Charging toward the finish line

A date with the state’s top team awaits championship-hungry Timber Creek before what they hope is a prosperous playoff run.

Timber Creek’s senior-laden basketball team enters the final stretch of the season having won 18 of 21 games this season and ready to make a run at what would be the school’s first sectional title since 2008. (RYAN LAWRENCE/South Jersey Sports Weekly)

A crowd of players leaped toward the basket, and after the ball was tipped for a third time toward the hoop, it found the twine just before the final buzzer blasted.

Bedlam ensued. Timber Creek players and students stormed together and — like a tornado — their enthusiasm carried the crowd toward the far corner of the gymnasium, just outside the locker room.

But this was the end of the Chargers’ junior varsity basketball game against Winslow Township on Feb. 11. The varsity game wouldn’t be anywhere near as dramatic.

On Senior Night, Timber Creek’s varsity squad rolled to a 16-point win over Winslow, the team’s Sicklerville rivals, with an eye on the month ahead.

The Chargers, a team with 10 seniors that lost in the South Jersey Group 3 semifinals in each of the last two seasons, won 16 of their first 17 games this season to put the state on notice that they were worthy of being tagged the preseason favorite to capture a sectional championship. Even though that path will likely mean crossing paths with Moorestown, the top seed in the Group 3 bracket and the team that ended its season last year en route to a state championship, second-seeded Timber Creek is confident players will be prepared to seize the moment in March.

“I think we still have a lot more left in the tank,” senior Justin Bladen said after the 58-42 win over Winslow upped the Chargers’ record to 18-3. “As seniors, we’re just trying to extend this for as long as possible, keep it all going.”

Timber Creek’s Jalen Bergen looks for an open teammate as Winslow’s Nasir Watson plays defense. (RYAN LAWRENCE/South Jersey Sports Weekly)

“We just have to keep doing what we’ve been doing since the beginning of the season,” added fellow senior Eric Benjamin.

The Chargers already sport an impressive season resume with wins over Haddonfield, Camden Catholic, Bishop Eustace and Lenape, among others. But the way the schedule is mapped out, two of Timber Creek’s biggest tests come in the days leading up to their first playoff game (vs. Pennsauken on March 2). 

A week before the postseason opener, Timber Creek hosts the top team in the state, Camden, on Feb. 24. A matchup with a talented Paul VI team follows three days later. The two games are sandwiched between dates with Shawnee and Cherokee, too.

“I love it, because what it does is it makes us dial in, in terms of how we execute,” Timber Creek coach Rich Bolds said. “It brings a playoff atmosphere to every single game. So once the actual playoff atmosphere hits, we’re used to it. So I love it like that.”

“It’s a huge test,” Bladen said of the game with Camden, set for a 4 p.m. tipoff at Timber Creek. “We’ve been talking about the game since the beginning of the year. So we’re looking forward to it.”

Timber Creek’s Justin Bladen drives toward the basket while Winslow’s Sidney Swanson attempts a block. (RYAN LAWRENCE/South Jersey Sports Weekly)

If Timber Creek’s gymnasium can become electric during a JV game, one could only imagine what the atmosphere will be like when the team hosts Camden. But win or lose against the Panthers, the Chargers are focused on a bigger goal.

Raised in the rafters above where they all trotted out with their family on Senior Night was the sectional championship banner. The last year sewed into the fabric: 2008.

It’s been more than 10 years. Timber Creek is eager to etch its team into school history.

“Knowing that it’s now or never, we can’t wait for anything to come to us;  we have to go get it,” Demetrius Paynter said of the senior-laden roster. “We all believe in it. And that’s what our coach talks to us a lot about, is believing. It’s about believing that we’re going to win a championship and go further.”

On a night when the seniors were celebrated for the impact they’ve made on the program, Bolds was asked to look ahead. Like any coach, the memories fresh in his brain were from the game he had just watched, a convincing win but also not the cleanest victory his team has collected this winter.

“(The seniors) want it bad. If you ask me after tonight, no,” Bolds said with a laugh about the Chargers’ chances at a South Jersey championship. “But the other games, yes. I think they’re gamers. 

“The bigger the game, the more they seem to focus and dial in. So I do like this (team). I like what they offer and I think we have a really, really good chance.”