Chiefs Intensify Division's Talent

Posted: December 16, 1999

The South Jersey boys' basketball season begins tomorrow, and here's some warning: Beware of the teams in the Olympic Conference American Division.

Yes, the Olympic National will have three of the area's elite teams (Bishop Eustace, Camden, and Camden Catholic), and yes, the Burlington County League Liberty Division (hello Rancocas Valley, Willingboro, and Moorestown) will again be formidable.

But no division should match the Olympic American for sheer up-and-down strength. It should feature Shawnee, Cherry Hill East, Washington Township, Eastern, and Cherokee.

Yes, Cherokee.

Cherokee, which finished fifth in the six-team Olympic American last season, looks like a strong South Jersey Group 4 contender.

Fact is, for the first time in recent memory, Cherokee - on paper, at least - might be as strong as sister school Shawnee, which has been arguably South Jersey's model program in the 1990s.

Cherokee has had a losing record the last six seasons and hasn't had a better record than Shawnee since 1989. But the gap between the programs has closed considerably because of two off-season transfers.

Shawnee star guard Sean Mulholland transferred to Bishop Eustace, and Pat Deveney, a 6-foot-8 Atlantic City senior center, transferred to Cherokee.

Cherokee will challenge

Shawnee, though not as talented as last season's 21-7 team, still figures to be among the area's elite.

Cherokee, ready to make a quantum leap from last season's 12-13 record, is highly athletic and seems on the verge of becoming, well, Shawnee-like.

"We're excited, because last year we struggled just to compete," Chiefs coach Ron Powell said.

Powell is in his second season after a 15-year tenure at Rancocas Valley, which he transformed from an also-ran into a South Jersey power. While no one is suggesting that Cherokee is ready to be compared to some of those RV juggernauts, there are some similarities.

"My last year at Rancocas, we used four different starting lineups," said Powell, referring to the 1997-98 season, in which RV won the state Group 4 title. "And we may do the same thing here, because we have a lot of depth.

"We can go with our big lineups, or we can go with [three] guards if we want to go another way."

If they want, the Chiefs can use a front line that features the Drexel-bound Deveney and 6-6 senior forwards Ryan Hewitt and Brian Ehrhart. Hewitt, who averaged nearly 10 points last season, and Deveney are the only definite starters.

Dangerous and deep

The Chiefs have five other quality players who were sometimes starters last season but may not be in the starting lineup this season. All five will see lots of action. The group features Ehrhart; 5-10 senior guard Mike Scanzano, who averaged 9.8 points a year ago; 6-foot senior guard Doug Cusick, probably the Chiefs' best defensive player; 5-10 senior guard Kyle Cuneo; and 6-2 junior guard Jamal Williams.

Cherokee scrimmaged highly touted Bishop Eustace recently, and the game was evenly played. Since Eustace is regarded as South Jersey's premier team this season, Cherokee had to be encouraged with the results.

"We beat Eustace in the Cherry Hill summer league when we didn't have Deveney and they didn't have Mulholland," said Powell, whose team doesn't start its season until Tuesday at Eastern, "so it didn't come as a total surprise that we could compete with them."

"Deveney is probably the quality big man in that division, and they shoot well from outside," Eustace coach Bill Lange said. "The key will be how their guards handle the defensive pressure."

Besides the game against Eustace, Cherokee has looked impressive in scrimmages against Burlington City and mammoth Toms River East, whose three front-line players stand 6-9, 6-10 and 6-10.

In other words, the always-powerful Olympic American looks even more loaded than usual.

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