The backcourt was banged up, the roster was youthful and Camden Catholic's boys' basketball team had an uncharacteristic 8-19 season a year ago. For a proud program that had been a perennial South Jersey top 10 contender for at least the previous three decades, it was precipitous fall.

As the South Jersey high school basketball season opened on Friday, the Irish showed that the slate has truly been wiped away.

In a game in which the Irish never trailed, Camden Catholic opened with a 56-52 win over visiting Eastern in an interdivisional Olympic Conference game.

Despite its record of a year ago, Camden Catholic entered this one ranked No. 11 in South Jersey by the Inquirer, and Eastern was No. 6.

That says a lot about Camden Catholic's reputation to have such a high ranking, but is says more about the makeup of the team.

Babatunde Ajike, a 6-foot-5 sophomore, led the balanced Irish with 13 points.

"Last year we were young and had some key injuries," Ajike said. "We're a much better team."

Certainly it's a deeper unit.

The Irish got 12 points from Nazir Streater, an Inquirer first-team all-South Jersey defensive back in the fall who didn't play basketball last year to concentrate on football.

"I like it, and I am glad I am playing," he said.

So is coach Matt Crawford, whose team could improve further once 6-7 sophomore Uche Okafor returns from injury.

This is a young Irish team that also received 10 points from junior Dom Dunn and eight from senior Ian McCarthy.

The game was so tight, just like the two coaches.

Opposite Camden Catholic coach Matt Crawford was his brother, Eastern coach Kevin Crawford, a Camden Catholic graduate and fan every game but this one.

Neither coach mentioned the sibling matchup to their players, but they didn't have to.

"It's pretty cool, like a family rivalry," Ajike said.

Not so cool to the family.

"I really don't like coaching against my brother," Kevin said.

The feeling is mutual.

"No, I don't like it," said Matt Crawford, now in his third season after replacing his father, Jim, one of the legendary coaches in South Jersey history who is now his son's assistant.

Still, both coached up a storm. The Irish led by 10 points late in the first quarter, but Eastern trailed just 32-30 at halftime. Then Camden Cahtolic scored the first nine points of the third quarter, but Eastern wouldn't go away.

Leading just 52-50, the Irish doubled the margin when senior point guard Kyle Cooney hit both ends of 1-and-1 with 26.7 seconds left.

Cooney is a program player who patiently waited his turn and contributed savvy, especially as Eastern attempted its comeback.

"He was given the opportunity the first practice, and he hasn't looked back," Matt Crawford said of Cooney.

True to form, Eastern kept fighting. Junior point guard Jesse Barbera, who had a team-high 17 points, scored on a driving layup with 7.1 seconds left to cut the lead to 54-52.

Then Streater iced the game, hitting both ends of a 1-and-1 with 5. 8 seconds left.

Of course, while Matt Crawford says this is an entirely different season, he reminded his team what happened last year at this same juncture.

"I told them we had a big opening win over Shawnee," he said.

The rest wasn't needed to be said.

All this guaranteed the Irish is that they are 1-0. Yet there seems to be a different vibe this season, and if the Irsh can stay healthy the team that has been a South Jersey staple for so long should clearly re-appear.

Eastern 13 17 10 12 - 52

Camden Catholic 18 14 11 13 - 56

E: Jesse Barbera 17, Troy Edwards 13, Tyler Morgan 3, Ryan Ems 4, Jacob O'Connell 4, Darren Gibson 11

C: Kyle Cooney 4, Nazir Streater 12, Dom Dunn 10, Ian McCarthy 8, Kevin Lynch 2, Rob McCoy 3, Elijah Nichols 4, Babatunde Ajike 13,

@sjnard