The hype at the beginning of the season was undeniable for the Cherry Hill West boys' basketball team. As an example, the Lions were ranked 25th in the state by NJ Hoops, a highly respected publication.
So this year there would be no sneaking up on opponents, as West discovered during yesterday's 50-44 win over visiting Eastern in an interdivisional Olympic Conference game.
Both teams are at different ends of the prediction spectrum. West is considered a serious contender in an Olympic Conference Patriot Division that doesn't lack candidates, with Winslow Township, Timber Creek and Shawnee seemingly in the mix.
Meanwhile, many have predicted that Eastern will finish sixth in the Olympic American. Since there are only six teams in the division, that isn't high praise for the team that won it last year.
The difference in the teams is in experience. Eastern was decimated by graduation, while West has the majority of its team back.
With eight seniors on the team, West will draw on its vast experience, something that came in handy yesterday.
The Lions trailed, 44-42, before scoring the game's final eight points.
"Last year, I can't say we would have lost a game like this, but we really benefited from our experience," said Chris Gebhart, West's 6-foot-8 senior center, who had 17 points, 11 rebounds and three blocked shots. "A lot of it had to do with our age and experience, and we were able to hold our composure."
Conversely, Eastern has just one returning starter, 6-3 senior Kyle Jose, who presented West with plenty of problems, scoring 13 points and shooting 6 for 9 from the field with one trey.
"Right now, it's a challenge for us to score," Eastern coach Joe Murphy said. "We have a lot of inexperience."
The schedule maker also hasn't been kind to Eastern, although things won't lighten up too much all season. The Vikings (0-2) opened with The Inquirer's No. 1 team, Cherokee, and today host No. 2 Camden Catholic.
And West (2-0) is listed as under consideration for a top 10 berth.
Trailing by 44-42, West tied the score on two free throws by Derrick Ray with 1 minute, 2 seconds left. Ray then stole the ball and fed Mickell Orr for a layup.
Eastern called a time-out. Then the Vikings called another, but they were out of their allotment and were whistled for a technical foul.
West's Darryl Nable hit two foul shots, and the Lions got the ball back and got another two free throws from Orr to round out the scoring.
From West's perspective, the best aspect of this game was that the Lions didn't play their best and still were able to win.
West had plenty of open shots but shot 3 for 20 from beyond the arc, which helped keep Eastern in the game.
There will be games when those shots fall, and that is when the Lions will be especially difficult.
"The most important thing is that we won the game," West coach Dave Allen said. "Remember that Eastern plays in the American Division and is a tough team."
Allen is right.
Eastern's record may not indicate it, but the Vikings, in their underdog role, should give plenty of teams fits.
And so should West, which, after winning 17 games a season ago, must now deal with heightened expectations.
"It's probably the most hype we've had since I've been here," said Allen, now in his fifth season guiding the Lions after previously being the head coach at Eastern.
So the Lions will challenge for their division title and hope to make noise in what looks like a typically deep and unforgiving South Jersey Group 4 field.
"We have a tough schedule, but we think we can contend," Gebhart said. "We are in there for the fight."
One that should include more than its share of knockout performances.
Eastern 13 11 11 9 - 44
Cherry Hill West 11 15 12 12 - 50
E: Zach Dortch 4, Josh Blashem 2, Baas Harvey 5, Anthony Paolini 8, Karl Folwkes 6, Ugonna Ansionwu 6, Kyle Jose 13.
C: Derrick Ray 2, Mickel Orr 9, Darryl Nable 13, Jon Smith 6, Mike Williams 3, Chris Gebhart 17.