Jake Bernstein was told he wasn't good enough to play basketball for his middle-school team.
Dienye Peterside was told the same thing.
Jared Ohnona, same thing.
"No" was an answer the three athletes would not accept despite setback after setback during their days at Beck Middle School in Cherry Hill.
Bernstein was cut in seventh and eight grade. Now he's a senior swingman looking at major playing time for the Cherry Hill East High School team.
Peterside was cut in sixth and eighth grade. He didn't even bother to try out in seventh. Now he's a senior and one of the Cougars' top inside players.
Ohnona was cut in sixth and seventh grade. He sat deep on the bench in eighth grade. Now he's a senior projected to play regular minutes for one of the best programs in South Jersey.
"A lot of people looked at us, all three of us, and said we wouldn't be able to perform on the court," Ohnona said. "Look at us now."
Cherry Hill East coach Dave Allen doesn't know how many games the Cougars will win this season. He doesn't what kind of impact Bernstein, Peterside and Ohnona will have on the team's fortunes, although all three are projected to see significant time as part of the top seven- or eight-man rotation.
But as a veteran educator, Allen knows his three persistent seniors are something special.
"They epitomize what our school leadership has been trying to teach," Allen said. "That's the growth mindset, the desire to learn, to develop. They embraced the challenge, and they persisted in the face of setbacks."
The 6-foot Bernstein started playing basketball in fifth grade, so he wasn't devastated not to make the middle-school squad as a seventh-grader. The next year was a different story.
"That was hard, like that was my last string of hope to get ready for freshman year," Bernstein said of getting cut in eighth grade.
He wasn't inclined to give up.
"I just love basketball so much," Bernstein said. "It was heartbreaking to get cut. It was my dream to play. My family, they supported me. They knew how much I wanted to play."
He kept working on his game on his own. He made the freshman team but mostly rode the bench. He made the junior varsity as a sophomore but hardly played again.
Last season, Bernstein started to see some playing time, and he's developed into a dependable athlete for the Cougars.
"I went from not making team for two years to sitting for two years and now to playing for two years," Bernstein said.
The 6-4 Peterside wasn't too serious about basketball until eighth grade. He was stunned to learn he wasn't chosen for the team.
"I felt like I deserved to make the team," Peterside said. "I just kept believing in myself, putting in the work behind the scenes, going to the gym, shooting a lot. I knew I was a better player than people were telling me."
Peterside made the freshman team and was a regular. He played on the junior varsity as a sophomore and junior, seeing action in one varsity game last season.
He attributes his improvement to hard work and faith in his own ability.
"If you keep working, you can become the player you always thought you could be," Peterside said. "The only person who knows how good you can be is yourself. The only person who can make you better is you.
"If someone tells you you're not good enough, that's just got to make you work harder."
The 5-8 Ohnona is the only one of the three who made the middle-school team in eighth grade. His rejections came the previous two years.
"I just wouldn't let opinion of one or two people determine whether I play a sport or not," Ohnona said. "I've always been passionate since I was playing, and I wasn't going to give up."
Ohnona didn't play much in eighth grade. But he said he "made a big jump" that offseason and ended up starting for the freshman team.
He was a regular on the junior varsity as a sophomore and junior and saw some varsity action last season, too.
Ohnona said the three seniors have a unique bond since they are aware that the others went through similar experiences and handled adversity the same way: With renewed determination.
"Just don't give up. Keep pushing regardless of what people tell you," Ohnona said of the common philosophy. "If it's a passion of yours, if it's a dream of yours, keep working at it. Even if you don't end up successful, you'll know you worked hard, and you'll know you didn't give up."
Allen said the trio are shining examples not just to the other players on the roster but to any youngster who encounters a roadblock or two.
"They very easily could have given it up," Allen said. "They could have quit and tried something else. But they embraced the challenge. That's something that we try to teach."
Bernstein, Peterside and Ohnona have come a long way as basketball players since they each were told they weren't good enough in middle school.
They will play important roles this season for a proud program that regularly draws chanting, cheering crowds of red-clad "countrymen" to the school's gymnasium for big games against some of the best teams in South Jersey.
Ohnona said he's most proud of "never giving up."
Peterside said their presence on the court proves again that "hard work pays off."