On March 4, classes at Cherry Hill High School East ended at 2:30 p.m. as they did on every full day of school.
However, there was something different about that day.
Buses usually full of students eager to get home after seven hours of learning were driving away from the school half-empty.
Inside the school, students weren’t dispersing. They were instead lining up near the entrance to the DiBart Gym, clad in red and white shirts and talking excitedly. The line stretched down the hallway and eventually outside, where students stood in the pouring rain, as enthusiastic as could be.
Around 2:45 p.m., the line began growing substantially, as students dressed in purple and white joined their red and white counterparts. The rain continued to pour down, but not a single soul seemed to be thinking how wet or cold they were.
For in a little more than an hour, cross-town rivals Cherry Hill East and Cherry Hill West would tip off in the South Jersey Group IV quarterfinals for the second straight year in boys’ basketball. Fans from both teams planned to fill the DiBart Gym to capacity and cheer their squad onto victory in what many of them called the biggest game of the year.
For a couple hours on the afternoon of March 4, basketball was all that mattered in the Cherry Hill high school community.
The Countrymen rise up
Cherry Hill East boys’ basketball entered the season as defending South Jersey Group IV champions. As the No. 1 seed in last year’s playoff, the Cougars hosted four consecutive playoff games, all of them with a large student section in attendance. Named the Countrymen, the Cherry Hill East student section took cheering to a whole new level. The lasting memory from the 2014 season was the entire section flooding the court after the Cougars wrapped a 52–41 win over Cherokee in the sectional championship game.
This season, the Countrymen have been more subdued. A few students said the section was smaller than the previous year.
However, with the Cougars back in the playoffs, and rival Cherry Hill West the opponent, the Countrymen were back in full force.
“It’s not as big as last year, last year’s was huge,” junior Kendall Geiss said. “But the seniors did a good job with keeping up the fan section.”
Freshman John LaGrossa got to become one of the hundreds of Countrymen when he started attending classes at East this year. He said playoff games at East are on a completely different level than they are at any other school.
“I think it shows it’s not just a regular old playoff basketball game,” he said. “Especially against our rivals, West, it makes it 10 times better.”
Freshman Matthew DiEva said the support behind the boys’ basketball team is enormous. Everyone in the student body knows the players when they see them in the cafeteria or pass them in the hallway.
“When you walk in the hallways, you see all of the basketball players,” he said. “You give them a high five or thumbs up and you get pictures. The basketball players around here are like celebrities.”
Cherry Hill East entered last Wednesday’s game coming off a very convincing 86–46 win over Toms River East in the first round of the playoffs on March 2. The students credit the players for all of their success, but the Countrymen have played a role when visiting teams enter DiBart Gym. From falling asleep when the visiting team is introduced in pre-game to bouncing up and down and screaming as loud as possible when the visitors are on offense, the Countrymen do whatever they can to distract the opposition.
“I think cheering can get in anyone’s head on any given day,” Geis said. “So I think it really intimidates some teams.”
“If you can get into the player’s head, it definitely will, easily,” LaGrossa said.
For most games, the Countrymen make up the majority of the crowd at Cherry Hill East. But on the afternoon of March 4, they would compete with a large cheering section on the opposite side of the gym.
Lions fans bring the roar to Cherry Hill East
While sectional championships haven’t come to fruition in the past few years for Cherry Hill West boys’ basketball, the team has had success in its own right. They advanced to the second round of the playoffs for the second consecutive year with a 64–57 win over Kingsway on March 2. The victory punched them a ticket to Cherry Hill East, where the Lions saw their playoff journey end last year.
Cherry Hill West’s playoff runs have helped ignite student interest in the basketball team once again. Senior Matt Kresz said the students knew Cherry Hill East would have a large student section at last Wednesday’s game, so they wanted to try to counter with a large cheering section of their own.
“We’re trying to get our whole school here,” Kresz said. “(Cherry Hill East) is here, their whole school’s already here. We were walking through the halls all day, reminding people to come out here.”
Cold temperatures and a steady rain didn’t deter senior Jared Pope, who was wearing a white t-shirt. The Cherry Hill West students got an idea to “white out” their half of the gym and counteract the red student section of Cherry Hill East.
“Red’s an ugly color,” Pope said. “White’s a lot better.”
Senior Colin McBride drove over to Cherry Hill East as soon as classes ended last Wednesday. He wanted to be one of the first West students in line so he could get the best seat in the house.
“We wanted to get here as early as possible to get some good seats and get some good cheering going and see the action,” he said.
Just as Cherry Hill East had its own cheers and jeers, Cherry Hill West has some tricks up its sleeve. From trying to jinx East’s free throw shooters to jumping up and down so much the bleachers were bouncing, the West fans made their presence known. Even when school security confiscated a West student’s vuvuzela, the Lions student section made as much noise as the Countrymen did.
Kresz said the success of the boys’ basketball team has helped fuel the excitement of the student body.
“It makes things so much easier,” Kresz said. “All of the fans want to come out and watch. We have some great players with Can (Oztamir) and all. It makes for a great environment.”
Pope said playoff games like the one last Wednesday only add to the high school experience.
“It’s part of our high school experience bigger than it actually is,” he said.
Two schools, one Cherry Hill
For about two hours, the noise was deafening at DiBart Gym. Like the roar of a jet engine, students from both Cherry Hill high schools cheered noisily from the start of pregame warmups all the way to the end of the game.
When the noise finally subdued, Cherry Hill East had defeated their rivals, 61–45, to advance to the South Jersey Group IV semifinals. However, there was a bigger story behind the result of the game.
As much as students from both sides want to see their school win, they also held a strong sense of respect for their opponent.
“They both definitely have really good basketball teams, and we want to come out and support them and have good competition,” Geis said.
“It’s awesome to play against our rivals in the second round,” McBride said. “It’s awesome to come out here and see what they got.”
Before the game, this mutual respect was displayed on court. East Principal Lawyer Chapman warmly welcome West Principal Kwame Morton and the Cherry Hill West contingent to the game. The two teams didn’t wait until after the game to shake hands either. Just prior to tip-off, players and coaches from both sides greeted each other at center court, wishing each other good luck.
DiEva said there is little animosity between the fans of both teams. Both sides want to win, but cheering their team on is the most important part.
“We want to show good sportsmanship,” he said. “We’re not going to use profanity.”
Half of the students in attendance wore red, the other half wore purple and white. However, one thing students could agree on was their rivalry and their schools were unlike any other.