CHERRY HILL - If anyone thought the Eastern High School basketball team was waiting for Matt Cotton to win, well they certainly learned different last Friday in the season opener.
Now, the Vikings lost that game, but what was more important - and telling - is they played.
While a mid-afternoon snow cancelled the majority of games in the region, Eastern played Friday. And the Vikings played against Camden Catholic, one of the top teams in South Jersey.
Certainly, no one would’ve blamed Eastern coach Kevin Crawford for “encouraging” the game to be postponed, perhaps until late January when Cotton would be eligible to play after sitting out 30 days under the transfer rule.
And there was the added motivation to wait since Crawford’s younger brother, Matty, is the head coach of Camden Catholic, the alma mater of both Crawford brothers.
But waiting to win isn’t how Kevin Crawford is wired.
So Eastern played and endured a two-point loss to the powerful Irish without Cotton, a 6-foot-5 senior who is committed to Yale University.
“Life is one day at a time, basketball is one game at a time,” Crawford said simply on why he chose to play Camden Catholic. “You hear that at the pro level and it is not something to sleep on, it is what you are supposed to do.”
Crawford’s line up and play ball attitude is certainly contagious. His players are competitors, too.
“We were ready to play,” said senior guard Jesse Barbera, a three-year starter. “We were practicing all week, we didn’t want to wait.
“We wanted to compete.”
Barbera and fellow seniors Onye Okoro and Troy Edwards showed they weren’t waiting to win once again Thursday when they combined to score 43 points in Eastern’s 56-45 win at Cherry Hill East in an Olympic Conference American Division game.
“We’re a good team and we want to win now,” said the 6-7 Okoro after collecting 17 points and 13 rebounds. “We already know what Matt can do. We know he can help.”
Cotton, who transferred from St. Benedicts, played youth basketball in Voorhees with Barbera, Okoro and Edwards so the transition should be smooth when he suits up.
“We are used to playing with him,” said Edwards, a 6-2 swingman who scored 15 against the Cougars.
When asked just how good Cotton has been in practice, Edwards said, “he’s really, really good,” with a convincing smile.
Eastern lost to the Irish 50-48 before bouncing back Tuesday night with an impressive 70-51 win at Bishop Eustace. The Vikings needed to grind to overcome East, which dropped to 1-1.
“East is an unbelievable well-coach team,” Crawford said. “You talk about getting the most out of your players and Dave (Allen) always does.”
The Cougars, who were paced by Sam Serata’s 22 points, led 24-19 at the break. East trailed by just four points going into the fourth quarter before the Vikings doubled their lead with a 6-2 run in the first two minutes of the final period.
Barbera, whose father Kurt was a star basketball player in the mid-1970’s at East, started the run with a layup and then junior guard Andrew Heck converted a steal into a layup and the Pemberton transfer added another layin for a 41-33 spread.
Heck, a 6-foot junior, drained a 3-pointer to pad the lead to double digits at 48-38 with 3:05 left in the game.
“I’m happy with the team, we like our kids,” Crawford said, “they play really hard.”
Soon, they will be playing with one of the top players in South Jersey. But the Vikings aren’t waiting until then to win.
Eastern 9 10 16 21 - 56
Cherry Hill East 12 12 7 14 - 45
E- Onye Okoro 17, Jesse Barbera 11, Troy Edwards 15, Andrew Heck 7, Jack Winsett 4, Noah Klinewski 2.
CHE- Sam Serata 22, Carl Gibson 6, Colin Prendergast 6, Dienye Peterside 5, Josh Hall 4, Jared Ohnona 2.