Paul Wiedeman walked on the court for the first day of Haddonfield's basketball practice and there was something no coach wants to see - the absence of any returning starters.

Wiedeman, the point guard on Haddonfield's 1989 state championship team, has presided over one of South Jersey's top programs as coach for 16 seasons. This year, however, the Bulldogs might be in the rare role of underdog.

There is talk that West Deptford could be the team to beat in the Colonial Conference Liberty Division, and that Sterling, which is Haddonfield's opening-game opponent, could also offer plenty of resistance. With expected parity, others in the Colonial could also surface as challengers, according to Wiedeman.

So here is Wiedeman, having to rebuild on the fly, and loving every minute of it.

"It is exciting, to tell you the truth," he said. "Practices have been very competitive and it's been wide-open for positions."

Wiedeman has long considered one of the best coaches in South Jersey, and being at his alma mater has always meant a great deal.

Wiedeman understood how special it is at Haddonfield when he resigned last spring to take over as head coach at Cherokee. Yet, in a manner of days, he realized that while Cherokee is a great place, Haddonfield is home.

Wiedeman was able to stay at Haddonfield and he couldn't be happier.

"What reinforces the right decision was when I got to practice and realized how special these kids are," he said. "They are true student-athletes, fun to be around."

As it is many times at Haddonfield, there are a number of multi-sport athletes. Wiedeman is hoping that players such as Matt Fell and Richie Bond, who were members of this fall's conference-title soccer team, can bring that winning attitude.

What the veteran coach also hopes is that while some of the players are missing experience, they will make up with other intangibles.

"There's a way about them, how they work in practice, how they get along with each other and absorb things quickly," he said.

In short, they fit the mold of the Haddonfield student-athletes.

"We get competitive people with great parents who come from a great community," he said. "Having kids like this is why I am here."

Besides all the new faces, Haddonfield has to do without one of its top returning players, 6-4 senior Tommy Kadar, who was injured playing football. Wiedeman hopes he can return by February.

What Wiedeman will do is work with the players he has. For the last four years he had the benefit of the twin backcourt of Rob and Nick DePersia, who are now competing for Rowan.

Now he has their younger brother, freshman Mike DePersia, who is expected to factor into the rotation.

This isn't a team with great size or experience, but Wiedeman won't allow the players to offer any excuses. Nor will he lower the expectations.

"The players we have are high-character guys who are not going to be happy just to be starting and finishing .500," Wiedeman. "We aren't letting down and don't change our goals."

As a coach, Wiedeman has won three state titles and five South Jersey championships. He looks at South Jersey Group 2 and sees Camden as a power. He knows there are teams in the Colonial who will be picked ahead of his.

None of that matters.

The balls are bouncing, the players are playing and Wiedeman is again coaching the youngsters who make this all worthwhile. Before a game has yet to be played, nothing could be better at this point for Haddonfield's coach.

@sjnard