Counting on experience
Willingboro is confident, focused and poised for a title run.
Willingboro's Chris Henry couldn't help but think that things would be different this season.
The faces would be the same, with the Chimeras returning one of the most experienced basketball teams in the area. But as he walked off the court after a 61-52 loss to Camden last March in the South Jersey Group 2 final, Henry knew his team would not make the same mistakes twice.
"None of us really had experience in a big game like that as a team before," he said. "Now, we've been with each other for a while and we know what we have to do to win."
Henry, Jarvis Perry, Chris Burke, and Keonte Chavies are seniors and returning starters from a Willingboro team that went 21-9 overall, and 11-1 while capturing the Patriot Division title.
But as Henry and coach Jeff Haddock point out, things quickly unraveled in the second half against Camden.
"We didn't keep our composure toward the end, and that helped Camden out," Haddock said.
Henry agreed. He thinks the loss to Camden already has had a positive effect on this season's team.
"We know that in big games like that, we just have to keep our poise," Henry said. "We have to keep our poise and just be determined to win the game. And we all have that same mind-set coming into this season."
Haddock already sees a marked change in his four seniors.
"They look more confident, more focused," he said. "We're a seasoned team, and that experience is something that we should definitely be able to utilize this year."
Haddock knows that team leadership is a key to postseason success, and he said he already is seeing more of it.
"The seniors are keeping the younger guys focused on the mission," he said. "And it's a domino effect. When the seniors are focused, then the younger guys become focused."
Last season was Willingboro's first year in the Patriot Division after a realignment moved the school from the Liberty Division.
The Chimeras entered last season as a team under the radar. They left the division in their dust, walking away with a two-game cushion over second-place Cinnaminson and a five-game edge over third-place Bordentown. Now they are unquestionably the team to beat in the Patriot Division - a role they have looked forward to playing all off-season.
"I know that there are definitely some teams looking forward to playing us and hoping they'll beat us this year," Henry said. "But that's how we like it. And we're a pretty confident team."
It's a new season for Willingboro, but no one on the floor for last season's heartbreaking loss to Camden will forget what happened.
Instead, that loss is fuel for a team determined to get even farther this season.
"It left a sour taste in our mouths," Haddock said. "We know it took a long road to get there. And the last part of the season is always the hardest, because it's more mental than anything else. It really just comes down to preparation.
"This year, the kids realize that it's going to be a hard road. But they definitely want to get back there, and I think we're ready."