The image of the PIAA Class AAAA state runner-up trophy alone in the center of the Penn Wood locker room last spring at Penn State still sits uneasy in the minds of the returning Patriots seniors. They didn't want to look at it or touch it, and no one went near it.

The Pats - especially the senior frontcourt of 6-6 Aaron Brown, 6-9 Shawn Oakman and 6-8 Darian Barnes - have some unfinished business this season and that's to win Penn Wood's second state championship in the last 3 years. To hear many area coaches talk about the Pats, who are rated nationally by some high school websites among the top-10 team in the country, a second Penn Wood state title is already a foregone conclusion.

But to Penn Wood coach Clyde Jones, ratings and talk mean nothing at this juncture. The only thing Jones is looking for are results - and winning - and that begins by winning the Del-Val League a third straight season. Jones has an untested backcourt and the Pats will be a team that, in many ways, will be completely different from recent years.

"I always tell our kids to expect the expectations, and on this type of level, we have expectations laid upon us," said Jones, whose team went 27-4 last year, won the District 1 title and lost to Plymouth-Whitemarsh in the state title game. "I tell our guards you don't have to please anyone but your teammates. All the other stuff - rankings, state-championship talk - will take care of itself. I think we have enough leadership from our older guys to be prepared for the type of season that we could have."

Brown, a West Virginia University commit, is the best player in Delaware County, and could very well be the best in Southeastern Pennsylvania. Oakman is looking to be a dual-sport athlete at Penn State for football and basketball, and Barnes is getting Division I looks.

But Penn Wood's season could rest with 6-5 senior point guard Akil Anderson and 5-6 sophomore guard Jerry Price. They'll be asked to replace Tyree Johnson, Penn Wood's all-everything point guard, who graduated.

"I think we're a team that comes into this year with a chip-on-shoulders," said Brown, who needs 834 points to reach 2,000 for his career, and could average more than 25 points a game this season. "We have all these schools around here that we know we're better than and they're rated - by some people - above us. We feel slighted. I guess we'll just have to show people. We felt we should have won the state title last year, and there is some unfinished business out there."

If Penn Wood is the team to beat in District 1 Class AAAA, Chester might not be that far behind. The Clippers endured what, for them, was a disappointing year at 16-11, but return a very strong young nucleus in senior guard Mo Nelson, 6-6 sophomore Rondae Jefferson, and 6-3 junior Erikk Wright. Add in 6-5 junior Richard Grandbury, 6-3 Lamon Church, a senior transfer from Malvern Prep, and 6-6 junior Tavaune Griffin, and the Clippers could have the size to combat Penn Wood.

"Some teams have a little success and they get a little big-headed; we'll see," Chester coach Larry Yarbray said. "I believe we have enough size, experience and athleticism that will give us the kind of weapons where we can come at people in waves."

There are two new coaches in the Del-Val League, Chichester's Bill Fagan and Interboro's Jeff Webb.

At Chichester, Fagan has two players back, 6-8 senior Casey Burke and 6-2 senior forward/guard Shamm Thomas. Look for Fagan to give considerable playing time to sophomores David Clapt, Marcus Turner and Robert Mack. Fagan is the fourth coach in the last 4 years for the Eagles, who went 10-12 last year.

Webb has a senior-laden team, with nine seniors returning for the Bucs, who went 5-17 last year. The top players back are 6-2 senior Vince Carnevale, 6-1 senior Mitch Helmandollar and 5-10 senior Ryan Bailey. Freshman Christian Irons, a 6-2 guard, will be a nice addition.

Glen Mills is the X-factor of the Del-Val. Bulls coach Tony Bacon does have back 6-8 senior Raheem Harvey, who averaged 17 points, 12 rebounds and five blocked shots a game before a serious car accident ended his season. The top newcomers are 6-5 senior forward Kadeem Coates and 6-4 junior Dmitri Jones.

"Things will depend on our size inside, because our guards have minimal experience," said Bacon, whose team went 7-13 last year. "It will be a struggle in the beginning, and depending on how our guards handle the pressure, we should be OK. We have to get ourselves together first before we concern ourselves with the rest of the league. We're literally taking it one game at a time and not even looking into January."

Academy Park went 11-11 and coach Paul Wharton will have a very young team, with the hub of the Knights revolving around 6-1 senior guard Jordan Tucker, a scoring machine, along with seniors Carl Coleman and senior Faheem Simms. Wharton will also look toward freshmen forward Cyrie Spencer and Tarran Hamm and 6-0 sophomores Solomon Olobode and Les Carroll.

"We're very young; we're going to move forward, but I'm really impressed with what we're learning, and the younger guys are learning what varsity high school basketball is about," Wharton said. "I really like the makeup of these guys. Penn Wood is going to be as good as everyone says they are, and Chester is Chester. Winning won't be easy in this league, but as a coach, you look forward to the challenge." *