MATT SHULTZ has spent the better part of his adult life searching for a head-coaching position.
To be fair, the new head basketball coach at Cherokee has been in a pretty good situation in his years as the football team's defensive coordinator under P.J. Mehigan. He also served under Ron Powell for the Cherokee boys' basketball team that won a Group 4 state title a season ago before falling in the Tournament of Champions semifinal to Camden Catholic.
So he was the obvious choice when Powell retired after last season, and he is excited to take on what amounts to a bit of a rebuilding project with the Chiefs.
"It's exciting to take over a program, no matter what, but this one comes with some good challenges," Shultz said.
The Chiefs, who split their first two games of the season, then won at Camden yesterday, have talent, but graduated all five starters from a year ago and, as a unit, must learn how to play at the varsity level.
"Against Shawnee [in a 57-40 loss on Monday], it was a totally new atmosphere for these kids," Shultz said. "They were used to playing at 5:30 in front of a half-empty gym. It's a heck of a thing for us to start this year and have that type of atmosphere, against a sister school, for our second game. But that's the Olympic Conference this year with all of the crossovers."
Compounding matters, Shultz has been busy juggling his schedule since practice opened on the Friday after Thanksgiving. The Chiefs' football team was on its way to a second consecutive South Jersey Group 4 championship, so he was doing double duty.
"For that final week, it was very tough to keep everything straight," Shultz said. "The one who deserves all the credit is my wife [Leslie]. We have a baby [Sarah] that was born in March, the holidays are coming up, and she did everything and never complained. She's a saint, but she was also a Division I basketball player at Bucknell, so she understands sports."
One thing Shultz understands is that his team will have to play a more patient style than it did a season ago with guards Willis Nicholson and Christian Cooper. In fact, the loss of big men such as Wes Tisdale and Ryan McKeaney might be an even bigger reason to slow things down.
"Last year, we had guys who were 6-7 and 6-9," Shultz said. "Now, we have 6-4. If you make a mistake in transition or in the press, it's much easier to cover for that mistake with a 6-9 center.
"We have talented kids like Denzell Bond and Bryan Cooper, but they need to grow just as much as everyone else. The goal is to play well, to improve, and if we can do that and make the playoffs, then you never know what can happen."
After years of an unbalanced crossover schedule in the Olympic Conference, things are back to normal, according to veteran Cherry Hill East coach John Valore, now that every team plays every other team in the conference.
"I love this type of game and the way we've set up the Olympic Conference schedule," Valore said. "We play everybody now. Nobody can complain about the crossovers, because we play everybody.
"You know, it reminds me of the old days, when we were still the South Jersey North. Back then, we played Camden twice, Wilson twice, Bishop Eustace twice, Camden Catholic twice, and Paul VI twice."
It also has set up a schedule that, night in and night out, might be the toughest in the state for every team involved. *