The Agony of Repeat
Irish and Panthers know how tough it is to defend a title
The Camden Catholic boys' basketball team hit its stride at the most opportune time last season and carried the momentum to a South Jersey Non-Public A championship. The Irish won with a young lineup in which three sophomores and a junior played prominent roles.
Meanwhile, the Collingswood girls' team captured its first South Jersey Group 2 title since winning the state Group 2 crown in 1986. Unlike Camden Catholic, Collingswood had a veteran team, with four senior starters.
Now the teams will attempt to do one of the most difficult things in sports: defend a title.
Both have different makeups and outlooks this season. Camden Catholic is expected to make a serious run at defending its crown and has started the season ranked No. 1 in South Jersey by The Inquirer.
Collingswood appears to be rebuilding, although don't tell that to the players.
Despite the disparity in preseason outlooks, the two schools and many others will face similar roadblocks to repeating.
Both teams basked in the glow immediately after their championships but also found that they have become bull's-eyes for opponents.
There are positives and negatives to defending a title, but no coach and team would deny themselves the opportunity.
Still, the pressure to defend is immense, whether a team has a high preseason profile such as Camden Catholic or suddenly is assigned underdog status such as Collingswood.
The Plight of the Irish
During the summer and fall, Camden Catholic coach Jim Crawford heard the accolades showered on this season's team. Crawford has been around long enough to know that one season's success doesn't ensure anything the next.
Crawford is one of the best coaches in South Jersey history, entering the season with a 608-202 record. He has guided the Irish to six sectional titles and two state championships. Yet his team has repeated as a sectional champ just once, in 1993 and 1994.
So Crawford knows the pitfalls.
"The tough thing is that we played so well at the end of the season and meshed so well," he said. "It's almost like the Phillies, who will be expected to repeat, and it certainly could happen."
Yet despite having most of his players back, the team is different, having started so many young players.
"On a teenage level, the four starters we have back, since we left them, they have started to drive cars and are discovering other things," Crawford said. "It's not the same people coming back, so every year it depends on team chemistry."
Camden Catholic didn't make any changes in the off-season. The Irish still worked hard, playing in summer and fall leagues. The one difference was how opponents viewed them.
"In the fall league, teams looked like they took more pride in trying to beat us," said junior guard Anthony D'Orazio, who has already made an oral commitment to attend Lehigh.
Even in a fall league, there was no letup. Opponents wanted to show their stuff against a defending champion. Opponents' mind-set might be different, but Camden Catholic remains true to its character.
"We have to keep our heads and play hard, like we aren't a defending champion or aren't No. 1," said senior guard Jahseer Bronson, who was also a first-team all-Olympic Conference National Division running back in football. "We have to play like we are the underdog."
Unlike Camden Catholic, Collingswood gets to play the role of underdog. Coach Nancy O'Neill, who played on the Panthers' 1985 South Jersey championship team, has the difficult task of trying to win while rebuilding.
The Panthers worked just as hard in the off-season, but they still won't earn the favorite's role in Group 2.
"Our players are coming out of a very good season, and they have a lot of confidence and feel on paper they can compete," O'Neill said.
The only returning starter is senior Danielle Trucksess, a 5-foot-8 guard/forward. Guard Mo Robinson, last year's first player off the bench, is also back. Trucksess, as one of the team's leaders, is realistic about the Panthers' prospects.
"We know we can do it because we did it last year, but we also know we have some big shoes to fill," Trucksess said. "Still, everybody is very excited."
And the excitement, confidence and motivation grow when Trucksess looks at the championship banner from last season.
"You realize that once that banner comes up, it's never coming down and that you were a part of it," she said. "You see the banner, and it makes you want to work hard to try to re-create that."