EVESHAM – Although the Cherokee High School boys’ basketball team, a traditional top program in South Jersey, won just once in its first four games, there was no feeling of panic, or even urgency on Saturday morning.
“We stuck with the plan,” Anthony DiCaro, a seasoned and smooth starter in the backcourt, said simply. “We had the same start last year, we played two less games but we were 3-4 and we lost to the same teams, so we knew we could bounce back.”
Cherokee went on to top the 20-win mark again last season after the sluggish start, so there was the confidence among the players they would start winning again soon – and often.
The first win of what the Chiefs plan to make a winning streak came comfortably against Penns Grove, 56-39, after a snow break for both teams of a few days in an interesting inter-league game.
“Our kids’ morale has been great,” Cherokee coach Eric Cassidy said. “I tell them it’s not a sprint, but a marathon, especially in this conference you’re not going to win every game.”
Penns Grove, which was coming off scoring 122 points against Clayton, dropped to 4-2 overall. The Red Devils, who are 3-0 in the Tri-County Conference Classic Division, also lost to Paul VI earlier this season.
“Damien (Ware) does a great job, his teams always play hard and I knew that from coaching all those years at Schalick against them,” Cassidy said about the Penns Grove coach. “They’re a good team and they’re not intimidated and they get up in your grill, and we needed that.”
Cherokee opened with a win over Woodbury, the defending South Jersey Group 1 champs, before losing four straight to traditional South Jersey powers and school district rivals Shawnee and Lenape, and then falling to Penn Charter, which will contend for the Inter-Academy League title in Pennsylvania, and then at Bishop Eustace, another traditional power.
“We have a good culture and I know the turnaround will happen,” Cassidy said. “I’m just an extension of that culture from the coaches before me.
“They play mini golf before practice, they hang out, we do team bonding. Between the lines, though, we have a lot of competition, a lot of kids can play and that’s great.”
Cherokee finished 21-7 last season and returned a strong nucleus with seniors Tymere Bennett, a 6-foot-6 forward, Tyler Ludwikowski, a strong 5-10 guard and Richard Laird, a 6-4 guard, along with DiCaro, a 6-2 junior point guard, and Jordan Hayes, a 6-2 junior guard.
“We trusted our work ethic and what we put into every practice every day,” Ludwikowski said after leading the Chiefs with 15 points. “We know it will work out in the end.”
Cherokee jumped to a 5-0 lead on a 3-pointer by Ludwikowski and then a layup by Bennett, who has committed to Bloomfield. The lead swelled to 17-6 with three minutes left in the first quarter on another layup by the left-handed Bennett, who finished with 14 points.
“Our main goal is to win,” added Ludwikowski, who was recruited as a linebacker to The College of New Jersey. “We’re not a selfish team, we move the ball around, we love to pass the ball to get open shots for teammates.”
Penns Grove pushed back and cut the deficit to four points midway through the second quarter, but Cherokee responded with a 9-0 run, including a two-handed dunk by Bennett, for a 33-20 spread at the half.
Then Cherokee scored the first two baskets of the second half on layups by Bennett and Jordan Hayes for a sudden 17-point advantage.
The game was iced in the fourth quarter when DiCaro (11 points) drained back-to-back treys and Bennett added a pair of layups in a 10-0 run for a 49-30 lead.
“It’s good to get the win, they are going to contend in Group 1 and we haven’t won a game in more than three weeks,” DiCaro added.
“To get a win under our belt was needed to get going.”
The Chiefs, whose game on Thursday against Winslow was snowed out, stays home and in the Olympic Conference American Division on Tuesday against Washington Township.
“We feel like we played the best teams in the conference and that gives us experience and will make us better,” said DiCaro, whose father, Tony, was a star guard in the late 1970’s for Cherry Hill West and played for Saint Joseph’s University.
Penns Grove 14 4 10 9 - 39
Cherokee 21 12 6 17 - 56
PG – Jawan Roane 10, Jamar Johnson 9, Joshua Martin 10, Christian Colon 2, Nasir Robinson 4, Michael Wilson 4.
C- Tymere Bennett 14, Tyler Ludwikowski 15, Richard Laird 3, Anthony DiCaro 11, Jordan Hayes 5, Gavin Gibson 4, Olarewaju Oladipo 4.