At Camden Catholic, Christine Matera scored more than 1,400 points and won a state championship in 2006. She was scrappy guard and leader on a team that finished 30-1.

That success paled only in comparison with her very next act: Matera went to Harvard University. On the court, she was a two-year captain and helped the team win an Ivy League title. Off the court, she graduated with a degree in psychology.

“My experience at Camden Catholic,” Matera said in a ringing endorsement for her high school, “prepared me well for Harvard.”

In that sense — and many others — Matera embodies the values that Chris Palladino preached in her 34 years as head coach of the Irish girls’ basketball team. It’d be hard to invent a better success story, a more fitting example of what Palladino means when she talks about being a student and an athlete.

And so when the veteran coach decided to step down last spring — she retired with 660 career wins, second most in South Jersey history — it was fitting that Matera should take over, because players such as Matera are Palladino’s legacy.

It’s a legacy Matera is proud to carry on.

“I just feel blessed that I was entrusted to keep on the winning tradition of this program,” Matera said. “I think it’s a privilege to coach my alma mater.”

Matera spent the previous four seasons as an assistant coach with the Irish. Before that, she spent a year volunteering with the program.

She said it wasn’t always the plan for her to fill Palladino’s shoes. In fact, she wasn’t initially sure she wanted to be a coach.

“I’m not always the most patient person,” Matera said, before adding that she ultimately fell in love with coaching and that the players and atmosphere around the program made her want to stay.

As for her style, she said she leans on much of what she learned from Palladino.

“I think the thing I value the most about [Palladino], not only from playing for her but from coaching with her, is that she values the whole person, it’s not just what they can do for us on the basketball court,” said Matera, who’s now pursuing a master’s degree in secondary education at Penn. "She values every kid in our program, from the last person on the bench on our freshman team to our starting senior captain.”

Those lessons are part of the reason Matera was happy to to welcome Palladino on as a full-time varsity assistant this year.

Palladino wasn’t ready to give up coaching entirely. She loves it too much, and so those wondering what a Camden Catholic girls’ basketball sideline would look like without Palladino will have to wait.

“My role is just to help,” Palladino said. “I reached the point in my life where I was ready to hand the program over to somebody else, but I still love the girls, I love this team. And I’m here for whatever the team needs. It feels great, especially because the kids have such a great role model in [Matera].”

It’s not a typical setup — and one might think that having such a presence on the sideline might impede Matera from putting her own stamp on the program.

Matera described it as just the opposite.

“I would be crazy to try to reinvent the wheel,” she said.

She said she and Palladino share the same vision, so this situation is more a passing of the baton than a clean slate.

For the players, it’s been seamless.

“It doesn’t feel like a big transition,” said senior forward Eliana Santana. “I think we’re very fortunate to have a deep coaching staff.”

Christine Matera scored more than 1,400 points and won a state championship in 2006 at Camden Catholic. She went onto Harvard University where she helped the team win an Ivy League title.
TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Christine Matera scored more than 1,400 points and won a state championship in 2006 at Camden Catholic. She went onto Harvard University where she helped the team win an Ivy League title.

As usual, the Irish should be among the area’s best teams this year. Santana is on the short list for first-team All-South Jersey consideration, and she’s complemented by one of the area’s most balanced rosters.

Having an abundance of talent is another thing that won’t change for Camden Catholic this season.

And balance — on and off the court — will remain the team’s signature.

“I just want them to play hard. I want them to represent our program well, whether it’s in interactions with others, in the classroom, or on the court. And I hope that we continue [Palladino’s] legacy.”