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Marc Narducci: Ranking earns Vikings bulls' eye

Eastern coach would prefer being No. 2 and on the way up.

Joe Murphy, the successful Eastern girls' basketball coach, had two words when told that his Vikings would begin the season as The Inquirer's No. 1-ranked South Jersey team.

Murphy's response?


He then tried to plead his case, to no avail, as to why the Vikings shouldn't be at the top to start the season. With four starters back including Inquirer South Jersey player of the year Genevieve Okoro, Murphy knew deep down that his team would start close to where it finished last season, which was No. 2.

There are very few coaches who enjoy appearing in a preseason Top 10, especially at the top, simply because of the gigantic bull's-eye it puts on its teams' collective backs.

As with last season, there doesn't appear to be that one dominating team in South Jersey girls' basketball, but that doesn't mean there aren't plenty of awfully good ones.

There should be constant movement in the Top 10, even at the top spot. But for anybody who might want a clue as to the No. 1 team, following the Olympic Conference American Division is suggested viewing.

While Eastern begins on top in South Jersey, there are some that don't even consider the Vikings the best team in their own division.

Cherokee is getting a lot of preseason notice and for good reason. Coach Shannon Bretz returns four senior starters - point guard Amanda Franks, forward Courtney Escudero, Manhattan recruit Monica Roeder and Cincinnati recruit Tiffany Turner.

Teams with two Division I recruits in the lineup tend to perform pretty well, and the expectations are high at Cherokee.

And since Cherokee opens its season tomorrow at Eastern, it gives the Chiefs an immediate chance to show the pollsters that they were ranked one position too low.

Of course, it's not as if Cherokee is the only obstacle facing Eastern in the American Division, and consequently in its dash for the top spot.

American Division teams Cherry Hill East and Lenape are also in the preseason top 10 and defending South Jersey Group 4 champion Washington Township is under consideration despite the graduation of four starters from last season's squad.

The sixth team in the division is Pennsauken, which, by the way, is no pushover.

So even excluding Pennsauken, Eastern has to play eight games (two each) against four other teams in its division that are either ranked in the Top 10 or under consideration.

No wonder Murphy has a queasy stomach about being No. 1.

"Every single night you have to play, and if not, you can get burned in our division," Murphy said. "[We] have to be ready to play, because anybody in our conference can beat anybody."

And, of course, there are teams outside the American Division, but still residing in the Olympic Conference, that will make a run at the top spot.

In addition to the four American Division teams, there are three other Olympic squads in the preseason Top 10 - No. 3 Bishop Eustace, No. 4 Camden Catholic, and No. 10 Camden.

All three reside in the Olympic National, which has the look of a pretty competitive division.

While many will accuse this reporter of showing a blatant Olympic bias, the response is simple - try playing those teams on a regular basis and see what it does to the record of your favorite non-Olympic school.

And, of course, there no doubt will be others from outside the Olympic who emerge as contenders for the top spot.

Last season Ocean City of the Cape-Atlantic League finished as The Inquirer's No. 1 South Jersey team. Even though the Red Raiders return just one starter, 5-foot-7 senior Kelsey Boylan, they are under consideration this season.

Ocean City is in the same boat as Washington Township in that it must rebuild, but is likely to remain highly competitive.

And while the pecking order for a school's goals start with winning the conference, then a South Jersey championship, and then a state title, don't think that being No. 1 in a talent-rich area such as South Jersey isn't important.

"It was really an honor to be recognized as No. 1 last year," Ocean City coach Paul Baruffi said. "There were some very good teams in South Jersey, and that made the honor even more special."

There will always be very good teams and usually there is no shortage of candidates for the top spot.

That's the case this season, where several teams appear to be candidates to be in a position that nobody wants to occupy in December, but would gladly take residence sometime in late March.