CAMDEN – There were trampoline parks, team lunches and bowling nights.
Jahan Green did his best to turn each of his new teammates into Marvel fans.
The Eastside High School basketball team is trying to win its second straight state championship with a team that had little experience together until the summer.
The Tigers are undoubtedly talented, but their chemistry has been a big question mark.
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Their starting lineup for Monday’s season opener consisted of five players who went to different schools last winter, as did their top three backups.
But when the final buzzer sounded, Eastside, South Jersey’s No. 3 preseason ranking means No. 15made an early statement with a 67-51 win over No. 4 Paul VI.
“We started training in June,” said Green, who transferred from Kingsway. “A lot of teams, they start in September, October, hopefully November. We started from the beginning. Every time we train, it’s been intense, it’s been sweat, tears and even blood.”
Although the site was only half of the story. The Tigers made it a point to spend as much time as possible with each other when they weren’t on the hardwood.
“We went to trampoline parks, Sky Zone, went to the movies, had dinners, we go to each other’s houses, play games, talk about life, different things, it’s important,” said Green, who starred in his debut film ” Tiger”. with a team-best 15 points to go along with 6 rebounds and 4 steals. “It’s so much more than basketball.”
“It’s mostly off the court,” added senior Cairo Rivera, who spent his first three years at Paul VI. “The closer we get off the court, we feel like a family, like a brother.”
Trust comes from this and is essential to building an ego-free team.
“I’ve always thought it’s important for kids to spend time together off the court,” said head coach Kenny Event. “I truly believe that the more time they spend together, the better they will play together on the court. These kids genuinely like each other.”
It showed against the Eagles.
There were times the Tigers looked embarrassed on Monday, especially defensively, Avent’s pride and joy.
However, after Paul VI cut it to 51-43 with 5:19 left, the new-look Eastside was in great sync on both ends of the floor. They forced turnovers, moved the ball to open players and looked around the basket with ease.
The Tigers went on a 16-2 run before the Eagles scored a pair of field goals in the closing seconds to seal the game.
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“It mostly comes down to Coach Avent,” Rivera said. “He makes sure we all play together and play the right way. Elsewhere we’ve had different roles, here we have to come together to become one big team.”
Will Love, the sole holdover from last year’s title-winning team, sees the coming together.
“Even though they’re new faces, they’re still my brothers,” he said. “They still have my back like I have theirs.”
Notes of the game
∎ Rivera had a difficult first half against his old team, but came alive in the final 16 minutes. He finished with 11 points and 4 boards.
“It was fun,” said Rivera, who made a transition dunk in the final minutes to seal the win. “To come out and play against the guys I played with last year, it motivated me more because I knew they were after me.”
∎ Love had 12 points and 4 rebounds, Jalen Long (Pennsauken transfer) had 10 points, Rushie Bell (Wildwood Catholic) had 8 points and 6 boards, and Jeremiah Bright (Winslow) also had 8 points.
A different player led the team in scoring in each quarter.
∎ Paul VI was led by sophomore Manny Joe-Samuel, who scored a game-high 18 points. Josh Alley, who joined from Deptford, finished with 13.
“We’re young,” head coach Tony Devlin said. “I told the team that we are very young, inexperienced. We have to play as a team and we have to play hard. That’s the point.”
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They said it
“If we get to the point where we can play where we have that little burst, we can play like that for 32 minutes, then we’re going to be a really good team. Now we have a long way to go. It’s always good to win while learning, learning on the job, so we’ll take that, but we’re not satisfied. We are not satisfied. We want to get better every day.”
– Eastside coach Kenny Avent
Josh Friedman has produced award-winning South Jersey sports reporting for the Courier Post, The Daily Journal and the Burlington County Times for more than a decade. If you have or know of an interesting story to tell, reach out on Twitter at @JFriedman57 or by email at email@example.com. You can also reach him at 856-486-2431. Help support local journalism by subscribing.