NOW THE HARD part begins - winning another state title. Not that last year was easy for Penn Wood High, which won its first PIAA Class AAAA state basketball championship in school history. Now comes the part when it's time to erase all the amazing victories, tuck away the shiny blue state championship rings, and store the state championship jackets in the closet.

Patriots coach Clyde Jones is pounding that message the first month of this season for a team that shared the Del Val League title with Chester, going 9-1 and 26-4 overall, a school record for wins in a season.

Why is Penn Wood the favorite to repeat?

That's easy: A strong nucleus returns led by all-everything 5-10 senior point guard Tyree Johnson, 6-5 junior guard Aaron Brown, 6-9, 250-pound junior center Shawn Oakman, and senior guards Dequan Pelzer and Will Brown. Add 6-8 junior Darian Barnes and freshmen Jerry Price and Mike Riddick. It's a potent team capable of repeating.

The first thing Jones told his team on opening day of practice was: "Last year's team won the state championship, this team hasn't won anything yet. I said that because we lost a lot of integral pieces, especially Duane Johnson [now at East Stroudsburg], who didn't need the ball to help us win and was a very important leader on this team."

Hoping to fill the leadership void will be Aaron Brown and Oakman, two ultracompetitive players with fiery personalities when a game is at stake. The other big component is getting Tyree Johnson to play more consistently under control, and make everyone around him better.

"If we do those things, we'll be OK and we'll actually be a very explosive offensive team," Jones said. "Our experience going through last year's state tournament is invaluable, giving our guys different looks at different teams. But for us to do what we did last year, we have to stop talking about it. Last year is over."

The big test will be getting out of the Del Val League, arguably the state's best basketball league, producing the last two Class AAAA state champions and four of the last five state finalists.

That means getting by Chester, which returns a very young team led by senior guard Laquan Robinson, junior guard Maurice Nelson, 6-3 senior forward Ronell Williams and 6-3 sophomore Erykk Wright. The Clippers, who went 9-1 in the league and 24-4 overall, will also feature 6-4 sophomore transfer Rob Pittman (from Delco Christian), 5-6 sophomore Kareem Robinson, 6-5 sophomore Tavone Griffin (transfer from Monsignor Bonner), 6-2 senior forward Dymere Crews, and 5-9 junior guard Darius Collins.

"We're young and it's why we want to get battle-tested early," Clippers coach Larry Yarbray said. "If we can play good defense against any high school team around, we'll be fine. We'll play some zone, we'll press. We're deep at guard. It should be an interesting ride. When we get to Penn Wood, we'll be ready for Penn Wood then."

At Academy Park, Paul Wharton takes over for Rick Pergolini. Returning will be seniors Brandon Jackson, a 6-4 guard, and Taylor Boulware, a 6-foot point guard. They'll be joined by Jordan Tucker, a 6-foot junior guard, and Darryl Foye, a 6-3 senior forward. The Knights were 7-15 overall and 2-8 in the league.

"I'm hoping to see a lot of improvement, and if we can get the details right, we can start winning games," Wharton said. "We're not very big, so we'll try to out-quick teams."

At Chichester, former Villanova player Ron Wilson takes over for Tom Dougherty as coach of the Eagles, who finished 11-12 overall and 4-6 in the league. Chichester could be the surprise team of the area, returning senior guards Brian Parker and Mike Chambers-Coles, who combined to average 25 points a game last year. Watch 6-8 junior center Casey Burke and 6-4 Lakeem Johnson as a strong inside presence for the Eagles.

"We are very guard-heavy, we will rely heavily on our senior leadership and the play of Mike Chambers-Coles and Brian Parker," Wilson said.

At Glen Mills, which finished 21-7 overall and 6-4 in the league, Tony Bacon begins his first season as coach of the Bulls, taking over for longtime coach Craig Mellinger. The lone returner is Shakim Armstead, a 6-1 senior guard. Helping him will be 6-7 junior center Raheem Harvey and 6-5 senior forward Chris Dickerson.

"This will definitely be a team we shape and mold as the season goes on, and as they become comfortable with me, I'll become more comfortable with them," said Bacon, who was an assistant under Mellinger for 17 years.

At Interboro, coach Anthony DiNicola returns senior 5-10 guard Charles Bolger, and Will Harrison, a senior forward who separated his shoulder and is expected back by Christmas. DiNicola had a nice season last year, finishing 9-13 overall, but 0-10 in the league. Big things are also expected from Vince Carnevale, a 6-2 junior forward who averaged 12 points last year.

In the Ches-Mont League, Sun Valley went 6-16 overall and 3-9 in the American Division for Vanguards coach Kevin Kelly, who will have seniors Chris Nelson and Alvin Freeman back. Sun Valley will need to compensate for the points left by the graduation of Tom Brennan.

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