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Gloucester's Okoro and Almon grow into leadership roles

Just the other day, Stefano Okoro was a freshman flash, all youth and talent and promise.

Just the other day, Stefano Okoro was a freshman flash, all youth and talent and promise.

Just the other day, Tajee Almon was a sophomore project, all sharp elbows and raw ability and untapped potential.

But time flies in high school sports. Yesterday's freshman is today's junior, and sophomores on the rise become seniors on the spot in a heartbeat.

"They are like two other coaches for us out there," Gloucester coach Kevin Hagan said of Okoro and Almon, who have become the heart and soul of the proud old program.

It happened fast. Okoro has changed from freshman impact player to sophomore star to junior who needs to assume even more responsibility for the young Lions - seemingly in the time it takes the speedy athlete to race down the court.

Almon has changed from unpolished sophomore to promising junior to senior whose leadership might be as important to his team as his rebounding, defense, and improved shooting touch.

"It seems like yesterday I was a freshman practicing with the JV," Almon said before practice Thursday in Gloucester's gym. "Now this is it. That's why we have to make the most of this year."

Few teams are likely to rely on two players as much as the Lions will rely on Okoro and Almon, especially early in the season. That's because they are the only two players on the roster with vast varsity experience, although junior point guard Justin Smith played a few meaningful minutes last season.

The 6-foot-2, 180-pound Okoro is one of South Jersey's most talented juniors. He averaged 12.5 points as a freshman and 17.5 points last season.

The 6-4, 180-pound Almon is a 12th grader who is just beginning to scratch the surface of his ability, according to Hagan. Almon averaged 11 points and 10 rebounds last season.

Both players are top athletes who should have the Lions in contention for the Tri-County Conference's Classic Division title and in the mix in the South Jersey Group 1 tournament.

But Hagan says his team needs more than just points and rebounds from its top two players. The Lions need leadership.

"I've stressed to them that it's their attitude, more than their skills, that are going to determine whether we win or lose," said Hagan, whose team opens the season Friday night at home against Tri-County Classic rival Clayton. "They have to realize that we go as they go, and that's in practice, in games, in every aspect of this team."

It's part of the package in high school sports - young players making their way through a program, transitioning from followers to leaders.

For some, the process is smooth. Others struggle with the added responsibility.

"We have a bunch of kids who are playing varsity for the first time," Okoro said. "Me and Tajee, we have to set the example. We have to make sure they feel comfortable."

Okoro is an explosive athlete who can score from beyond the three-point line and also from above the rim at the business end of alley-oop passes. He played for the South Jersey Gymrats AAU team in the summer with Bishop Eustace senior stars Carson Puriefoy and Sho DaSilva.

Okoro has drawn preliminary recruiting interest from Rider, Florida Atlantic, and Albany, among other programs.

"He's super-athletic," Hagan said of Okoro. "The big thing with him is that we need him to have more of a killer instinct. He's such a good kid. But it's coming."

Almon has made a huge jump from last season, according to Hagan. In scrimmages, he was staying out of foul trouble, controlling the paint, and displaying surprising range on his jumper.

Almon has drawn recruiting interest from several Division III programs, but Hagan thinks his senior captain might project to the Division II level because of his improved ability to face the basket and shoot from distance.

"He just understands the game so much more," Hagan said of Almon.

Almon played for the South Jersey Jazz AAU team in the summer, along with Cherry Hill West guard Marquis Goodman and other area players. Almon said he worked to improve the physical aspects of his game but focused on another area as well.

"I know I needed to improve my leadership skills," Almon said. "I know how important that is to this team this year. Me and Stef, we know we have to step up this season and be the leaders of this team."