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Chemistry and experience helping lead Cougars as regular season wanes

All-senior starting lineup propels Cherry Hill East to best start in years

MATTHEW SHINKLE/South Jersey Sports Weekly
Cherry Hill East is off to its best start in years, with a 17-1 record in the Cougars’ first 18 games. The all-senior starting lineup has years of varsity experience and a knack for three-pointers.

The talent that Cherry Hill East’s boys basketball team has displayed on the court so far this season, according to its coach Dave Allen, is thanks to a mantra his program has borrowed from the New York Knicks.

That Knicks current head coach Tom Thibodeau, who was formerly with the Chicago Bulls, has said often during his career that “the magic is in the hard work,” something Allen took to heart and has continued to instill in student athletes at East. 

That mindset, it seems, has helped the Cougars jump start what’s shaping up to be their most successful season in years. A 17-1 start to the team’s 2021-’22 season has Cherry Hill East firing on all cylinders. A senior heavy varsity squad — with the five starters all graduating later this year and three additional seniors coming off the bench — highlights the belief that putting in the work to better themselves individually and as a group will prepare them for their final season on the floor.

The starting five of E.J. Matthews-Spratley, Jake Green, Drew Greene, Jalen Holmes and Deon Sanders all entered the season with meaningful varsity experience. Maybe more importantly, they formed strong bonds on and off the court during their high-school careers, making the chance they had this season all the more special. That’s why Allen saw great potential in this year’s squad at the start, thanks especially to three standout guards in the lineup.

“We have a core group in Matthews-Spratly, Jake Green and Drew Greene that have played together the past few years, with them all being three-year starters for us,” Allen said. “So we thought we had a chance to be competitive in the Olympic Conference. 

“Those three specifically are a product of hard work and they’re really into working on their games … “ the coach added. “And then Holmes and Sanders have really shown that work ethic to really come together as a group.”

With those three main players having varsity experience and being great team leaders, the team’s budding chemistry is translating into wins so far this year.

“It’s a huge advantage for us, and it comes from us being as close as we are off the court as we are on,” Green said. “There’s been so many morning practices and off-season gym time or workouts that we’ve done together, that we’ve learned how to really work off each other so often … 

“If you just throw some guys together, you can have a good team,” he added. “But with a team like ours, that’s been together as long as we have, there’s times in the game where you know what the other guys are going to do before they do it.”

The team’s core, both Green and Spratley said, is fueled by a postseason loss the then-sophomores suffered against Atlantic City in the 2019-’20 NJSIAA South Jersey Group 4 final. Now they’re taking the season one game at a time and not overlooking any opponent, while knowing from the start of their final year what they wanted to do.

“We all remember what it felt like our sophomore year two years back to make it to the sectional final and lose, so the first main goal is to make it back to that sectional final and win it this time,” Green said. “First things first, we need to take the season one game at a time to get there, but we wanted nothing short of avenging that loss.”

What’s helped fuel Cherry Hill East’s offense is the ability to nail three-point shots; Green’s 54 through the team’s first 17 games put him among leaders in the state. Meanwhile, Spratley and Sanders’ 30-plus three-pointers are among the top numbers on the Olympic Conference charts.

Those numbers give the team a clear identity that is difficult for opponents to stop when the Cougars are nailing their shots.

“We do try to shoot a lot of threes, since we’re not naturally a tall team,” Allen said. “So we emphasize that a lot and work on getting guys their shots in games. Hard work is the basic building block of success, and seeing the fruits of that hard work and time they put in leading up to this season starting to come to fruition is great to see.”

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