Tom Freeman has always worked with what he had, never complained about what he didn’t, and always coached with one goal in mind – to make his players and team better.
It’s a pretty simple philosophy and one that served the Delsea basketball coach well this season, because for all the heart and desire his team displayed, it was a little short on height. And that is understating things.
The Crusaders’ biggest starter was 6-foot-1.
So Freeman played to his team’s strengths, which meant serious defensive pressure, a strong transition game, and a group able to score in half-court sets thanks to some timely three-point shooting.
“To counteract the size, we played high-pressure defense,” Freeman said. “There is no other way around it.”
In the South Jersey Group 3 tournament, there was no way around the Crusaders.
Despite being the No. 4 seed, the Crusaders beat top Timber Creek, 80-70, in the semifinal and No. 2 Seneca, 53-40, in the final.
In earning Delsea’s second sectional title in five years, Freeman has been named the Inquirer’s South Jersey boys’ basketball coach of the year.
Delsea, which saw its season end with a 77-70 state semifinal loss to eventual state Group 3 champion Nottingham, ended 25-6.
Under Freeman, the Crusaders played such a frenzied style that size wasn’t really a problem. Constant pressure often wore down opponents.
“We tried to disrupt offenses,” he said.
The Crusaders often succeeded.
On the other end of the court, Delsea relied on one go-to scorer on an otherwise balanced attack.
Javon Gordon, a 5-foot-8 junior, averaged 18 points per game. Five other players averaged between 8.5 and 10.5, showing the Crusaders’ tremendous balance.
It was an unselfish team that was drilled well on both ends of the court by Freeman, a 1993 graduate of Delsea who just completed his 13th season as head coach.
“He is a phenomenal coach,” Gordon said. “He trusts us with offense and drills defense into us.”
And the lack of size?
“We don’t have any, but coach always said if didn’t matter if we played the right way,” Gordon said.
The win over top-seeded Timber Creek felt like a championship game, but the Crusaders still had unfinished business.
In addition to traveling to Seneca, Delsea was looking to avenge a 48-38 regular-season loss to the Golden Eagles. What the Crusaders were able to do was learn from their earlier mistakes.
“We played too careless and nonchalant in the first game against Seneca,” Gordon said. “We were on our game and more focused the second time.”
One reason for the focus is that Freeman, almost immediately after the Timber Creek win, told his team that while it felt like a championship game, there was still more work to do.
The Seneca loss wasn’t the only one the Crusaders learned from. One of the turning points of the season was an 89-87 double-overtime home loss to Shawnee, the eventual state Group 4 champion and the Inquirer’s No. 1-ranked team.
It was all part of Freeman’s plan, as he tried to play as competitive a non-league schedule as possible. Even in defeat, the Crusaders received a major boost.
“After the game we felt if we could hang with the No. 1 team, we could hang with anybody,” Gordon said.
Following that loss, Delsea went 17-1, including the title game win over Seneca.
When Freeman took over the program, it was in a down cycle and he needed a few years to turn it around. In the last five years, besides having won two sectional championships, Delsea has been to three South Jersey title games and has a 97-50 record.
The coach has certainly made his impact on a program that has moved into the elite of South Jersey.