WHEN CAMDEN CATHOLIC entered last basketball season, the team was surrounded by question marks. Their top scorer (A.J. Jeune) had graduated and the starting lineup featured three sophomores.
But question marks turn into exclamation points every year for the Irish, who will be gunning for their 21st straight 20-win season under legendary coach Jim Crawford. All last year's squad did was capture the South Jersey Non-Public A title and advance to the state championship, where it fell to Immaculata. The Irish finished 24-5 and are the Daily News' No. 1-ranked team in South Jersey to begin the season, which starts today for most teams.
"It's a little different this year than last in that there's a little more pressure knowing what our expectations are as a team," said 6-7 junior forward Tim Crawford, the coach's nephew. "We are not focusing on a state championship now, we're just working to get better. Later in the season it will be time to think about that, but right now we'll take it one game at a time."
Also back for the Irish is 6-7 junior forward Gerry Wixted, 6-3 senior shooting guard Anthony D'Orazio and senior point guard Jahseer Bronson. D'Orazio has already committed to Lehigh and Bronson is the school's all-time leader in minutes played. They will be joined in the starting lineup by bruising 6-4 forward Sherard Cadogan, also a junior.
"This year I think we're a much stronger team, much more mature," Tim Crawford said. "Anthony has always been a great passer and he's even better this year. Gerry has gotten better around the basket and Sherard is a beast. And Jahseer is the glue to the whole team."
No. 2 St. Augustine also returns underclassmen who were key figures in the Hermits' 21-7 run last season. Directing that group is diminutive point guard Isaiah Morton, who led the team in scoring, assists and highlights as a freshman. Fellow sophomore Charlie Monaghan (6-5) and 6-4 Bill Giberson give coach Paul Rodio some size up front. Senior 6-5 forward Brandon Harris, who Rodio said was being counted on heavily, broke his ankle during a scrimmage on Monday and is out for the season. Transfer Heberto Gunita, a 6-9 junior from North Carolina, will man the middle.
"We're not bad," Rodio said. "We're more experienced and show signs of being pretty good. Heberto can rebound, he's strong. He hasn't played a lot of basketball, but he's growing into it."
Aaron Walton returns to Camden High after leading South Jersey in scoring (25.9) as a junior last season. The No. 3 Panthers (14-9 a year ago) will lean mightly on the 6-2 Walton, who can do just about anything on the court for coach Mike Stargell. He'll get help from Vincent Walls and Germir Pitts, who also can light up the scoring column.
Rancocas Valley is the No. 4 team, after a magical season in which it captured the Group 4 state title and finished 27-5. Coach Jay Flanagan lost a lot of guard play due to graduation, including Andre Byrdsong. But the Red Devils return one of the state's premier shooters in 6-6 senior Mike Bersch, who has committed to play at American University. Bersch dazzled during a four-game playoff run last year when he went 18-for-25 from beyond the arc. Forward Kendell White should help pick up some of the scoring for Bersch.
No. 5 Atlantic City started last season 3-6 for coach Gene Allen, but righted the ship down the shore and finished at 20-10, winning the South Jersey Group 4 title. A turnaround of that magnitude is surprising, but when you consider how young the Vikings were last season, improvement was expected.
And expectations are high with the return of senior guard Umar Shannon, who has committed to St. Francis, Pa., 6-5 sophomore Rashaun Rasheed and 6-4 sophomore Muji McBride.
Experience is a luxury for Lenape coach Chuck Guittar, who has 10 seniors on this year's squad, which is ranked sixth. "We have our whole starting five back and four of those kids have seen significant minutes since they were sophomores," said Guittar, whose squad finished 14-12 last season. "We're a defensive team who will try to make teams earn every point. At the same time, we'll look to get out and go on offense."
Guittar said Isaiah Dixon, Mike Celestin and C.J. Meyer will be counted on heavily.
Coach Tim Dunne certainly made a splash (tidal wave?) in his first season at Timber Creek, leading the Chargers to the South Jersey Group 3 title and a 21-10 record. They start the season at No. 7.
"We have three starters back [Collin Johnson, Montez Blair and Jameer Briggs] who we are counting on," Dunne said. "The team shares the ball very well. We're long and quick. I think it's important that the kids recognize they established themselves last year and carry it over."
One of the most talked about players in South Jersey is Washington Township's 6-10 forward Matt Lopez. A project as a sophomore last season, he is expected to be dominant for coach Bob Byatt after a productive offseason.
"He's worked very hard in the offseason, restructuring his body," Byatt said. "We should be a much improved team. We're still fairly young."
Senior Ricky Hudson returns after leading the team with 17.6 points a game. Nick Favatella, Adam Marcucci and Chris Grabbe are also returning for the Minutemen, who were 14-12 last season and are the No. 8 team to start this one.
Eastern coach Joe Murphy has one of the most entertaining players in the area in guard Bobby Harris. If the Vikings, who were 16-12 last season and are at No. 9, can get more consistency from other players, including forward Shumeek Scott, they should be a force. Sub Anthony Paolini has anywhere-in-gym-range, and could supply a spark.
Shawnee rounds out the Top 10, after a season in which the Renegades went 19-9. Coach Joe Kessler lost most of his scoring when Doug Holcombe and Eric Kessler graduated. But the coaching of Kessler and the play of junior point guard Dillon Fields should be keys for the Renegades to remain one of the area's top teams. *