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Ready for all comers

Rancocas Valley knows the price of success.

Start with some key injuries.

Mix in the toughest schedule in South Jersey.

Top it off with the bull's-eye on the back that comes with a lofty preseason ranking.

For some teams, that might add up to a problem.

For the Rancocas Valley boys' basketball team, it presents an opportunity.

"That's how we look at it," said Rancocas Valley junior point guard Tariq Jett, a three-year starter. "The tougher it is, the tougher it will make us."

Under coach Jay Flanagan, Rancocas Valley has cemented its reputation as one of the state's strongest programs, specializing in tenacious man-to-man defense. The Red Devils are 93-20 over the last four seasons, winning the Group 4 state title in 2008.

Flanagan said one of the keys to his program's success has been a challenging schedule, which includes both Burlington County Liberty Division foes - including Trenton Catholic Academy, the state's defending Tournament of Champions winner - as well as a formidable out-of-conference slate.

The Red Devils pretty much will play anybody, anywhere, anytime - before the cutoff, after the cutoff, at 10 p.m. on an outdoor court in Mount Holly.

"That's our philosophy," said Flanagan, whose team is No. 2 in The Inquirer preseason Top 10. "It can be hard to get games sometimes. We want to get ourselves ready for the playoffs."

This season, Rancocas Valley is in six tournaments or showcases - the Boardwalk Classic in Wildwood, the school's own Jeff Coney Tournament, Pemberton's Martin Luther King Day tournament, the Prime Time Shootout, the Battle by the Bay and the Cherry Hill Invitational.

Rancocas Valley, which went 20-6 last season with just one senior in a regular role, has the players to compete with any team on its schedule.

The speedy, 6-foot Jett averaged nine points last season, excels on defense and has great court vision. Senior guard Kenny Johnson, a 6-3 slasher, is the team's top returning scorer with a 13-point average last season.

Dom Twitty, a 6-3 junior, is a tough inside player. Senior guards Travis Bailey and Kalee Marshall will provide plenty of energy and defensive pressure.

But the Red Devils won't be at full strength for a while, if at all. Kareem Jones, a 6-5 senior who might be the team's top inside player, hurt his knee in the Thanksgiving Day football game and has missed most of the preseason action.

Flanagan hopes Jones will be ready for the start of the season.

But senior guard Elijah Burley, a terrific outside shooter who was an all-Liberty Division choice as a sixth man last season, will be out until mid- to late-January, if not longer, after breaking his wrist.

"Elijah can stroke it," Flanagan said. "He's our best shooter. It's a big loss. We're going to have to try to figure it out for 10 games or so, maybe longer."

The schedule is punishing. Trenton Catholic will be among the best teams in the state. The rest of the Liberty is solid.

Rancocas Valley also has games against North Jersey powers St. Anthony of Jersey City and Newark Science. And Central Jersey power Lakewood. And Delaware power Concord. And Philadelphia power Communications Tech. And solid South Jersey programs Willingboro, Haddonfield, Holy Spirit, Cherokee, and Williamstown.

Jett is like his coach and like the rest of the Red Devils. He sees the bright side of those dark alleys into which his team will wander.

"We want to play the best," Jett said. "A lot of people are saying we have such a hard schedule. But playing better people makes us better. Once the playoffs get here, we'll be ready to play our best ball."