American Division. No team had a bigger makeover in the off-season than Pennsauken. Coach Cetshwayo Byrd welcomes three key transfers, led by 6-foot-4, 225-pound junior Frank Smalls, who comes from Trenton Catholic.
"He's a special kid and can do it all, including bang down low," Byrd said. "He is hard to match up with."
Two junior transfers who saw extensive time last season for Camden are guard Takwail Bailey and 6-2 Hubert Simmons.
Couple that with two football standouts - 6-0 junior Marcus Jones and 6-1 Sidney Holmes - and Pennsauken appears to be the most improved.
Cherokee remains the Olympic American favorite, but Pennsauken figures to be in the mix.
Washington Township has four starters and seven of the top eight from last season's S.J. Group 4 finalist. Leading the way is 6-10 La Salle recruit Matt Lopez, who averaged 13 points and eight rebounds. Other key veterans are 5-10 senior Nick Favatella (7 points per game, 4 assists), 5-11 senior Adam Marcucci (11 ppg.), and 6-4 senior Chris Grabbe (7 ppg., 5 rebounds). Among the top returning reserves are 5-10 senior Chuck Clark, 6-3 senior Craig Bosnjak, and 5-10 senior Joe Connolly.
To demonstrate how difficult the American Division is, Lenape is the defending state Group 4 champion, but it was Eastern that won the American Division.
Lenape has just one returning starter, but the Indians should remain highly competitive. The lone starter back is senior center C.J. Meyer, who was the MVP of last season's Group 4 state championship game.
Senior swingman Harman Ghuman, known for his shooting, and senior guard Phil Jackson are key returning letter-winners.
Other letter-winners are senior swingmen Kevin Cunningham and Ed Ward and senior point guard Geli Carabases.
All the coaches list Cherry Hill East as dangerous and the No. 1 reason is the presence of 6-4 junior Chris Santo, an Inquirer first-team all-South Jersey selection who averaged 26.9 points. The other two returning starters are senior guards Ben Gerstein and Seth Friedman. Junior guard Dan Melleby, who was expected to start, is due to undergo shoulder surgery and will miss the season.
A pair of sophomores, guard Marc Schlessel and 6-5 forward Jake Gurkin, are expected to be prominent contributors.
Eastern returns just two starters - forward Kyle Jose and guard Baas Harvey. Forward Zach Dorsch, a transfer from Living Faith Christian should provide help in the frontcourt, but the Vikings will be hard-pressed to match last season's effort.
National Division. The favorite is Camden Catholic. Gerry Wixted, a 6-6 senior who averaged 15.3 points, leads a group of four returning starters that also includes 6-6 senior Tim Crawford, senior guard Anthony D'Orazio and 6-3 football standout Sherard Cadogan.
Paul VI will seriously challenge with the likes of 6-6 senior Nick Moore (16.1 ppg.) and 6-5 junior Rob Poole (18.1 ppg.). The other starters back are 6-1 senior Chris Jermyn and 6-2 sophomore Ron Curry.
Bishop Eustace has one of the Olympic's top scorers in 6-3 senior Pat Vasturia (18.3 ppg.). Senior point guard Bob Falconiero, who averaged seven points and six assists, is the other returning starter.
Several sophomores who saw extensive time last season are 6-2 Sho DaSilva, 6-2 Dexter Harris and 5-11 Carson Puriefoy, so improvement is likely. Will Clements, a 6-4 senior, gives Eustace a physical presence.
Camden lost South Jersey player of the year Aaron Walton-Moss, who graduated. Starters from last season's South Jersey Group 2 title team are 6-2 senior Vincent Walls (14.7 ppg.) and 6-1 senior Devon Devine, a sharpshooter. A sleeper could be 6-7 senior Michael Myers, playing his first varsity season.
Woodrow Wilson coach Keith Benson welcomes back just one starter, 6-3 junior Xavier Robinson, who averaged eight points. The key for the Tigers will be the sophomore class, led by 6-0 Joseph Taylor, who saw some varsity action.
Camden County Tech has an experienced team, but it will be difficult to move up in the National Division.
Senior guard Dajour Norris, a second-team all-conference choice, is the team leader. Other experienced players are 6-3 senior Malik Miller, 5-7 senior Preston McDade, 5-5 senior T.K. Washington and 5-10 junior Malik Gosha.
Armond Foster, a 5-9 sophomore, will provide scoring in the backcourt.
Patriot Division. First-year Winslow Township coach Jared Price isn't running away from heightened expectations. The Eagles are the consensus choice as favorite to successfully defend their Olympic Conference Patriot Division title.
"I think we'll be very competitive in the conference and in Group 4," Price said.
The Eagles have an experienced frontcourt, led by 6-6 junior Shawn Valentine (12.4 ppg.) and 6-6 senior Mike Simpson. Craig Speller, a 6-5 senior who Price calls one of the team's most improved players, adds to the frontcourt strength.
Junior Richard Smith and seniors Jason Richardson and Ronald Melton are among the key players in what should be a deep backcourt.
Another contender is expected to be Cherry Hill West, with four returning starters, led by 6-8 senior Chris Gebhart. Other returning starters for coach Dave Allen are 5-9 senior Mickel Orr, 5-4 senior Darryl Nable and 5-10 senior Jon Smith.
Adding to the frontcourt are two returning letter-winners, 5-10 senior forward Kyle Turco and 6-4 senior center Alex Stridick.
Shawnee is another contender with three returning starters, led by 6-4 senior Dave Westman (11 ppg.). The others back are senior point guard Dillon Fields and junior shooting guard Joe Bodner.
The other two starters should be junior guard Conor McCauhan and 6-1 freshman Ryan Bodner, the brother of Joe.
Matt Chiusano, a 6-7 junior, is out indefinitely, still recovering from a torn ACL that occurred late in the summer.
Ryan Pretti, a 6-4 senior, and 6-4 junior Dan Kelleher, provide depth.
First-year Timber Creek coach Bill Fahy has just one starter returning, but the Chargers should be competitive. Senior point guard Jamere Briggs is the most experienced player, while 6-4 senior Steve Moore is a key returning letter-winner.
The Chargers, probably an outside contender, will also be boosted by two transfers, 5-10 senior DaVon Simmons from Triton and 6-2 junior Darryl Dunham of Winslow Township.
Triton is led by 6-1 senior Chris Rice, a two-time second-team all-conference selection. Other starters back are 6-0 senior Josh Daniluk and 5-10 senior Mike Madden. Dominic Scafidi, a 6-4 junior transfer from Highland, will be a key frontcourt addition.
Seneca returns just one starter, 6-2 senior guard Kacey Carrig, who averaged nine points. Senior guard Derek Grovatt, who didn't play last season, has returned and will be a perimeter threat. Junior guard Charlie Owl came off the bench, but is expected to have a larger role.
- Marc Narducci