Finally, a sectional final for C.H. East

Posted: March 03, 2012

In the final moments, Dave Allen looked down the bench and saw a few hundred guys.

Not literally, of course. When the Cherry Hill East coach called on his reserves Saturday to finish a 52-42 victory over Shawnee in the South Jersey Group 4 boys' basketball semifinals, he went with a handful of sophomores and juniors.

But Allen knew that on this special day, the Cougars' backups stretched through the years, to guys like Rocco Santaguida and Kurt Barbera, to Tom Katsikas and Nick Katsikas, to Brent Fisher and Marcus Bullock and Chris Santo, and many, many more.

"This was for all the players who played here," Allen said. "This was a win for them as well."

It was an emotional victory for Cherry Hill East (21-8) before a huge crowd that included a few hundred, chanting, red-clad "Countrymen" - the school's boisterous student section - as well as all those old-time fans who have been sitting in those wooden stands for more than 30 years in anticipation of this breakthrough triumph.

One of South Jersey's most respected programs, Cherry Hill East has won a lot of games through the years, contending for division and sectional titles with some of the biggest and best basketball schools in the area.

But the Cougars never made a sectional final until the horn sounded Saturday and that student section poured on the court like a red sea and the team's senior leader, point guard Jesse Gold, wiped tears of joy out of his eyes.

"Our seniors are crazy emotional over this," Cherry Hill East junior forward Gary Hettinger said after his team advanced to Tuesday's South Jersey Group 4 title game against the Eastern-Atlantic City winner. "It means so much to be able to help them get this far."

The seniors were overwhelmed, and so were lots of other Cherry Hill East fans. This was a red-letter day for the Cougars - a victory over a nemesis such as Shawnee, and a long-sought ticket to the sectional finals.

But the big thing about Cherry Hill East's victory over a Shawnee team that had eliminated the Cougars from the tournament in each of the last two years - including last season, when the seventh-seeded Renegades stunned the No. 2 seed on its home court and ended the careers of Santo, the program's all-time leading scorer, as well as longtime coach John Valore - was the balance and depth that made the difference.

Cherry Hill East got strong work from seniors Gold (three assists, three steals), Marc Schlessel (17 points, 10 for 10 from the foul line in the fourth quarter) and Jake Gurkin (14 points, 11 rebounds, four blocks).

But it was Hettinger and fellow junior Hank Davis who got this program over that previously unbreachable hill, who made the plays that broke open the game in the second half.

Davis, a crafty left-handed guard, bounced off the bench to score nine. His three-point jumper broke a 22-22 tie late in the first half. His three-pointer and layup turned a tenuous 28-24 lead after three quarters into a 33-24 advantage just 90 seconds into the fourth.

"Coach says I have to shoot when I'm open," Davis said. "I know that's my role."

Hettinger has his own role, which is to do a little bit of everything. The 6-foot-3 forward collected nine points (seven in the second half), seven rebounds, and two blocks.

"I'm not a scorer, and I'm not a guy who just plays defense," Hettinger said. "I like to help out in all areas."

Allen didn't really look down his bench and see Leon Rose (although he was in the building) and Frank Williams and Marc Levy and Brendan Cody.

But there was a lot of history behind the Cougars' victory - all those guys who pulled on that jersey through the years and never made a sectional final.

Just five men will take the court for Cherry Hill East on Tuesday night.

But those guys will know they have a lot of backups.

Shawnee   8 10 6 18 – 42

C.H. East   11 7 10 24 – 52

S: Josh Borrelli 18, Dan Mumford 14, Don DiVirgilio 6, Ryan Bodnar 4.

C: Jake Gurkin 14, Marc Schlessel 17, Jake Silpe 3, Gary Hettinger 9, Hank Davis 9.


Contact Phil Anastasia 856-779-3223, panastasia@phillynews.com, or @PhilAnastasia on Twitter. Read his blog, "Jersey Side Sports," at www.philly.com/jerseysidesports

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