Championship season: Cherokee basketball, Girls Winter Team of the Year

The end was heartbreaking for Cherokee girls basketball, when the coronavirus pandemic canceled its date with a state championship, the first in school history. But the greatness of the Girls Winter Team of the Year won’t soon be forgotten.

Alexa Therien and Katie Fricker of Cherokee High School girls basketball kiss the trophy as their teammates watch during the postgame celebration following the Chiefs sectional championship victory over Shawnee. Although the season ended in heartbreak, no thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, Cherokee went 30-1 in 2019-20 and earned South Jersey Sports Weekly Girls Winter Team of the Year honors. (Paulino Apistar/Special to The Sun)

Last week, fewer than 24 hours from making school history by advancing to the Group 4 state championship game, Cherokee High School’s girls basketball team was dealt a season-ending defeat they couldn’t have prepared for no matter how many hours they spent in the gym or how battled tested they were with one of the toughest schedules in the state.

The NJSIAA announced that due to the coronavirus pandemic, all girls and boys basketball championship games were canceled.They would not be rescheduled.

“I found out on Twitter, which is pretty heartbreaking … I don’t even think my coach knew yet,” Cherokee junior Alexa Therien said. “I’m not even exaggerating; my heart dropped. I automatically burst into tears.”

“The team group chat was just going crazy,” added senior Kennedy Wilburn. “We started a FaceTime and had like 16 of us … ranting at the same time, talking over one another. We were all angry, sad, and surprised. I was sad, but surprised the most. The games, between the semifinals and finals, were three days apart. I didn’t think all of this could happen in three days let alone one day.”

The week had begun with the upperclassmen finally getting over the hump and triumphing in the sectional championship game, a contest they had lost in each of the two previous years. Two days later, they won in the state semifinals.

And then, it was over.

“It was really, really devastating,” Therien said. “I think about it every morning when I wake up kind of with a pit in my stomach. It’s just so heartbreaking. Not only for me but for all the girls and the coaches who work so hard and put in just as much effort as the players, to have that all just go away because of a virus is a very, very hard pill to swallow.”

Cherokee High School girls basketball team made program history by advancing to the state championship game (a game canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic). But the Chiefs still collected a championship, the South Jersey Group 4 title, and finished with an impressive 30-1 record in 2019-20. (Paulino Apistar/Special to South Jersey Sports Weekly)

With the week that’s gone by has come some perspective; Therien, Kennedy, and everyone else in Cherokee’s program understands the bigger picture, the severity of the virus and the importance of keeping people safe. 

While not being able to complete their dream season with one more game is still difficult to accept, it also shouldn’t define the Chiefs’ season. 

Cherokee, with a 30-1 record, was South Jersey’s most consistent girls team from start to finish. Entering the season determined to get a trophy after back-to-back years of heartbreak, Cherokee came out of the gate like a team on a mission, winning 22 straight to open the season.

In the season’s first month, from Dec. 21 to Jan. 21, Cherokee won its first 13 games by a combined 300 points (winning each game by an average of 23 points).

Cherokee went on to collect that coveted trophy, knocking off district rival Shawnee in the South Jersey Group 4 title game. They’re also receiving another honor: They are South Jersey Sports Weekly’s Girls Winter Team of the Year.

“I’m really happy for the kids,” Cherokee coach Ron Powell said of the honor. “Any recognition that anybody gives them is well deserved. They were together from the time we lost to Lenape in the South Jersey Group 4 championship game (last March). When they were home (this offseason), at AAU tournaments together, and in the fall, they were working out together. They put time in. 

“My message to them all the time is, you only get what you put into it. Basketball is a game of repetition. The more you practice at your skills the better you’re going to get. For them to play the way they did together, unselfishly, the way they played defense, it’s gratifying to a coach.”

Cherokee seniors Kennedy Wilburn, Christianna McFadden, Katie McKeffrey and Olivia Kessler pose with the South Jersey Group 4 championship trophy. The Chiefs seniors were a part of a program that went 55-2 on their homecourt in the last four years. (Paulino Apistar/South Jersey Sports Weekly)

Despite fielding a starting five with three underclassmen, Cherokee played like an unflappable veteran team for three plus months. And they did it against a schedule that included the likes of state finalist Ocean City, Moorestown Friends, Montgomery (twice), St. Rose, and regular league play in arguably the toughest division in the state, two games a piece with Lenape, Washington Township, Eastern and company. 

When the playoffs rolled around, Cherokee’s work throughout the season and a tough schedule paid dividends: The Chiefs won their five playoff games by an average of 21 points.

The main ingredient in their nearly regular domination: dependable defense. The Chiefs’ stingy defense kept the opposition to 20 or fewer points five times and held them under 30 in 16 games (basically half of their schedule).

“I think our whole team can agree that it’s our defense,” said Wilburn, who scored 15 points and collected six rebounds and three blocks in the South Jersey Group 4 championship win over Shawnee. “Because everyone can score. The game of basketball is made for people to score; that’s the point of the game. But another point a lot of people don’t focus on is stopping another team from scoring. And that’s what we had to do, whether it was Moorestown Friends or St. Rose, and even Washington Township the second time we played them, it really came down to preventing them from scoring.”

Cherokee head coach Ron Powell hands the South Jersey Group 4 championship trophy to his players following a 45-34 victory over Shawnee. The Chiefs won their next game, too, in the state semifinals, before the season was abruptly ended by the coronavirus pandemic. (Paulino Apistar/Special to South Jersey Sports Weekly)

A commitment to playing a suffocating team defense often has as much to do with having the right attitude as it does having talent. Cherokee brought that from the time they began practicing late last fall.

“We came up short twice in the South Jersey Group 4 final and I just think this year we came in with a different mindset,” said Therien, an All-South Jersey performer who averaged 14.4 points per game. “From Day One of practice, we knew our goal was to get to South Jersey Group 4, win that and then hopefully win the state. We knew what we had to do. We came into practice every day pumped and ready to go.”

Cherokee put in the work and took care of business throughout the season. 

Recency bias forces us to focus on how it ended, with the Chiefs failing to get the opportunity to play in the one game they all dreamed of, the Group 4 state championship.

But in looking back at the season in its entirety, Cherokee’s greatness and place in school history won’t be denied.

“It’s a huge compliment,” Therien said of Cherokee earning Team of the Year. “We’re honored. We just work so hard, to get these accolades is really cool.”

“It means a lot,” added Wilburn. “Hopefully we do get a banner for South Jersey Group 4 or, who knows? But I think we will be remembered. This is an experience none of the girls on the team or the coaches will ever forget.”

Cherokee players come off the court following an impressive 43-27 win over Montgomery in the Group 4 state semifinals on March 11. The next day the NJSIAA canceled the remainder of the state playoffs, ending the Chiefs’ chance of playing in a state championship game. (Paulino Apistar/Special to South Jersey Sports Weekly)