Cherry Hill East coach John Valore has been around long enough to understand what a player like Chris Santo can mean to a program.
At the same time, he's also been at the helm of the Camden County school's basketball team long enough to know that it takes more than just one player to create a winning team. That's why it's easy to understand the cautionary tone he takes when discussing this year's team, since he's asking more from a young team than can rightfully be asked.
"We lost one kid as a transfer who was 6-foot-5," Valore said. "We lost two kids that went to [Cherry Hill] West and Danny Melleby - our quarterback - to surgery. That opened a door for Marc [Schlessel] with an opportunity. We had another kid transfer to Winslow. We're getting some sophomores some time which they ordinarily would not have gotten. That said, we can be competitive, but I don't know where we'll be at the end."
For now, the Cougars aren't in the worst-case scenario. Yes, they opened the season 0-2, but a win over Gloucester Catholic on Monday and a 61-57 overtime win against Williamstown yesterday have the Cougars headed in the right direction.
Santo is, of course, the focal point of the offense and the truth is, that would be the case at most every school in South Jersey. The junior has already drawn interest from colleges and after scoring 19 points on Monday, he pumped in 22 more against the Braves yesterday.
That said Valore knows that it's not the production he gets from his junior post player, but from the players around him. On Monday, it was Schlessel who stepped up with 15 points. Two days later, it was Seth Friedman who knocked down 20, giving the Cougars some balance.
Season of transition
Haddonfield coach Paul Wiedeman doesn't have to directly tell anyone that he has a young club. Listening to him rattle off his starting lineup pretty much explains everything.
"Let's see, I have a freshman, sophomore, two juniors and a senior starting," Wiedeman said. "We knew a good start could really do something for us with the schedule we have in front of us in January."
A good start is one thing. A 4-0 start, well, even Wiedeman didn't expect that kind of production.
"We have a very difficult schedule," the Bulldawgs' coach said as Collingswood, Haddon Heights and Woodbury all await shots at Haddonfield in early January. "To get off to a 4-0 start gives us a lot of momentum. It gives us a lot of confidence. It helps take away some of the problems that come with inexperience.
"It's really been a group effort. [Wyatt] Polk has obviously scored a lot of points but it's more than just that."
The junior guard/forward has had plenty of support from his teammates, who have done the little things around him to open up floor space. For instance, sophomore Mike Lacatena has averaged 5.5 points per game with five rebounds and, according to Wiedeman, has picked up some of the finer points of the Bulldawgs' complicated schemes on both offense and defense.
This should come as no surprise, since Lacatena's brother, Anthony, has already gone through the system and his mother, Doreen, was a very successful girls' coach at Bishop Eustace.
"He doesn't have everything down yet but he certainly has progressed nicely and seems to be picking everything up," Wiedeman said. "You can see he's picked up the subtleties and that's a good thing."
Speaking of Heights
Just down the road from Haddonfield, Colonial Conference rival Haddon Heights is also having a good start to the season as coach Mike Ricci continues to implement his system into a Garnet program he took over a year ago.
Ricci understood that he had plenty of work to do as he took over a team that had graduated eight seniors the season before. A 14-13 campaign had the markings of an even better season as Heights lost seven games by four-points or less. They also lost to Woodbury on opening night by 45 points last December.
"This year, we had a one-point lead against Woodbury on opening night with 1:32 to play," Ricci said. "Yeah, we lost the game, but afterward I took the positive out of it and made sure the kids realized how far we had come in 1 year."
Heights has won three straight, including an overtime win against Burlington Township and now has the daunting task of preparing not only for Haddonfield but a Pennsauken program that has gained a lot of attention with a strong start.
"We've had good efforts from Michael Pitts and Markeith Palmer," Ricci said. "But the one kid that has really stepped up has been Andrew Wilcox.
"Last year, he averaged 14 points per game and was a good player for us, but the impressive thing is he took it upon himself to get better this summer. He went out and he put some weight on and really worked at his game. He has shown a ton of improvement and he's more consistent. He's averaging over 20 points per game and that's the type of consistency that hard work gets you.
"Right now, we have three real scoring threats and that's something you don't always have. They've picked each other up and when you have three threats, you're just more difficult to defend."i
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