The largest student section in recent South Jersey basketball history filled nearly half of the bleachers at Cherry Hill East's cavernous gymnasium on the afternoon of March 11.

The red-clad teenagers mock-slumbered through a "Big Sleep" - pretending to doze during introductions of the opposing team - and spent the next 90 minutes in full roar as their Cougars won the first sectional title in the history of the program with a 52-41 victory over Cherokee in the South Jersey Group 4 title game.

About two hours later, the man who for more than 30 years was synonymous with Cherry Hill basketball - the Damon Runyon-esque character who inspired those "In Valore We Trust" T-shirts - won the first sectional title in his coaching career by leading Camden to victory over Pemberton in the South Jersey Group 2 title game.

That literally was a red-letter day in the history of Cherry Hill basketball.

But it might not have been a one-and-done deal.

The tony township that reveres the sport nearly as much as it cherishes high SAT scores enters the 2014-15 high school season as the suburban center of South Jersey basketball.

Camden, where former Cherry Hill East legend John Valore welcomes back four starters from last season's state finalists, remains the urban heart of the game in these parts, with Atlantic City - where coach Gene Allen has a loaded Vikings squad set to make another run at tournament glory - holding that distinction down at the shore.

But there's something about Cherry Hill and basketball, an ethos in the town that spawns several hundred teenage assistant coaches when one or both of the high schools field a squad worth their fanatical attention.

And both the East side Cougars and West side Lions have a chance to be special this season.

"We're such a big town, I'm not sure what the buzz is over there," Cherry Hill West coach Hamasi Tarrant said. "But I know what the buzz is at our school. I was walking down the hall the other day and I had kid after kid come up to me and ask, 'We've got a scrimmage today, right?' "

It's worth noting that Camden Catholic, the No. 1 team in The Inquirer preseason Top 20 rankings, is located in Cherry Hill. But the Irish have been a powerhouse forever.

What's different about this season is that both Cherry Hill East and Cherry Hill West rank among the best squads in South Jersey - a total-eclipse event that has the Cougars' star point guard already anticipating the annual crosstown clash that serves as one of the highlights of a two-day, 22-team showcase in late February.

"That makes this year so exciting," said East senior Jake Silpe, a Penn recruit who led the Cougars to the sectional crown last season. "There is nothing better than playing your crosstown rival, especially when both teams are very competitive. I can't wait."

Cherry Hill East will rebuild a bit this season, but with Silpe and 6-foot-8 junior Tim Perry, the Cougars project as strong contenders in both the Olympic American and in South Jersey Group 4.

Across town, Cherry Hill West might have one of its strongest teams in the last three decades. The Lions won their playoff game since 1988 last season and bring back as veteran squad led by 6-foot-6 senior Can Oztamur - who has one of South Jersey's smoothest games - along with senior guard Elijah Bey and rangy and athletic juniors Danny Buckwalter and Jack Goan.

"They have all the pieces," Cherry Hill East coach Dave Allen said of Cherry Hill West. "They can beat any team in South Jersey. I know the people at West are very excited and they have every right to be."

They are excited on the West side. They are still buzzing about March 11 on the East side.

It's a high time for the sport in Cherry Hill.

panastasia@phillynews.com

@PhilAnastasia

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