If this is John Valore's final season, it will feel a little like his first.

"This is like the old South Jersey North," Valore said, dating himself in a reference to a conference from the old days.

Valore began his 35th season as Cherry Hill East's basketball coach on Friday afternoon. His Cougars overcame a determined Timber Creek team to score a 56-53 victory in an Olympic Conference interdivision game.

The "interdivision" part is intriguing to Valore. This season, every Olympic Conference team will play every other Olympic Conference team - home-and-home in the division, plus a crossover game with every opponent in every other division.

"I think it's great," Valore said. "Now you don't have guys complaining, 'Well, look who they get to play in a crossover,' or, 'Why do we cross over with them when they cross over with somebody else?'

"I compare it to the old South Jersey North with Camden and Woodrow Wilson and Pennsauken and Camden Catholic, and all those teams. We played everybody, and everybody was good."

It was the power conference in South Jersey basketball in the 1970s and early 1980s. There also was a South Jersey South, leading to a lot of memorable conference championship games between South Jersey North representative Camden and South Jersey South's Atlantic City.

Those days are long gone. Valore, whose first season with the Cougars was 1976-77, and Camden Catholic's Jim Crawford are the only coaches still around at the same schools that competed in that old division.

Valore will retire as a teacher at the end of this school year. He won't say for sure that this is his last season coaching, although he notes that it's not likely he would remain in charge of the basketball program since Cherry Hill East, like most schools, prefers that its coaches be teachers at the school.

Dave Allen, one of Valore's former players and a former head coach at Cherry Hill West, is serving as Valore's top assistant this season. He could be in line to become the Cougars' next head coach.

Valore's team has never won a sectional title, but this year's squad could be a strong contender for the South Jersey Group 4 crown.

The Cougars are led by 6-foot-5 senior Chris Santo, who already is the program's all-time leading scorer with 1,851 points. Santo, who has committed to Vermont, scored 22 in Friday's victory.

But the key to the season for the Cougars will be the development of complementary players around Santo. On Friday, junior guard Marc Schlessel scored 17 points, making five three-point jumpers, while junior forward Jake Gurkin collected eight points and seven rebounds.

Santo believes that the Cougars could be a formidable team by the end of the season. Schlessel and senior guard Dan Melleby, an athletic defender, are recovering from preseason injuries, while Sam Rose, Jesse Gold, and Ido Zaken still are gaining regular varsity experience.

"We have the talent," Santo said after the Timber Creek game. "What's encouraging about this game is that we won when we didn't play our best. We can play so much better than this."

Contact staff writer Phil Anastasia at 856-779-3223 or panastasia@phillynews.com.