Joining forces

Two Eastern seniors are on a mission to prove doubters wrong

Before becoming teammates this season, Tazir Cantey and Zubair Lee had played each other for years, leading to a friendship from afar while Lee was at Eastern Regional and Cantey attended Lindenwold.

At the latter, a Group I school in the Colonial Conference, Cantey scored more than 400 points his freshman year before going on to average 22 and 25.3 points per game during his sophomore and junior seasons, amassing 1,667 points as he prepared for his senior season.

A force to be reckoned with, Cantey earned respect from many in South Jersey, especially Lee.

“I’ve known Tazir for years; his name has been big across South Jersey basketball for a few years now,” said Lee. “I was excited when I heard he would be [moving to Eastern for his senior year], because we’d be talking for years about potentially joining forces and being on the same team.”

But not everyone shared Lee’s mindset: Cantey experienced his fair share of people  doubting he would be able to make the jump to a larger, more competitive division, such as playing for the Eastern Regional Vikings in the Olympic Conference.

“I felt like Eastern was a great school playing in the Olympic Conference and playing those bigger schools, and I really wanted a challenge in that way,” Cantey said. “Most people I played against in Group I said I wouldn’t be able to score the way I did there. I think I’m proving them wrong.

“It kept a big chip on my shoulder, and every game I think about that and wanting to beat these bigger schools, cause every game is an opportunity for us,” Cantey added.

Cantey went through with the move to Voorhees and joined Eastern, but after coming in close contact with a COVID-positive individual, he was forced to sit out the team’s first two weeks and missed its first four games.

During those four contests, Lee helped lead the Vikings on offense, scoring more than 20 points per game over the span. After not playing varsity his freshman year and barely seeing the court his sophomore year, Lee had a breakthrough season last year, scoring 421 points to become the team’s second-leading scorer.

In the summer leading to his junior season, Lee worked harder than ever, committing  himself to getting better.

“Having really hit the gym that summer was really the difference maker in how I got better this season,” said Lee. “My coaches and teammates kept telling me I needed to eat more and work out more and I could be a much better player. So I made it my top priority to work out and play basketball every day, on repeat, to get better.”

Now in the waning days of the 2020-2021 season, Lee and Cantey have found their grooves and are playing strong basketball together as seniors at Eastern.

Cantey, on a mission to prove he can play against opponents regardless of their school, is averaging 26.2 points per game this season since clearing COVID protocols in early February, while Lee remains not far behind at 20.5 points per game from underneath the basket. Meanwhile, fellow starters Zayd Lee, Zubair’s twin brother, and Shane Huggard have helped round out Viking play on the court.

Coach Kevin Crawford, in the midst of his seventh year at the Eastern helm, sees great things in Lee and Cantey, with both having the potential to be collegiate players.  Crawford is thankful that the program allowed both students to play their senior seasons  on the same team this year.

“Lee really improved by leaps and bounds last year; his body got stronger and he has an old school mentality of loving basketball and being all about it,” Crawford explained. “And with [Cantey] joining our program this season, he’s an amazing player and plays really hard. We’re really lucky to have him on our team.”

Leading up to the first game, Crawford said the season felt slightly rushed given how infrequently teams and players could be around each other and practice because of COVID protocols.

“It felt rushed to be honest, and I’m sure all the coaches around South Jersey felt the same way, like we didn’t really get the opportunity to work with our kids in the summer and we didn’t have any scrimmages … We just kind of show up and play,” said Crawford. “The first couple games, you would’ve thought we never practiced before. It just didn’t look good; it looked like a scrimmage scenario. And to the kids’ defense, that’s what it’s supposed to look like in a scrimmage.”

With the Olympic Conference not hosting a playoff tournament or schedule this season due to COVID, instead allowing for a 15-game regular season for all teams, Crawford said his squad has to play with the mindset that every game is a big one.

“Every season, as a coach, you’re always gearing up for the playoffs and trying to peak at the end of the season, but unfortunately we don’t have playoffs this year, so every game has to be a big game for us,” the coach noted. “We have to make the most of what we have left and make it as enjoyable for the kids as possible.”