The Inquirer's final South Jersey Top 10 won't appear in the newspaper until Sunday's season-ending package -- which will also include Player of the Year, Coach of the Year and the All-South Jersey teams.
But why wait? Atlantic City earned the No. 1 spot in the final ranking by becoming the only South Jersey team to win a state title. The Vikings are 25-5 after a 5-4 start and play Willingboro-slayer Ewing in the T of C Wednesday night at TR North.
Willingboro drops from No. 1 to No. 2 and Paulsboro drops from No. 2 to No. 3, both to make room for AC. There wasn't much to separate the Chimeras and the Red Raiders -- both were unbeaten against SJ teams.
Paulsboro's 30-0 start was sensational. Willingboro looked great late in the season, especially against Haddonfield in the SJ Group 2 final.
CHE jumped into the Top 10 by making the SJ 4 title game. I kept Eastern ahead of CHE based on winning the Olympic American and the fact that they both lost to the same team in the state tournament -- it just was a function of the bracket that Eastern played AC in the semis and CHE played AC in the final.
I gave Lenape the edge over Camden for the No. 10 spot. Not an easy call because I put a lot of stock in tournament success, and Camden was the SJ Group 3 champion.
But I thought Lenape was the better team. The Indians took AC to OT in the sectional quarterfinals and had more quality wins than Camden. Camden deserves all the credit for winning SJ 3 but in all honesty, that might have been South Jersey's most wide-open bracket by a long shot.
Here's the final Top 10, with previous rankings in parentheses:
1. Atlantic City (7) 25-5 (heading into T of C quarters)
The Vikings surged to the top spot by winning the Group 4 crown and becoming South Jersey's only state champion. Hard to believe this team was on its last breath, losing by two in OT to Absegami in the SJ 4 opener. But that rally led to another, and another, and another. Has any team won more big games away from home on the way to a state title? The Vikings don't have a star although 6-8 junior Jahleem Montague will likely be a D-1 recruit. But defense, depth and more defense goes a long way in the state tournament.
2. Willingboro (1) 27-3
The Chimeras won the first sectional title in program history in impressive fashion, opening the second-half with a 27-0 surge in a 67-40 victory over Haddonfield in the South Jersey Group 2 championship game. I walked out of that game feeling good about Willingboro's No. 1 ranking, despite my respect for what Paulsboro did all season. I mean, the Chimeras were up by 40 at one point. But these guys probably let a state title get away when they lost that nine-point lead to Ewing in the state semis, considering that Ewing handled Pascack Hills pretty easily in the state finals.
3. Paulsboro (2) 30-1
The Red Raiders were the first South Jersey team to get to 30-0 since Shawnee in 1995. Just a tremendous season for the Red Raiders. Big wins over Group 4 teams RV and Lenape and a great win over then-No. 1 Paul VI. One edge this team gets over Willingboro -- I thought they lost to a better team in the state semifinals. My T of C seeding vote had Asbury Park as the No. 5 seed and Ewing as the No. 6. Of course, I also had Plainfield No. 2 and St. Joe Metuchen No. 3. The committee overruled me on all four of those picks. Look for Paulsboro to bounce back big time in 2012-13. These guys already have their sights set on 32-0 next. Paulsboro vs. AC in Cherry Hill Invitational next year?
4. Paul VI (3) 26-4
The Eagles beat Bishop Eustace, Cherry Hill East, Holy Spirit and Notre Dame after Feb. 23. That was some clutch work in some big games. And the Eagles had a 4-point lead on St. Joe Metuchen with around 6 minutes left in the South A finals. But then things got away, as they often do in tournament time. Still, a great season as a sendoff to a great senior class led by Ron Curry, Roosevelt Cubbage and Kris O'Connor. Those guys went 50-7 over two years, won a pair of Olympic National titles and brought PVI basketball back to major prominance.
5. Bishop Eustace (4) 23-6
The Crusaders gave Non-Public A state champion St. Joseph of Metuchen its toughest game of the tournament, losing in overtime in the South sectional semifinals. BE people swear it was a bad call that sent Carson Puriefoy to the bench with his 5th foul in OT, ending a great career. Puriefoy was terrific in the tournament, scoring 96 in three games -- including 39 against St. Auggie and 34 against SJM. Like PVI, BE had a strong senior class that reinvigorated the program. Puriefoy, Sho DaSilva, Dexter Harris, Trevor Norton and Scott Hyland won a lot of games for the Crusaders.
6. Eastern (5) 24-4
All four of the Vikings' losses were to Top 10 teams. The Vikings had the other Vikings, from AC, on the ropes in the SJ 4 semis but AC weathered the early flurry and fought back to win the game. Hey, AC did that to everybody in the state tournament. Eastern fashioned a great season. Winning the Olympic American was impressive given the level of competition. Like Paulsboro and AC, these guys will be right back in the mix next season.
7. Cherry Hill East (NR) 21-9
The Cougars reached the South Jersey finals for the first time in the history of the program with a 52-42 victory over nemesis Shawnee. That scene at CHE for the SJ 4 finals was one of the best I've seen at a high school game. There must have been 600 CHE students, all in red, all hopping around like Cameron Crazies. A terrific season for the Cougars in their first year under alumnus Dave Allen, a COY candidate, and in the senior year of quality program players Marc Schlessel, Jake Gurkin and Jesse Gold. These guys made CHE's deep alumni fan base very proud.
8. Shawnee (6) 23-6
The Renegades went 12-2 after a tough loss to rival Lenape in the middle of January. Shawnee got good work from seniors Dan Mumford and Donny DiVirgilio but the Renegades might have been a year away with so many juniors in so many key roles. But it says something about the program when Shawnee goes 23-6 in a "year-away" season. Watch out for this team next year.
9. St. Augustine (7) 22-5
The Hermits were just 4-3 after stunning then-No. 1 Eastern by 59-41 on the Olympic-Cape Challenge on Feb. 12. That wasn't a collapse. That was just reality for a team that really had to scrap and fight for every victory this season. A year after winning a state title and finishing No. 1, St. Augustine lost a ton of players and still went 22-5 and notched some quality wins. That' a tribute to the culture of the program. Will be tough again next season.
10. Lenape (10) 19-9
The Indians pushed eventual state champion Atlantic City to the brink before losing 47-44 in overtime in the South Jersey Group 4 quarterfinals. I struggled to get a handle on this team all season. I suspect coach Chuck Guittar did, too. A 3-6 stretch from Jan. 31 to Feb. 17 was strange. But in the end, Lenape had big wins over Paul VI, Shawnee, CHE and Middle Township. Paulsboro and AC needed OT to beat these guys.
Under consideration (listed alphabetically):
Camden (18-13): Sectional title No. 42 with a victory over Lacey Twp. in SJ 3 final. These Panthers battled their way through a wide-open bracket with tough defense and just enough offense. Future looks bright at Baird and Park.
Delsea (23-5): Crusaders won their first division title since 1997 and took their place among the stronger programs in SJ. Should have enough back next season to stay in the conversation.
Florence (22-4): For what it's worth, Flashes gave Asbury Park a tougher time than Paulsboro did.
Haddonfield (22-8): Three wins over Haddon Heights, the Colonial Liberty title and a berth in the SJ 2 title game in a transition year -- not too shabby.
Medford Tech (20-8): Senior center Kennedy Chukwuocha burst on the scene this season.
Middle Township (18-11): Two wins over St. Augustine, two wins over Wildwood Catholic, two wins over Ocean City and a win at Medford Tech in the SJ 2 tournament. Plus, gave Willingboro a major scare in SJ 2 semis. Not bad for a junior-loaded team that will be a force next season.
-- Phil Anastasia