Plymouth Whitemarsh came close to winning it all last season, but if this year's Colonials play up to preseason expectations, they might go beyond merely getting close.
Twelfth-year coach Jim Donofrio returns 11 players and four starters from a group that shared last season's Suburban One American title with Norristown and fell just short in the PIAA Class AAAA state semifinals to finish 24-5.
"I haven't had a team this advanced this early in the season," said Donofrio, whose 2005-06 team opened 27-0. "We finally got into our match-up zone last year in mid-January. We just put it in yesterday in our second week. . . .
"Usually, you save stuff to teach at the end of the year, but I'm thinking, 'How do I just pace this thing so we're OK come March?' "
C.J. Aiken, a 6-foot-9 center bound for St. Joseph's, and 6-7 junior forward Jaylen Bond, another Division I prospect, headline a roster that goes nine to 10 deep as the Colonials prepare to play with a target on their backs.
"Last year, you've got a lot to prove, so naturally you're hungry," Donofrio said. "This year, there are an awful lot of people saying, 'We think you're great.' Well, how do [our players] react to that?"
That is the question. And really, it's the only one. When Aiken and Bond transferred from La Salle High before last season, the Colonials were uber-talented but young.
This year, they're not young.
Aiken averaged 13.5 points, 10 rebounds, and 9 blocked shots last season. Bond is being recruited by the likes of Villanova, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Seton Hall, and Florida State, according to Donofrio.
Complementing that imposing frontcourt duo are senior shooting guard Whis Grant (last year's sixth man), as well as junior wing Sam Pygatt, and junior point guard Brandon Dixon, both of whom started as sophomores.
"You've got five guys there who basically played the majority of minutes to get us to the state semis last year," Donofrio said. "And they're all back."
The bench rotation at the guard positions is deep, with junior Stephon Baker likely filling Grant's sixth-man role, junior Marcus Badger backing up Dixon at the point, and shooter T.J. Clancy and senior wing Julian Bond (Jaylen's older brother) also seeing significant time.
One key loss from last year is 6-foot-5 sophomore forward Damien Williams, another Division I prospect. Williams would have backed up Aiken and Bond down low but instead transferred to the Phelps School of the Tri-County League.
Williams' loss hurts, Donofrio said, but he said 6-foot-4 sophomore Jake Silvers would "fill in nicely" as a backup big man.
Amid retooling for another run at the Class AAAA state title, Donofrio wants his team to "stay sharp and respectful of every opponent," particularly rival Norristown and Wissahickon.
Though Norristown lost its best all-round player in Khaliff Wyatt, now a freshman at Temple, Donofrio knows the Eagles return several members of last year's group.
"Norristown is Norristown around our area," Donofrio said. "They're very quick and always talented. It's a neighborhood rivalry that's 50 years old."
But while the coach focuses his team on its opponents, the attention of many others will be on the Colonials and particularly Aiken, who had 19 points, seven rebounds, and two blocks in a 22-point victory over Norristown in the second round of the state tournament last season.
When asked to compare Aiken to former Plymouth Whitemarsh greats such as guard John Salmons of the Chicago Bulls and point guard Ronald Moore of Siena, Donofrio said his center more than belonged.
"The way he's playing right now, he's one of the elite," the coach said. "And by the time the season's over, he may be the elite. He is a seriously talented kid for a high school player. He's got some things that he knows he can get better at, obviously, but at 18 years of age, there should be."
Even the Colonials' former greats have seen what Donofrio is talking about.
"I had Ronald come home at Thanksgiving," and he and others "look at C.J. and Jaylen and they just shake their head," Donofrio said. "They just laugh."
The Colonials won a state title in 1997 behind Salmons, who now starts in the NBA. This year, hope springs eternal in Plymouth Meeting.
"I've had the opportunity to coach a lot of nice teams over the years, so you know what it's like when you're expected to win and you know what it's like when you're kind of in the under-consideration category," Donofrio said. "But I'm guessing we're not going to go under consideration."