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Lonely at the top

By TONY MARQUIS | The Voorhees Sun

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The Eastern girls basketball team hadn’t played for a week before Thursday night’s game against Willingboro. The Vikings were coming off seven wins in a row, the Chimeras were coming in with two straight losses.

For the №1-ranked team, Willingboro shouldn’t have been a problem. It was 23–12 after the first half — but coach Joe Murphy wanted more.

Muprhy’s been coaching Eastern for eight years, but this season is unlike any other for him. He spends a lot more time on scouting reports, gathering every piece of information he can about every opponent.

He admits the pressure is getting to him a little bit. But he’s never been more excited.

“Oh yeah. As a coach being ranked №1, it’s a lot of pressure,” Murphy said. “I’ve never experienced it, but my God, every game — it’s giving me so much energy.”

After the third quarter, Eastern had a 46–17 lead and Murphy relaxed enough to put a few players from his bench in.

Genevieve Okoro, the Vikings’ leading scorer, said she could see a slight difference in her head coach.

“I mean sometimes he can get a little frustrated,” Okoro said. “Maybe because we’ve never been like preseason ranked №1. To go into every game knowing that all the teams are coming at you trying to take that №1 spot away from you … It’s such a different situation.

“I remember when we were freshmen, there was a time when we were just happy to be in the top 10 or the top six and now we’re №1.”

Eastern has been ranked №1 by the Courier-Post since the start of the season.

For 12 games, they’ve felt the pressure that’s come with the ranking.

“I think we’re all the same people,” Okoro said. “Just like a little agitated every now and then.”

If the Vikings are agitated, it’s hard to tell. Especially with Okoro.

The University of Richmond-bound senior averages almost 20 points per game — one of the leaders on a team stacked with seniors.

“If I’m bringing the ball out and I need somewhere to throw the ball, Genevieve’s the girl that I go to,” said senior Darian Graziano, who scored a career-high 16 points against Willingboro. “She can chill everyone out — she knows exactly what to say to me when I’m freaking out.”

Though Okoro has more than 1,000 points and rebounds in her career, it’s her defense that has helped the Vikings to an 11–1 record.

Against Cherokee, Okoro had five second-half blocks to help Eastern hold off the Chiefs, 45–39.

“The way she blocks it — I mean, like, I get a block every now and then, I sneak up behind and get a little tap, but when she smacks the ball out of there, that changes the pace of the game,” Graziano said. “She comes out of nowhere, smacks the ball halfway across the court — everyone gets pumped up.”

Even with teams constantly double-teaming her, the Vikings still find a way to run their offense through Okoro.

“Genevieve brings a lot to the table and sometimes it’s not there, but sometimes it is,” Murphy said. “You just got to hope for the best that she’s playing well and the kids are feeding off of her intensity.”

For now, Eastern is playing well — its only defeat is a 49–46 loss to Friends Central of Philadelphia.

The Vikings have big games ahead against Cherry Hill East and Neptune, another top-ranked state team — both teams are capable of knocking Eastern off the top spot.

“I don’t think we’re where we want to be, but we’re getting better each game …we’re not where I want to be to be a state-caliber team,” Murphy said.

Murphy knows how many breaks have to go his way to win a state title.

Last year, the Vikings were 10–0 before star senior Barrie Cohen tore a ligament in her knee. Eastern still made it to the Group 4 semifinals, losing to Southern, 51–50.

Through 12 games everyone is healthy and the Vikings are on an eight-game winning steak — and maybe that’s enough for some to forget the pressure. Or embrace it.

“I’m happy with the ranking — I think it’s better this way,” Graziano said. “I love how everything’s working out this year; I’m not nervous about anything.”

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