The 2020-’21 school year was difficult for every high-school sports team in South Jersey, and the Eastern Regional boys basketball team was no exception.
For the Vikings – who felt going into last season that they had a team good enough to possibly make some noise in the Olympic Conference – their problems also extended to getting meaningful development time on the court for younger players last season, preparing for the graduation of top seniors of Tazir Cantey, Zubair Lee and Zayd. The trio accounted for nearly 78 percent of Eastern’s points during a season in which the Vikings went 7-8.
“We had a very talented team last season, but due to kids having to sit out with COVID protocols and injuries as well, it ended up not being a very fruitful season for us,” coach Kevin Crawford said. “It ended up being one of the less enjoyable seasons to be honest, and in no way because of the kids, but it was just the nature of how that season felt because it was so hard to get in the amount of practice time and work together where you really feel comfortable out there,” he added.
Then-sophomore Noah Payne was coming off an encouraging freshman season when he was forced to quarantine for two weeks the day before the season’s start because of COVID contact. After returning for just two games, Payne then broke his wrist during practice, abruptly ending his season.
Fortunately, he has returned to the floor for his junior season with the Vikings without skipping a beat: As of Jan. 27, Payne leads the Olympic Conference in points per game, averaging 24.8 through the first 16 games.
While he would’ve liked to accomplish what he has a year earlier, Payne is still appreciative that he has the chance. His experience with the varsity squad in his first two years gave him the chance to take on a leadership role with a fairly young roster that has plenty of room to grow.
“I had that kind of sixth man role my freshman year and was looking forward to a larger role my sophomore year, before it went the way that it did,” Payne said. “I had a few things I wanted to work on before the season started, so I took it real slow at getting better at those things and I also wanted to help take on that leadership role a bit.
“Most importantly,” he added, “I wanted to help do whatever we needed to do as a team to get better.”
A tireless player on the court, Payne has notched double digit games in all Vikings’ matchups so far this year, including seven straight games of 20-plus points to start the season.
Looking back to the start of the season, Payne said the team’s first game of the year against Paul VI, a close six-point loss, gave him all the confidence he needed to recognize his ability on the court.
“You need to have the confidence to think that you’re the best while you’re out there … If your confidence isn’t there, then you won’t play well,” Payne said. “After I scored 28 against PVI, who’s a really good team, I immediately felt like I could play with anybody, and that we as a team could stay with anybody, too.”
Fellow junior Jason Brice entered the 2021-’22 season without previous varsity experience, but is now Eastern’s second-leading scorer so far this season, averaging 13.8 points per game.
Brice said the team has continued to form a strong identity on the court with each game, while also having to learn quickly.
“We knew how talented we were after that first game … It’s just a matter of having that on the court at all times,” Brice said. “With the small number of seniors we have out there, we have younger guys playing that leadership role even though most of us weren’t with varsity last year, so we’ve had to mature quickly and we’re definitely still growing as a team.
“But it’s headed in the right direction.”
With a younger roster – thanks to Payne, Brice and sophomore Damien Edwards, who currently leads the team in three-pointers – Crawford said the team has a promising future. While the program is obviously focused on taking it one game at a time, and looking forward to a traditional postseason later this winter, Crawford also expects bigger things from the team next year, after this season serves as a “learning year” for much of the roster.
“We’re more towards the middle of the pack this season in the Olympic Conference than we are the top part of the pack, but we’re hoping that we develop the kids this year,” Crawford said. “We hope that we really develop in the offseason, and then get back to those 18-, 19- 20-win seasons next year that Eastern is used to.
“But we’re fighting for everything we can this year first.”