WITH THE South Jersey boys' basketball season getting under way for most schools tomorrow, we wanted to give you a look at some of the area's top teams.
Our initial South Jersey Top 10 poll won't come out until after the New Year, but we are giving you a preview of some teams that should land in those rankings.
We can't give anything away before the season starts, so these teams are listed in no particular order.
See you around the various gyms.
What you won't see in area gyms are a couple of players who would have had an impact this season for their clubs.
Bruising forward Jack Crawford, a key player for coach Paul Rodio's ST. AUGUSTINE squad last season will not be on the court this year. Crawford, a 6-6, 260-pounder, committed to play football next year for Penn State and will use the winter to prepart himself for that sport.
But don't feel sorry for Rodio; he has plenty of talent to draw from, mainly 6-8, 265-pound Gene Teague (what do they feed those kids down the shore area, anyway?)
"We have a very good squad," said the legendary Rodio. "Losing Jack leaves a void, but we have guys who can fill in. We have plenty of size. I really like our group. We think we're good enough to make a run at the conference and in the tournament."
Giving Rodio confidence has been the play of 6-3 wingman Josh Thompson and a pair of freshmen, 6-4 Charlie Monaghan and 5-6 point guard Isiah Morton.
CHEROKEE won the school's first Group 4 sectional title last season for coach Ron Powell, but also lost the program's all-time leading scorer in Clarence Jackson, who now plays at Siena. The Chiefs also lost a player to football, as Lynell Payne, who will play at Cincinnati next year, decided not to play basketball.
But the Chiefs, 22-8 last season, have plenty to compensate for their losses. Six-foot guard Richie Tarr and 6-5 forward Ronson Quick are more than capable of picking up the slack. Also, Jackson's younger brother, 6-2 sophomore Maurice, should get plenty of time.
"Richie knows it's his time to be the leader, after playing a back seat to Clarence," Cherokee assistant Dave Distel said. "And he can do everything for us – score, handle and play defense. Ronson can shoot the 'three,' beat people off the dribble and is a wonderful post player. Plus, he's a beast. He weighs 240 pounds."
He's also the son of former Eagles receiver Mike Quick.
As we all know, there are few guarantees in sports. That CAMDEN CATHOLIC will be good comes about as close to a sure bet as you'll find. The Irish went 22-8 last season, their 19th straight 20-win season under coach Jim Crawford.
"We've played well in our four scrimmages," said Crawford, who enters the season with 584 career wins. "Tyler DeLeece [6-6] is our leader, our captain. He'll be our go-to guy. And we have a good sophomore class, headed by Gerry Wixted and Tim Crawford."
Both are 6-6; Crawford is the coach's nephew.
Coach Crawford also had praise for Jahseer Bronson, who set a school record for minutes played at point guard last season. He also played running back on the Irish football team.
"I'm amazed how quickly he was able to jump right into basketball from football season. He is a tremendous player for us.
"I think we can be one of the top teams in the area, and our goal is to do well in our conference [Olympic National] and in the tournament. Our Group [Non-Public Group A] is filled with outstanding teams, including ourselves. We're looking forward to the challenges."
Catholic will have plenty of competition in its own conference, specifically from PAUL VI and CAMDEN.
Paul VI has one of the area's most dynamic point guards in Will Campbell.
"He's terrific," said Rancocas Valley coach Jay Flanagan, whose club scrimmaged the Eagles. "He alone makes them a very good team."
He won't have to go it alone. Also back from last year's 15-12 team for coach Tony Devlin are guard Jon Grimes, 6-4 forward Mike Stafford and 6-7 sophomore Nick Moore.
Camden's 6-4 Aaron Walton lit up the scoreboard in various leagues last summer, and sophomore Vince Walls, son of Camden legend Kevin Walls, is a deadly outside shooter for coach Clarence Turner. The Panthers were 20-7 last season and made it to the Group 3 title game where they fell to Shawnee.
Speaking of Joe Kessler's Renegades, who were 29-2 and grabbed the Group 3 state title, they'll be very good once again. Led by Kessler's nephew, 6-1 Eric Kessler, SHAWNEE, as always, will be one of the most feared teams in the area. It lost Julian Sanders and his 2,056 points to graduation. But Kessler's three-point accuracy and the play of 6-3 guard Will Kernan and 6-2 wingman Doug Holcombe will make the transition a bit easier for Kessler.
Flanagan's RANCOCAS VALLEY team was 24-3 last season, and could have the same success this season, thanks partly to 6-7 junior Mike Bersch.
"I can't imagine a better shooter in this area than Mike," Flanagan said. "He's already drawing interest from a lot of schools. Along with [5-11 point guard] Andre [Byrdsong], we have a great one-two punch to build around.
HOLY SPIRIT, another powerful parochial school, will have plenty of size and experience for coach Jamie Gillespie.
Most notably back from last year's 17-9 squad are 6-9 Ryan Brooks, 6-8 Matt DeSouza and 6-3 B.J. Bailey. Don't miss it when the Spartans square off with St. Augustine on Jan. 17.
Another terrific Catholic school program not to be omitted is HOLY CROSS. The Lancers were 24-3 last season for coach Barry Harper, winning the school's first-ever league title (Burlington County Patriot) and set a school record for wins. They can battle with anyone around the basket with 6-9 Justin Swidowski and 6-6 Devan Williams.
The success reached by HADDONFIELD the past four seasons (three state championship titles, a loss in the title game last season) gives it the credentials to be listed here, whether coach Paul Wiedeman agrees or not.
"So far, we've done very well in our scrimmages, against good competition," he said. "We've held our own. We only have one starter back [6-4 Rob MacFeeters] and we're missing some scoring punch."
Still, the Bulldogs (26-5 a year ago) have always found ways to win under Wiedeman. Catching his eye in the early going are freshman 5-11 twins Chris and Kevin Davis. "They're big kids, real good athletes who play baseball and football, also. We have a lot of role players, but we'll be competitive."
They will get plenty of competition from Colonial Conference rival COLLINGSWOOD, which was 22-7 last season.
The Panthers return a strong group that includes Darnell McCargo, guard Justin Brogsdale and outside sniper Tyrone Mann-Barnes.
There are 11 teams to look for. Others will rise and some certainly will fall. And we'll let you know who they are throughout the season. *