IN THE DAYS leading up to his senior season at Cherry Hill East High, Chris Santo, the Cougars' 6-5 swingman, took a few moments to go through a collection of clippings and memorabilia from his first three seasons.
"I was going through my stuff and I realized that this was going to be my 82nd [varsity] game," Santo said. "For a lot of these guys, it was their first [varsity] game.
"I knew that this was going to be a nerve-wracking game. Opening Night always is, and, for me, it's my last one."
Maybe a little more nerve-wracking than Santo expected, as East needed a defensive stop at the final buzzer Friday to hold off a very young squad from Timber Creek in a 56-53 Olympic Conference win. Santo scored a game-high 22 points, including nine in the final quarter, as East opened with a win, despite some lingering effects from offseason injuries.
"Last year, we had a similar situation healthwise and Lenape [beat us pretty bad]," said Cougars coach John Valore, who will retire from teaching at the end of the school year, but might return next season, depending on school board policies. "Give Timber Creek a lot of credit, they are good and quick on defense, and they created a lot of problems for Chris. But he's a senior and a leader and, when it mattered most, we knew we could count on him."
Several times throughout the game, East opened up seven- to 10-point leads only to see the Chargers battle their way back into the game. Granted, there was plenty of sloppy play on both sides, which is common in openers, but both teams showed enough during the 32 minutes of game time to show they are to be reckoned with this season.
In the final quarter, Santo hit a layup to give the Cougars a 54-51 lead with 1:08 to play. This came on the heels of a 7-0 run by Timber Creek that cut the lead to one.
"This was a great challenge for us to open the season with," said Timber Creek coach Bill Fahy, who has only two starters - Mikal Demby and D.J. Dunham - back from last year's Patriot Division co-championship team. "That's a very disciplined team, and we can build off of this. We did a good job, and I like how we played, but I know that these kids think the only thing that matters is getting wins, so they're certainly disappointed."
Demby made it a one-point game with a high floater that hit above the square on the backboard before dropping through the net with 55 seconds left in the game. The Cougars stayed in their offense, which translated into more shots from distance - they hit 10 three-pointers in the game - and after a timeout, took the ball inbounds from under their basket. A situation tailor-made for Santo, who took the inbounds pass, drove around one defender and into the lane for an easy layup with 34 seconds left in the game.
"We weren't going to come out of our offense," Santo said. "If anything, I don't think we ran our offense enough. I think, over the course of the night, we got complacent, rushed the offense a lot and didn't get good looks at some shots we took."
Timber Creek had one last chance, but couldn't get a shot off before the final buzzer.
"I love this type of game and the way we've set up the Olympic Conference schedule," Valore said. "We play everybody now. Nobody can complain about the crossovers, because we play everybody.
"You know, it reminds me of the old days, when we were still the South Jersey North. Back then, we played Camden twice, Wilson twice, Bishop Eustace twice, Camden Catholic twice, and Paul VI twice. It was even good to see [Camden Catholic coach] Jimmy Crawford in the stands. I'm glad he gave up his afternoon to come and watch." *