The Olympic Conference is probably the best basketball league in South Jersey. One would have to think that the Olympic could get seven to nine teams in any top 10 poll. In fact, Camden Catholic, Cherokee and Paul VI are almost universally accepted as the top three teams in South Jersey, maybe even in that order depending whom you ask.

"It absolutely gets you ready for the postseason," said Camden Catholic coach Jim Crawford, who returns four starters from a year ago, including seniors Gerry Wixted, Tim Crawford, Anthony D'Orazio and Sherard Cadogan. "Last year, we came in with high expectations and maybe didn't live up to that because of injuries and other things. The year before, I think we exceeded what everyone thought we would be and that we were ahead of schedule.

"That's something that we aren't alone in. I think if you look around, playing younger kids has become a bit of a trend. If you look around at some of the rosters, there hasn't been much changeover. There aren't many surprises."

Cherokee coach Ron Powell knows what Crawford is talking about.

Powell has one of the top teams, but that comes with a caveat. The Chiefs play one of the toughest schedules around, the bulk of which is unavoidable.

"When I was at Rancocas Valley, there were some games, and this is in no way a shot at the Burlington County [league] but there were games you could look at and think, 'That's a win,' " Powell said. "That's not true in the Olympic Conference this year. This is a tough conference from top to bottom and every game is going to be a battle. This isn't football, where you get a week in between games. We got Tuesday, Thursday and sometimes Saturdays. This is a great conference and every night out will be a good game."

While Cherokee will face an Olympic American schedule with powers such as a somewhat rebuilding Lenape team fresh off a Group 4 state title, Washington Township with La Salle-bound senior Matt Lopez, along with constant thorn in the side Cherry Hill East, Camden Catholic might have to compete in the most balanced and talented division.

There's also plenty of history between the programs in the National Division, which in a previous incarnation was labeled the South Jersey North Conference. Paul VI, Camden and Woodrow Wilson will renew ancient rivalries this season.

That's particularly true with Paul VI and Camden Catholic.

"Yeah, I've been here for 4 years and I know what Camden Catholic and Paul VI means," Paul VI coach Tony Devlin said. "Each game in this division means something and you know that. That's tough in some ways but in the end it makes everyone better.

"With Camden Catholic, there are no surprises. We know what they do and they know what we do. How can't you respect someone like Jim Crawford who has done this at such a high level for 30 or more years? It just adds to the rivalry."

A rivalry that will continue into the nonpublic playoffs. But that, of course, is for March and not December. For now, the season is just about to start and all down the line, the road remains toughest for the teams that occupy the Olympic Conference - and this collection of teams would have it no other way.

"We opened with a loss to Eastern last year," Powell said. "They won the division but then we beat them in the playoffs and Lenape beat us. That's because our league is so close in talent that every night out is a tough game and it's also what makes us ready for March. It's a battle, but the tougher the competition you play, the better you become."

That is a sentiment that members of the Olympic Conference will set out to prove time and time again over the course of the next 3 months of basketball. *

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