawkins said of the key to the Panthers' quick start. "We came out ready to play."
Manasquan, the Central Jersey champion, surged back into contention in the second quarter and stayed within striking distance of Camden for the rest of the night.
But when Camden needed a play, Hawkins or Holloway made it.
With Manasquan within 52-45 with four minutes remaining, Hawkins drove the lane and dished to Holloway for a layup.
"Coach Vic (Carstarphen) is always saying, 'Go get the ball,'" Hawkins said. "I wanted to make something happen for my team."
Valore won 549 games in 35 seasons at Cherry Hill East. The court in the Cougars' gymnasium is named after him.
But Valore also has made his mark at Camden. His teams have won 47 games in two seasons with two South Jersey titles and two appearances in the state finals.
At the age of 70, he still amazes assistant coaches such as Carstarphen and Arthur Barclay, a pair of former Camden stars, with his energy and enthusiasm.
"It starts at home," Valore said, his voice catching with emotion. "If not for the support of my wife (Joyce), I would never be able to coach and do the things that I want to be able to do for this program."
Valore never won a South Jersey title at Cherry Hill East. Now he is one win away from a state title at Camden, which was his team's nemesis for much of his career with the Cougars.
He was smiling when he said that if Camden wins Sunday, "I might just retire."
Camden 29 6 11 18 -- 64
Manasquan 14 12 8 15 -- 49
C: Brad Hawkins 25, Jamal Holloway 13, Rasool Hinson 8, Will McCants 12, Myles Thompson 6.
M: Kyle Bradshaw 21, Ryan Jensen 17, Jack Sheehan 7, Aiden McMenamin 2, Luke O'Shaughnessy 2.
-- Contact Phil Anastasia at email@example.com