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Sitting atop the rankings

Cherokee boys hope to end the season in the same place they start it.

Cherokee boys' basketball coach Ron Powell had a resigned look after hearing the news. Powell didn't try to argue, but he wouldn't have minded a different preseason ranking.

He understands there is only one direction to go when starting at the top.

However, Powell accepted the news that the Chiefs were The Inquirer's preseason No. 1 team, and put it in perspective.

"There are a number of teams capable of being No. 1," he said. "Just being No. 1 in our division is hard enough."

That would be the Olympic American, which might be the deepest in South Jersey. Eastern is the defending champion. Though Cherokee is the favorite, Powell realizes the potential pitfalls that lurk in every game in the American. Consider this: Defending Group 4 champion Lenape finished third, behind Eastern and Cherokee.

"If you don't come ready to play, you will simply lose in our division," he said. Then again, even if teams are ready for the Chiefs, the prospect of winning remains difficult.

Cherokee returns three starters from a 20-6 team that lost in overtime to Lenape, 47-45, in the South Jersey Group 4 semifinals. It was a game the Chiefs led by 16 points in the third quarter, and it likely will be a source of motivation all season.

Leading the veterans is 5-foot-9 senior point guard Willis Nicholson, who averaged 17 points and 5.1 assists after sitting out the first part of the season following a transfer from Philadelphia's Prep Charter.

Among the quickest players around, Nicholson has generated Division I interest but has not yet made his college choice.

Nicholson is unflappable, whether facing a pressing defense or wearing the bull's-eye associated with being No. 1.

"It doesn't mean anything to be No. 1 now," Nicholson said. "We're just focused on trying to get better each game."

Cherokee's other returning starters are 6-9 senior Ryan McKeaney, a Vermont recruit, and 5-11 senior Christian Jordan, who averaged 10 points while shooting 42 percent from three-point territory and 90 percent from the foul line.

Teams in South Jersey will be hard-pressed to produce a better guard pairing than Nicholson and Jordan.

Two key returning letter-winners are 6-2 senior Maurice Jackson and 6-0 junior Bryan Cooper.

An important frontcourt addition is 6-7 senior Phil Henry, a JV player last season, and 6-1 senior West Tisdale, who saw minimal time after transferring last season from Eastern.

An important aspect in Cherokee's development will be the growth of McKeaney, who by all accounts enjoyed a strong off-season and whose mind is free of the recruiting pressure after his commitment in the summer to Vermont.

"It's a relief to have it done, and I think it allows you to go out and focus better," McKeaney said.

Make no mistake, Cherokee is a team focused on winning the next game and not concerned with preseason press clippings.

Yet despite one of the toughest schedules in South Jersey, Cherokee is more than capable of making headlines in a season the Chiefs hope to end right where they are starting.