After winning three consecutive South Jersey Invitational Basketball Tournament (SJIBT) titles from 2016 to 2019, Cherokee head coach Ron Powell decided the Chiefs would not participate in the annual girls basketball contest two years ago.
That year, Cherokee went 30-1 on its way to the South Jersey Group 4 sectional title, with a date set for the 2020 NJSIAA Group 4 game against Franklin. But COVID eliminated that.
The annual South Jersey tournament was also canceled last year. So before entering this season, Powell thought it would be a good idea for the team to rejoin the tournament after its two-year absence.
“I thought after those two years of missing out on it, and after talking with the kids about possibly getting back into it and seeing how excited they were about the possibility of it, it would be a good idea for us,” Powell said.
The Chiefs picked up right where they left off, winning the program’s fourth SJIBT title in a close 26-24 victory over Shawnee in the championship game, breaking a tie with Rancocas Valley for the most by a single team.
The win brought Cherokee’s record so far this season to 20-2, as the team once again proved a formidable foe for any team across South Jersey. The win over the Shawnee squad – coupled with the team’s semifinal win over Eastern by just a single point two days prior – gave the Chiefs down-to-the-wire action they have rarely experienced during the 14-game win streak Cherokee carried into the final two tournament games.
The opportunity to once again be a part of the tournament and reclaim the SJIBT title, according to senior Katie Fricker, was a thrill for the Chiefs.
“It was exciting to get back into it,’’ Fricker said. “Hearing that we were back in the tournament gave us even more motivation for practice. It was another goal for us to work towards from the start of the season.
“The SJIBT is always a great tournament and a really cool environment throughout the course of it,” she added. “We were really excited to be a part of it again.”
Fricker, the tournament MVP, scored a game-high 14 points in the Chiefs’ title game against Shawnee, including the deciding basket. Her role this season has been more important than ever before, one she appreciates and doesn’t take lightly.
“I didn’t have it in mind at all coming in [to win tournament MVP]; it was just one of our team goals to win the tournament, so I’m happy to have been able to play a part in that,” Fricker said.
“This year, my role has been more prominent than it has in years past, so in order for us to win, I knew I had to step up,” the player added. “So I was lucky to be able to do that. It was a whole team effort to be able to do this.”
Fricker has played a crucial role in much of the team’s success over the past four years, Powell said. She has been an important player both in games and in practice and has helped foster a strong team atmosphere.
The skills and mindset of the TCNJ-commit, her coach said, are beyond unique.
“She’s had her hand in a lot of the team’s success over the past four years … For her to now have the senior year that she’s having is gratifying for not only her but our program as well,” Powell said of Fricker.
“She’s probably one of my favorite three or four boys or girls that I’ve ever coached,” he added. “She’s smart, she’s tenacious and she’s competitive. When you put all three of those together, whether she’s in a game or in practice, that’s a recipe for success for someone on the basketball court.”
The title victory also clinched career win No. 600 in Powell’s coaching career, a marker celebrated on the court by his players following the game. But the longtime coach said his achievements shouldn’t diminish the girls’ recent achievements.
“I was kind of hoping it wouldn’t happen on that day to be honest, just so that the win didn’t have as much to do with me getting 600 wins as it did with them being able to secure a fourth SJIBT victory,” Powell said.
“When you’ve been around as long as I have, the number of good players that I’ve had and the number of good assistants I’ve had start to pile up, and you figure a number like that comes along at some point,” the coach added.