FRIDAY, HIGH school basketball season opens across South Jersey, and finally the preseason conjecture will be put aside and answers will begin to evolve.

For now, only educated guesses can point to St. Augustine, Bishop Eustace and Cherry Hill East as the top returning teams this season. Those three teams will be challenged all season long from all corners, but that's the way it's supposed to be in basketball, where what happens on the court is all that matters.

Over the next several months, teams will come out of nowhere and score big upsets, just as there will be disappointments, injuries and more than a few clashes among coaches, players, parents and fans.

In some ways, every year is the same, only the characters and background change a little.

For instance, a familiar face will be in charge of Paulsboro, as Sean Collins returns to head-coaching after moving on from Schalick, his alma mater, several seasons ago.

"It's just the way it worked out," said Collins, who won four Tri-County Classic titles with Schalick in six seasons as its head coach, then coached for one season at Living Faith/Apex Academy in Cherry Hill. "I'm still at Schalick as a teacher and, after Apex, where I learned a lot but was just burned out by all of the travel, I didn't think I'd be back so soon.

"But, an assistant spot opened last year at Paulsboro and then [head coach] Byron Dixon decided to leave, so, like I said, it just worked out this way."

Collins inherits a solid program, with a stacked sophomore class. In fact, Paulsboro, despite its youth, is an early favorite in the Colonial Conference's Patriot Division and, for that matter, the Colonial as a whole.

Despite spending his entire career, including as a football coach with Schalick, in the Tri-County, Collins is well aware of the Colonial's traditions and history. In many ways, the Colonial is the starting point of why he became a coach in the first place. It's also why Paulsboro has picked up an interesting addition to its fan base.

"Yeah, the psycho coach in the stands," laughed Collins, who also runs his own nine-acre farm in Elmer, a mile or so from where he grew up. "He put our press in last week, but if it gets lit up, he won't take any credit. I had dinner with him today after we had a bad scrimmage, and all he talked about was making sure I fed my animals."

For those who don't know, the "psycho coach" is Collins' father, Jack Collins, who began his head-coaching career at Sterling in 1968. The elder Collins went on to a highly successful career at Glassboro State College, before entering politics and eventually becoming New Jersey Assembly speaker before retiring in 2002.

"I wasn't sure he would ever go back to coaching basketball," said Jack Collins, who has always worn his emotions on his sleeve when it comes to basketball, compared with his more reserved son. "But it's great for our entire family. My grandson will be playing this year at Schalick, which is great, but, at the same time, this is something we can unite around.

"For me, I really like the fact he's in the Colonial Conference. That's just a great conference, and it's where I started.

It doesn't hurt the younger Collins that the Red Raiders have plenty of talent to work with and particularly 6-5 sophomore Xavier Lundy. He is the type of talent you can build a program around, but he's far from alone. The sophomore class includes 6-8 Julian Davenport and 6-6 Derek Burgess to round out a front line. Add to that mix Tyrin Holloway and Kane Seger, and the Raiders have a solid foundation.

Paulsboro has a good group of upper classmen, as well, in seniors Aaron Tilden and Corey Johnson, along with junior Calvin Johnson and Juwan Alford, which is the type of talent that makes transition easier.

"We have talent," Collins said. "We also have an administration that understands the importance of athletics and supports its coaches. The reality is this is just a great situation for me." *

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