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No Rest for the Committed

Jasmine Martin, with her basketball scholarship in hand, still didn't take much time off this summer. Instead, she traveled the AAU circuit frequented by players entering their senior year.

Jasmine Martin, with her basketball scholarship in hand, still didn't take much time off this summer. Instead, she traveled the AAU circuit frequented by players entering their senior year.

A dynamic combination guard from Timber Creek, the 5-foot-9 Martin made an oral commitment during the spring to Quinnipiac, where she will play for head coach Tricia (Sacca) Fabbri, a former star at Delran.

Not needing to be seen by college coaches, Martin still continued her hectic pace, participating in 60 games during the summer across the country for the Philadelphia Lady Runnin' Rebels.

Her travel itinerary included games in Richmond, Va.; Penn State; Chicago; and Atlanta.

Many jump shots. Even more miles.

Likewise, Cherry Hill East senior Chris Santo, already twice a member of The Inquirer's first-team all-South Jersey boys' basketball team, enjoyed a hectic summer.

Santo played in 64 games for his AAU team, the Jersey Shore Warriors, and visited Orlando, West Virginia, Pittsburgh, and upstate New York. In August, Santo made an oral commitment to attend the University of Vermont.

Santo would have earned that scholarship whether he played in six or 64 summer games. Vermont had aggressively recruited him, and other schools also were in the picture.

While so much of the summer scene is about receiving exposure and being recruited, Martin and Santo performed in an NBA-type schedule for one reason: the chance to improve.

Their eyes were clearly on the winter season.

Timber Creek is considered among the contenders in the South Jersey Group 3 girls' tournament, and Cherry Hill East is in the same position in the South Jersey Group 4 boys' tournament.

"You are always remembered if you win a South Jersey title," said Martin, an all-conference selection who averaged 22.1 points per game last season. "My brother was part of a boys' championship here, and it was amazing the support the team got every game, the excitement.

"I really want to experience that."

The 6-5 Santo is already his school's all-time leading scorer with 1,829 career points. Last season, he averaged 27.9 points in earning his second straight first-team all-South Jersey selection.

None of those statistics impresses Santo. He's driven by two things - improving and winning, and they go hand-in-hand.

"I think there are four or five teams in the mix in Group 4, and I certainly hope we are there at the end of the year," Santo said.

Even after the summer, both Martin and Santo took little time off. During the fall, Timber Creek held informal workouts twice a week. The workouts were run by Martin's father, Mike Martin, and Dan Riff, whose daughter, Alexis, is a senior and a serious perimeter threat for the Chargers.

And the parents didn't just roll out the basketballs and let the girls play. There were drills to do, and an early theme was set: anybody not willing to put in the work could stay home.

"It wasn't easy," Jasmine Martin said. "They worked us hard."

Santo played in a fall league with his Cherry Hill East teammates. And when he wasn't with his teammates, it wouldn't be unusual for him to hoist one jump shot after another as he worked on becoming a perimeter threat in addition to being one of South Jersey's top inside players.

"With Chris, it's 365 days a year, and it's a pleasure to coach him," said Cherry Hill East coach John Valore. "He has a burning desire to be the best he can."

The top players usually share the same attributes, and Martin, like Santo, plays with an unbridled passion.

"In my opinion, Jasmine's love for the game, hard work and family support makes her the player that she is," Timber Creek coach Donna Clark said. "She is always working to improve her game, increase her speed and quickness, get stronger, learn new moves or skills and be the best player she can be."

While neither player let up even though they had their scholarships, both said it was much easier to prepare for their senior season without the pressures of recruiting.

"It was an honor to be recruited, but you always had to stay on top of it," Santo said. "It is time consuming."

Martin, too, said that her early decision provided for a stress-free summer.

"I met so many nice people during the recruiting process, but you can't believe the relief it is when you make your choice," she said.

At Cherry Hill East, there is another factor in the team's urgency to win a title. The 66-year-old Valore will be retiring at the end of the school year as a teacher. Valore has been coaching East since the 1976-77 season. His career record is 526-358. While he would still like to coach, there is no guarantee he will have the job next season.

"It would be something special for all the years I have coached to win a South Jersey title," Valore said. "I would love for our team to reach that goal, but there is a lot of work to do."

Winning a South Jersey championship bonds players and coaches for life. Woodbury boys' coach Kenny Avent has been fortunate to win sectional titles in the last two seasons.

The Thundering Herd are the defending South Jersey Group 1 champions. Even as his team prepared to play in the summer league, that was the goal that was frequently discussed.

"I talk about it all the time," Avent said.

And for good reason.

"To be able to win a South Jersey championship means a lot," Avent said. "It says a lot about the kids, the program, the direction of the coaching staff."

Earning scholarships and all-star honors are unbelievable accomplishments. But for the great players, it's winning that fuels them to work even harder.

The single-elimination NJSIAA state tournament is such a pressurized affair. One loss, and it's time to go home. Four wins, and a team earns a South Jersey championship.

Martin and Santo played a combined 124 games this summer. Both are hoping all that work leads to at least four extra games and four more victories in March.