CHESTER

coach Fred Pickett laughs at the idea that the PIAA should award the Class AAAA state championship plaque to his team right now. But that's how most teams in this area, and quite possibly the state, are looking at the Clippers - as uncrowned champions.

The season could be a mere formality.

"Everyone has something to shoot for, and I guess we're a target to shoot for," Pickett said. "Every team will come at us to beat us and give us their 'A' game. It's not hard to motivate someone when they're the underdog, and that's what these teams will be thinking when they play us. We'll need to stay focused and challenged, because anything can happen. This is just December. We have a few months to go before we start thinking where we'd like to be in the end. We must grow as a team."

This is a star-studded Chester team. The Clippers return four of their five starters from a team that finished 28-5 and the state runner-up, and also captured a sixth straight District 1 Class AAAA championship.

Back are Pittsburgh-bound Nasir Robinson, Division I-caliber Russell Johnson, Karon Burton and junior Rahlir Jefferson. Pickett is back for his 13th season as head coach, but is reluctant to call this his best team.

"We have a lot of kids who can do a lot of different things, and play different positions," Pickett said. "We know people are gunning for us, but I think that's the case every year. We have the talent that teams look forward to playing. What Ridley does locally with football, it's what we do with basketball.

"But we have to remind the kids every day that we just can't show up and we're going to win. Basketball is a funny sport. You see some of the best teams that ever played and great teams can be beaten any night. That's also why I haven't called these guys my best team ever. We haven't done anything yet. We have a long way to go."

Chester might also be in one of the toughest leagues, the Del Val, in Southeastern Pennsylvania, with Glen Mills, Academy Park and Penn Wood, any one of which has the capability of beating the Clippers.

"Chester always seems to do an amazing job of never losing games that they're supposed to win, they never get upset," Academy Park coach Rick Pergolini said. "Can anyone touch them? I don't know. On paper, they're a very, very clear favorite."

GLEN MILLS went 19-6 last season under coach Craig Mellinger. Aaric Murray, a 6-10 junior center who is still learning to play the game, is an intimidating force in the middle. Mellinger also has back Joe Sucharski.

ACADEMY PARK returns one of the best players in the area in Anthony King, who is averaging 18 points for the Knights. They will try to improve on last season's 12-13 record.

Another team that bears watching is PENN WOOD, which also went 12-13 last season. Patriots coach Clyde Jones returns Duane Johnson and Austin Smith, and 6-7 junior Thomas White, who is coming off a strong summer.

"Penn Wood is really good," Pergolini said. "They could give Chester or anyone a game."

INTERBORO has a new coach this season, Anthony DiNicola, who takes over for Lew Garrison, and has back Seth Cartmell, David Kerzner and Michael Barrett.

SUN VALLEY could struggle again, after going 2-20 last season. Tom Brennan is the top player back for the Vanguards. *