The veteran coach retired after 35 seasons and took more than 500 career victories with him.

The all-time leading scorer graduated and took nearly 2,500 career points with him.

"It's kind of weird," Cherry Hill East senior forward Jake Gurkin said of the changes around one of South Jersey's top programs.

Gurkin and senior guard Marc Schlessel are more than just a top inside-outside duo poised to make the most of their final season for the Cougars.

They also are a bridge of sorts - a connection from Cherry Hill East's past to the future, a direct link from the highlights of last season to the promise of this season.

"Things change," Schlessel said. "There's a new culture to the team. But that also is an opportunity to move forward in the best way that we can."

Cherry Hill East has a new coach in Dave Allen, just the program's second coach since 1976. Allen replaced John Valore, who retired after 35 seasons.

That's one big change. The other is the absence of forward Chris Santo, a three-time all-South Jersey selection who is a freshman at the University of Vermont. Santo graduated as the program's all-time leading scorer (2,497 points) and rebounder (1,039).

"Chris did so much for this program," Schlessel said. "Now we have to try to replace all those points, all those rebounds. It's not going to be easy. Those are big shoes to fill. Same with Coach Valore.

"We're not the same team. But we feel like we have an opportunity to create our own identity this season and still have a winning program."

Although Santo was the focus, Gurkin and Schlessel played major roles last season as Cherry Hill East went 23-5, captured a share of the Olympic American title and ripped off a 20-game winning streak.

The Cougars' season ended with a heartbreaking, 52-49 overtime loss to eventual South Jersey Group 4 champion Shawnee in the second round of the sectional tournament.

"That 20-game winning streak was a blur but it was an awesome blur," Schlessel said.

The 5-11 Schlessel averaged 13.7 points and 2.1 assists last season. He made 35 percent of his shots from three-point range. He enters his senior year with 684 career points.

The 6-6 Gurkin averaged 9.3 points and 8.8 rebounds. He also led the team with 108 blocks.

Now the two athletes, along with senior point guard Jesse Gold, will taken on added responsibility as the Cougars move into a new era in the history of the program.

"They have been great," Allen said of Gurkin and Schlessel. "They have been in the trenches. They are both three-year starters. Their experience and leadership will help guide our young guys."

The speedy Schlessel is known for his outside shooter but he's improved his ball-handling and mid-range game. He scored on a series of pull-up jumpers from around 12 feet in a recent scrimmage against St. Augustine Prep.

"I've been working on developing different ways to score," said Schlessel, who is undecided about college.

The rangy Gurkin also is a top outside shooter. He's worked to develop more of a post-up game, especially in tandem with Schlessel.

Gurkin also is undecided on college. Like Schlessel, he hopes to generate additional interest from recruiters with a strong senior season.

"Marc and I have been playing together for a long time," Gurkin said. "We worked that in-and-out game together for a long time."

Gurkin and Schlessel first played together on teams at the Jewish Community Center as 10-year-olds. They were on the same Cherry Hill travel team in middle school, and have been together through high school.

This season is different at Cherry Hill East as the program moves into the post-Valore and post-Santo era.

But the Cougars have a pair of accomplished seniors to smooth the transition.

"This is our last year and we want to go out strong," Gurkin said. "We want to lead the team as far as we can."

Contact staff writer Phil Anastasia at 856-779-3223, panastasia@phillynews.com or @PhilAnastasia on Twitter. Read his blog, "Jersey Side Sports," at www.philly.com/jerseysidesports