Cherry Hill East guard Jake Silpe has helped fuel the most successful basketball era in school history, which is saying something.
East has always had a rich tradition, competing annually against South Jersey's best teams in the Olympic Conference. But the arrival of Silpe has taken the program to a new level.
In Silpe's freshman season, East lost in the South Jersey Group 4 final.
"When we got to the sectional final and lost my freshman year, my first thought was, 'We can get further,' " the senior said after Wednesday's 65-42 state semifinal win over Hillsborough.
His first thought was correct.
Last season the Cougars won their first South Jersey Group 4 title before being ousted in the state semifinal by Trenton.
This year the Cougars have earned their second straight sectional title and followed that with the state Group 4 semifinal win. Now the 26-5 Cougars find themselves making the school's first state final appearance, Sunday at Rutgers against Paterson Eastside.
The 6-foot-3 Silpe, who is headed for the University of Pennsylvania, can slice defenses with his driving ability, his passing, and his perimeter game. He also remains among South Jersey's biggest thieves on defense, where no opposing ball handler should ever feel comfortable.
East has been much more than just one player, but Silpe has been the catalyst.
"He is special, I love him to death," said coach Dave Allen, who arrived along with Silpe four years ago. "He is one of the best players I ever coached, and one of the best people I have coached, just a great kid."
Every championship team needs one player to drive the bus and Silpe has had his foot on the accelerator throughout his career.
Yet it has taken more than Silpe's excellence. Tim Perry, a 6-8 junior, is emerging as one of the top inside threats in South Jersey. The Cougars also have three veterans - senior Josh Brown and juniors Pierce Elliot and Olin McClendon - who have taken turns hitting big shots.
This group has played like a cohesive unit on the court and has walked together away from it.
"We are brothers," Silpe said. "We are together on and off the court, having team dinners before every game.
"We believe and trust each other."
The players admit that this ride is something they will appreciate more when it is over, but they are all fueled by the same desire: to represent their high school as long as possible.
"We don't want it to end," Brown said. "This is my last year playing organized basketball and it's been an incredible experience."
For Allen, it has meant even more since he is a graduate of Cherry Hill East and now he is leading the program to its greatest prominence.
"It's been surreal," he said.
Silpe and his teammates realize that the impact of what they are achieving extends well beyond the current group.
"This is an amazing feeling, but this isn't just for us, it's for the community, fans, alumni, especially for them," Silpe said. "We're trying to keep this program going."
The program is certainly going - to a place no other Cherry Hill East team has traveled.