Truth be told, Cherokee head coach Ron Powell thought going into this season that his team’s “window’ to win” with the core group of girls assembled in recent years had already been lost, through no fault of the Chiefs.
A 30-1 record two years ago had Cherokee headed to the NJSIAA Group 4 state championship, before COVID caused the game to be forever canceled. The Chiefs made the best out of last year’s abbreviated basketball season, going 12-2 with no playoffs allowed.
Including this season, the three-year time span, in a normal world, could have given the Chiefs an opportunity to have one of the more dominating three-year runs in state girls basketball history, something Powell thinks about often.
“When you have good teams, you have what I’ll call ‘windows.’ … We’re 30-1 two years ago, with the chance to play for the state championship, and COVID hits, so we don’t get that opportunity,” Powell said. “Last year was our last year with [Alexa] Therian and we only get to play 14 games and there’s no state tournament … I honestly thought that was our window.”
That history helped make Cherokee’s South Jersey Group 4 sectional tournament win over Shawnee on March 8 feel even more special, so when the head coach substituted out Katie Fricker and CJ Apistar with mere seconds left on the clock before the game’s end, the coach and two seniors got started on an early celebration before the final inbounds pass sealed the game.
The 43-35 win over Shawnee kept the South Jersey Group 4 sectional championship in Marlton for at least another year, as Cherokee successfully defended its title from the 2019-’20 season, since the tournament was not played last season.
“For this group of girls that were able to hang in there all this time to get where we are now, I’m pumped for them,” Powell said. “It’s amazing to see what they’ve accomplished.”
Crucial to Cherokee’s championship game victory was junior Gabby Recinto’s game-high 23 points — 14 of which were in the second half — and eight rebounds. Having played Shawnee three times this season before the championship, Recinto had scored 21 points combined in those three games before coming up big when it was most important.
“It’s just all about having a positive attitude,’ Recinto said. “We talked about how we wanted to play going in, staying strong and, no matter what, making sure we played together and it worked out.
“It’s surreal to have gotten to this point,” she added. “This is what we’ve wanted to get back to for a long time, especially for those seniors. We wanted to send them out on a good note.”
According to her coach, Recinto looked like a much more calm and collected player on the court when compared to how she had played in previous matchups against the Renegades.
“She played with poise tonight,” Powell said after the win. “I thought that she rushed herself in those first three games a lot. She showed a lot of maturity tonight, not just under the basket and with her footwork, but also by making free throws as she did.”
Much of the team’s varsity core — such as Fricker, Recinto and Apistar — have played together for years growing up, even before reaching the halls of Cherokee High School. It made the win that much more rewarding.
“Most of these girls … we’ve been playing together since like seventh grade, so it’s definitely rewarding to win with your childhood best friends,” Apistar said. “It doesn’t feel like a team win: It’s a family win.”
Fricker said she and her teammates had heard it said following the end of last season that the Chiefs might not be as good during the 2021-’22 season. That motivated the players to make the recent sectional title win possible.
“Hearing what we heard before the season started, that there’d be a drop off or that we wouldn’t be as good because we lost a lot of talent, which we did … we still have enough talent despite that to win championships,” Fricker said.
“This was our goal; we worked so hard to get the first seed and to play the championship game at home and win it here.”