IT'S THE BUSIEST time of the year and we're not talking about the holidays.

December is when everything moves indoors for the longest sports seasons on the calendar. It's when the pads and helmets, along with shin pads, cages and sticks, are put away and in their stead are basketballs and singlets.

Winter is upon us but before we go to the hardwood and the mat, here's a look back on the 2009 football season in South Jersey.

* Team of the year: Cherokee

There has been plenty of debate about the best team in 2009. There are plenty of good arguments to be had, but when Cherokee walked off its home turf, soaked to the bone by a combination of snow, sleet and rain on Saturday after 14-0 win over Egg Harbor Township in the Group 4 final, it was hard to believe any other team could be No. 1.

Granted, Egg Harbor entered the game undefeated and ranked No. 1 in South Jersey by the Daily News for a reason. The Eagles were that good and had unlimited firepower on offense. Their offense was hampered by Saturday's weather, but Cherokee had to play under the same conditions and had beaten an equally dangerous and explosive team in Williamstown just 2 weeks earlier.

Meanwhile, Hammonton won Group 3 over Timber Creek on the heels of a win over Seneca. That win and Seneca's win over Cherokee on Thanksgiving have the Blue Devils chirping about their place at the top, despite a loss to Egg Harbor Township.

All of that aside, Cherokee is No. 1 for several reasons. Even though offense usually garnishes all the headlines, Cherokee's defense set it apart. The Chiefs allowed 12.7 points per game with shutouts over Washington Township and Egg Harbor Township. Also understand that Cherokee's schedule included seven matchups with teams that at one time or another were ranked in the Top 10 - including Egg Harbor Township, Williamstown and the first on the "under consideration" list, Washington Township. The other serious candidates for the top spot simply didn't have schedules that compared.

* Player of the year: Austin Medley, Delsea

Medley is a superior athlete and might be a better on defense in college, but no back exploited his opportunities better. Medley rushed for 1,715 yards, 142.9 per game and an impressive 34 touchdowns. The first option in the Wing-T, Medley wasn't an outside threat and had to find holes in the middle of the line. Still, it was amazing how many times linebackers were forced to chase him downfield.

* Coach of the year: Zac Valentine, Woodbury

Valentine's Thundering Herd were an afterthought at the start of the season. That's what happens when you are in the Colonial Conference with traditional powerhouses West Deptford and Paulsboro. Woodbury's win over Paulsboro in October was considered a fluke by most observers. Instead, Woodbury proved itself by beating Paulsboro - the Red Raiders were on a five-game win streak with impressive victories over Glassboro and West Deptford - for the Group 1 title. Valentine and his team believed in themselves and Valentine deserves credit for making the dream a reality.

* Unsung hero 1: Williamstown receiver Cody Miller

Williamstown finished 10-1 and ranked No. 3 in South Jersey in large part due to its running game. Anyone who saw Williamstown in its final two games against Cherokee - a 30-21 loss - and Delsea - a 36-21 win - had to come away impressed with Miller. He made tough catch after tough catch against Cherokee and it looked as if he was simply going to will the Braves to a win.

* Unsung rero 2: Cherokee defensive coach Matt Schultz

Schultz is the perfect candidate after he put together a game plan for the Group 4 final that shut down Egg Harbor Township.

"He's the best there is," Chiefs head coach P.J. Mehigan said. "He's really a genius. He's the one who puts the defense together."

* Program on the rise: Seneca

The Eagles made it to the Group 3 semifinals a year earlier than expected. That spells trouble for all comers in 2010.

* What to watch for in 2010: The West Jersey League

A 65-team super conference will debut next year. It will include all leagues except the Cape-Atlantic and Colonial Conference.

Several divisions will be interesting, including Division 4A where Paul VI and Seneca will be the favorites. But the big schools again will steal the show as Division 5B will be the home of Cherokee, Eastern, Lenape, Washington Township and Tri-County Royal champion Williamstown. This is what the Braves wanted and it will be interesting to see if they still want what they wished for come November. *

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