As Camden Catholic's talented boys' basketball team prepares to start the 2007-08 season, it knows it has a tough act to follow.
It's one thing to try to repeat as champions in the stacked Olympic Conference National Division.
It's another thing to try to deliver an encore to a late-season run that became known as "The Miracle of A.J."
Senior Anthony "A.J." Jeune was seriously injured in a car accident in February and was in critical condition with a fractured skull and blood on the brain. Without Jeune, a Fairleigh Dickinson recruit who was the Irish's leading scorer with a 16.6 points-per-game average, Camden Catholic somehow lifted its level of play and willed itself to seven straight wins - four in the regular season to gain a share of the Olympic National title, and three in the playoffs - as it reached the South Jersey Non-Public A final before losing to powerful Christian Brothers Academy.
With Jeune in the hospital and breathing with the help of a ventilator, Irish fans rocked gyms with chants of "A.J." whenever the team needed a boost. Four of Camden Catholic's final seven wins were upsets.
"A.J.'s spirit was with us," Camden Catholic coach Jim Crawford said.
He's still pushing them, guard Jahseer Bronson said the other night.
Jeune has recovered from his injuries and is a medical redshirt at Fairleigh Dickinson, where he is taking 18 credits' worth of courses and practicing with the college team during the week. He returns home and practices with Camden Catholic on the weekend and, according to Crawford, will soon have facial surgery related to the accident.
"It still feels like he's a part of the team," said Bronson, one of the area's premier juniors. "I think it's carried over into this year. We still have that inspiration."
Jeune's plight inspired the Irish to amazing heights last season.
This season, it's difficult to imagine the Irish playing at the fevered pitch that carried them to the sectional final.
"It's a fresh start," Crawford said, "and the emotional rip we got last year is something we can't count on. Hopefully, we can use the experience we gained to our advantage."
The Irish return four starters, but several promising sophomores are pushing some of the veterans for starting jobs.
"The nice thing is, we're as deep as ever," said Crawford, owner of a 584-197 record in his 29 years at Camden Catholic. "But it's going to be tough figuring out who gets playing time."
Tyler DeLecce, a 6-foot-5 senior forward who helped carry the Irish down the stretch last season, and the gifted Bronson are the only two players who have starting spots secured. The Irish also return four other players who received significant playing time last season: 6-2 forward Chris Richardson, 5-8 guard Mike McElhatton, 6-2 forward Brian Crawford (the coach's nephew), and 6-5 forward Rob Mitchell. All four are seniors.
Don't be surprised if a trio of sophomores - 6-6 forward Tim Crawford (also the coach's nephew), 6-6 center Jerry Wixted, and 6-1 forward Anthony D'Orazio - crack the starting lineup.
With so many gifted players, it will be difficult to find playing time for all of them.
"I wish the game was 36 or 40 minutes long" instead of 32, Jim Crawford said. "That way, if you have eight or 10 players, you can play them all."
When you combine the depth and talent - and one of the most respected coaches in South Jersey history - you can understand why Camden Catholic is expected to be a powerhouse this season.
The Irish have won at least 20 games in 19 straight seasons. That streak appeared to be done when Jeune was in the accident early Feb. 17, but Camden Catholic rallied to win seven of its final nine games to finish at 22-8.
"That motivates us," said DeLecce, referring to the 20-victory milestone. "We know a 20-win season is always on the line. You don't want to be the class to end the streak. You want to continue the tradition."
It won't be easy.
Camden Catholic plays a treacherous schedule, one that includes two games each with powers Paul VI and Camden in the Olympic Conference National Division. The Irish also have an ambitious nonleague schedule that features games with South Jersey heavyweights Atlantic City, Rancocas Valley and Lenape.
"The tough schedule will prepare us," for the state tournament, DeLecce said. "Our goal is to win a state championship. Parochial A is loaded, but a state title is our main goal."