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Race for No. 1 is wide open

Narducci: While teams compete to win conference, South Jersey, and possibly state titles, an always interesting subplot to any season is the battle for the No. 1 spot in South Jersey.

While teams compete to win conference, South Jersey, and possibly state titles, an always interesting subplot to any season is the battle for the No. 1 spot in South Jersey.

Last year, Eastern began the season on top in The Inquirer's South Jersey girls' basketball rankings and ended there. In between, there were close games, but not a lot of suspense.

This season, that top spot could turn into a game of musical chairs. Parity is the buzzword in South Jersey.

It's possible that any team in the preseason Top 10 could end up as No. 1. The same goes for the teams under consideration, and a team not mentioned also could sneak in.

Without that one dominant team, the race for No. 1 will consist of plenty of awfully good contenders.

And who knows, a great team or two could surface.

In the past, it would have been easy to look at the top Group 3 or Group 4 team, or possibly a top Non-Public squad, and pencil that team in at No. 1.

This season, the pencil better have a long eraser, and that's not a slight at preseason No. 1 Sterling, a Group 2 contender.

It's just that on paper - and sometimes that could be a dangerous way to measure teams - there just doesn't seem to be much difference in many of the teams this year. That is what parity is all about.

Still, Sterling starts out on top, and if nothing else, one has to love the attitude of the Silver Knights and coach Kate McDonald.

Most teams and coaches would do anything possible to stay away from the No. 1 spot in preseason.

Sterling's motto?

Bring it on.

"I'll be honest, these girls have worked hard for this type of recognition," said McDonald, who was a star at Sterling as a player and is duplicating the effort as a coach. "We know if we are No. 1, people will come after us, but I have a mature group."

Also, a talented one.

Sterling can play a transition game with senior point guard Monica Burch as the conductor. The Silver Knights can hit from the outside, led by senior Kylie O'Donnell, and the inside game is keyed by 6-foot-1 seniors Tanjae Lewis and Rachel Hodge.

McDonald has a realistic outlook on the potential No. 1 team in South Jersey.

"I don't think there is a clear-cut favorite," she said. "Last year, you had Eastern, and this year, you have a lot of contenders."

To show how quickly the landscape changes, Eastern, which was decimated by graduation, doesn't appear in this year's preseason Top 10.

"Nor should we," coach Joe Murphy said. "We have an inexperienced team."

The best aspect of the girls' basketball schedule is that many of the top teams will play one another.

Besides hooking up with perennial Colonial Conference heavyweights such as Haddonfield and Haddon Township, Sterling has a monster nonleague schedule, including a game against Rancocas Valley.

Have we mentioned that Rancocas Valley starts the season at No. 2 in the rankings?

Not only that, but Sterling, Rancocas Valley and three other preseason teams will compete in the second annual South Jersey Invitational.

So it's likely that no matter who is on top, that team will be putting its ranking on the line on a weekly basis.

"I think it's going to be a very interesting year with a lot of good teams competing for No. 1," Rancocas Valley coach Anthony Corrado said.

Make no mistake, being ranked No. 1 is a big thing for teams, although the honor is desired in late March, not before Christmas.

It's a big burden to start out on top, but unlike so many teams, Sterling will embrace the challenge, play the games, and let the results determine things in a season in which the race for No. 1 has no shortage of candidates.