Which team has the best frontcourt in South Jersey - and possibly the entire state?
Most coaches would agree it is Absegami with Tara Booker and Sara Mostafa, a mild-mannered, dynamic duo. They combined to score an average of 33.9 points and register 22.1 rebounds a game last season.
don't reach those numbers in a game.
Booker, a 6-foot-1 forward, and Mostafa, a 6-5 center, react to the accolades in similar fashion.
"It's a great feeling to have a title like that," said Booker, a first-team all-South Jersey selection as a sophomore and a junior. "We both work hard. It hasn't gone to our heads. I know that I have a lot of stuff to work on."
Said Mostafa: "That makes me excited and happy. We work really hard in the off-season. On the court, we vibe, we know what each other is thinking."
It's common for athletes who have been playing together as long as Booker and Mostafa have (they started in the sixth grade) to develop a sort of hardwood mental telepathy. But how common is it for two premier players from the same high school to accept full scholarships from the same Division I program?
Booker and Mostafa have signed with George Washington University, and Colonials head coach Joe McKeon couldn't be happier. A graduate of Father Judge High School in Philadelphia, McKeon spoke off the top of his head about the Absegami seniors on a cell phone while his team prepared to travel to Villanova.
"What impressed me about Tara is that she's a great student and she plays with such poise," McKeon said. "She's one of the purest shooters I've seen, and a tough kid who fits the student-athlete profile we have here.
"Hopefully, when we play Tennessee next year, she'll have the same poise."
McKeon said Mostafa, who is interested in taking premed classes, has great hands for a post player.
"Which a lot of post players in high school have to develop," McKeon said. "She has a soft touch from 16 feet out. That puts her ahead of most 6-4 girls coming in."
Ocean City coach Paul Baruffi describes the Booker and Mostafa combination as "impressive."
As sophomores, the Galloway girls led Absegami to its second consecutive NJSIAA Group 4 state crown. As freshmen, the duo helped Absegami to its first crown: Booker was a starter and Mostafa was the sixth man.
Booker earned a "tough-kid" label last season: She injured her shooting hand in the sectional semifinal and continued playing with three fingers taped together.
"We were playing Lenape when I broke my right hand, my shooting hand, off a rebound," Booker said. "I continued to play, but my average dropped and a lot of the weight went on the rest of the team."
After Absegami beat Lenape, 51-41, it defeated Cherokee, 43-36, for the South Jersey Group 4 title; and lost to Trenton Central, 58-36, in the Group 4 state semifinal. Although Booker played the last two games less than 100 percent, she still finished the season averaging 17.4 points and 10.8 rebounds a game.
Mostafa, who averaged 16.5 points and 11.3 rebounds a game last season, and Booker have benefited from playing AAU basketball and working with a personal trainer at the Voorhees YMCA.
"AAU has helped my game a lot, to move to the high post and outside a little," Mostafa said. The trainer "has helped me with footwork, different moves and court awareness, skills I didn't have before."
Booker, an 18-year-old honors student who is interested in George Washington's communications curriculum, wants to be a coach someday. This past summer, instead of personal training, she worked with fifth- and sixth-grade girls at the At the Top Summer Camp in Margate.
The last of three children born to Michael and Angela Booker, Tara has been learning about basketball from her father since she was a little girl.
"My father played for East Orange High, and they won three state championships," Booker said. "I trust my dad the most because he knows the game and he played the game.
"He and the coach get along. He doesn't interfere. He won't say anything, unless the coach asks."
Absegami coach Greg Goodwin is grateful for that vote of confidence.
Mostafa is the family's only basketball player. The 17-year-old student-athlete with a 4.0 GPA agrees with her teammate and coach that this is the season to return to the state final.
"We only lost one player, an off-guard," Mostafa said. "Our present guard is as good, Ty Abilla. We have Jess Sartorio, a senior shooting guard, and Dana Keister. . . . We have some depth. We'll end up rotating eight players. Last year, we had eight or seven."
Booker entered the season with 1,262 career points. Mostafa needs 19 points to reach the 1,000-point plateau.
"Now that they've both signed with George Washington, we can focus on getting back to where we were two years ago, the state final," Goodwin said, noting the Braves also plan to win the Cape-Atlantic League. "They [Booker and Mostafa] try to make everyone around them better. They are among the best frontcourt in New Jersey, if not the best."
She has a way of humbling her opponents
Ask any coach in the Olympic Conference to name a top-flight forward, and the name of senior Laura Sweeney spouts out.
Ask Cherokee coach Judy Rekow about the Chiefs' 6-foot-2 forward, and she will read off statistics like a mathematician.
Sweeney was an Inquirer first-team all-South Jersey selection a year ago after averaging 22.4 points, 12.2 rebounds and 3.6 blocks a game. She scored the 1,507th point of her career last season to become the school's all-time leading scorer - boy or girl.
Summing it all up, Eastern coach Joe Murphy said Sweeney "is the No. 1 Division I player in South Jersey."
Recruited by top college programs since her freshman year, Sweeney, who has committed to play at Villanova for coach Harry Perretta, reads the stats, hears the praise, and reacts in a way that has endeared her to high school coaches.
"I'm humbled by it all," Sweeney said. "It gives me chills because I want to prove that I deserve to go to Villanova, and that I can help my [Cherokee] team and make my teammates better."
Perretta knows the Cherokee senior can play and is impressed by her as a person.
"She doesn't play selfishly, and when you see her in person, she's the same way," the Wildcats' 30-year head man said.
Humility is an attribute that Sweeney learned from her parents, Bob and Marianne, with whom she lives in Marlton.
"Being cocky takes away from the player," said Sweeney, whose father played college football at Notre Dame. "You have to have silent cockiness to get pumped, but you need to stay grounded."
With quiet confidence, the 18-year-old honors student has made the Chiefs a better team since the day she arrived. As a ninth grader, Sweeney scored 306 points, grabbed 271 rebounds, and blocked 73 shots.
"Her skill level, work ethic and her size have enabled her to do all of this," said Rekow, the Chiefs' coach.
Sweeney says that she usually is the tallest player on the hardwood in high school games, but not so in AAU basketball. She is a member of the Running Rebels, a squad based in suburban Philadelphia. That is where the hard work and stiff competition with girls as tall - or taller - than she is help to sharpen her skills and stiffen her resolve.
"My objective was to make the varsity team as a freshman, then the goals went up to get 1,000 points," Sweeney said. "2,000 is the next goal."
Cherokee fell to Absegami in the sectional final a season ago. Sweeney believes this year's Chiefs have the talent to prevail.
"You don't ever not want to have a goal," Sweeney said. "You always want to set your sights higher, or you'll be where you are."