Camden looks to exorcise recent demons in state final
History always hangs heavy in the air when Camden High School boys' basketball strikes deep in the state tournament. But this season, it's not only the rich tradition of the fabled program that has provided some extra motivation for the players and coaching staff.
History always hangs heavy in the air when Camden High School boys' basketball strikes deep in the state tournament.
But this season, it's not only the rich tradition of the fabled program that has provided some extra motivation for the players and coaching staff.
It's also the recent past - the result of last season's state championship game.
"It stayed with me all summer, all through the offseason," Camden junior forward Jamal Holloway said of the team's 48-44 loss to Newark Tech in the Group 2 state finals in 2014. "It makes you want to work harder, makes you want to make sure this time."
Fittingly, Camden will play the same opponent in the same game at the same site Sunday.
Camden (25-6) will seek its 12th state title when the Panthers face Newark Tech (14-3) in the Group 2 finals at 2 p.m. in the Rutgers Athletic Center.
"To be honest with you, last year bothered me," Camden coach John Valore said after his team's 64-49 win over Manasquan on Wednesday night in the Group 2 state semifinals. "The whole offseason, the summer, the fall, into the season, because I saw our kids control Newark Tech.
"I said to myself with four minutes left, 'We've got this game.'
"And then all of a sudden, we didn't have the game. The last 40 seconds, 45 seconds, we lost the state championship."
Camden led Newark Tech by 10 late in the third quarter of last season's state final. But Newark Tech outscored Camden, 19-8, in the fourth quarter to capture the title.
"It was very frustrating," Camden junior guard Brad Hawkins said. "It hurt. It stayed with us. We have to make sure we don't let that happen again."
Camden boys' basketball is one of the most accomplished programs in South Jersey history, in any sport. The Panthers have made 23 appearances in the state finals and won 11 titles.
Camden won back-to-back state titles in 1959 and 1960 and captured seven titles in a remarkable run between 1974 and 1987.
Camden won its last state title in 2000, and also won the Tournament of Champions that season behind legendary guard Dajuan Wagner and star forward Arthur Barclay, an assistant coach on the current team.
Camden has lost in its last five appearances in the state finals, under five different coaches. The Panthers' recent history at Rutgers has been marked by disappointment: the team lost in Group 3 state finals in 2013 and the Group 2 state finals in 2014.
This year's team has four athletes who were on the court for those last two losses in Holloway and Hawkins, along with seniors Rasool Hinson and Will McCants.
"I've got four kids who have played in those games, the losses," Valore said.
The coach noted the awkward postgame interview arrangement at Rutgers, where the losing team often has to answer questions from the media with the winning team sitting in the back of the room, awaiting its time at the podium.
"They don't like to go into that room and have to answer questions in that room in front of the team we lost to," Valore said. "That's not a good setting."
Camden's success in the state tournament always rekindles memories of the Panthers' glory days and draws support from enthusiastic fans.
This year's team can join some of the legendary squads of the past by capturing the program's 12th state title.
They also can take care of some unfinished business from last season.
"We should have won it last year and fell short," Valore said. "That's been with me. I think about it constantly."